Tens of thousands of protesters rallied Saturday evening as part of ongoing demonstrations against the government’s contentious judicial overhaul, with tensions elevated ahead of Memorial Day and Israel’s 75th Independence Day next week.
At the main protest in Tel Aviv, members of bereaved families set up a makeshift memorial with candles to commemorate fallen soldiers.
The families urged politicians to stay clear of cemeteries on Memorial Day, which begins Monday at nightfall and ends Tuesday evening with the start of Independence Day.
Activists unfurled a large banner commemorating troops that read: “We’ll defend what you’ve fallen for.”
Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, spoke at the Tel Aviv rally, addressing her remarks in English to American Jews.
“This is our fight, too!” she said. “If you love Israel, if you call yourself a Zionist: Get off the couch and into the streets. Speak up. We cannot let Israel’s democracy be dismantled on our watch!”
“There are hundreds of thousands of you out here tonight. But know there are millions more standing with you in America and around the world. We see you out here every week fighting for this country we love,” Katz added.
“You, the people of Israel, are our ‘or la’goyim’ [light unto the nations], showing the world what it means to fight for freedom. We are in this together. And with one voice we say: De-mo-kra-tia! [democracy],” she added.
Hebrew media outlets estimated turnout of at least 110,000 in Tel Aviv, while protest organizers said 165,000 people demonstrated there. The figures could not be independently verified.
Police said around 20 of the protesters entered Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, near the Hashalom Junction, but were quickly dispersed by officers.
In another incident on Yitzhak Sadeh, several protesters attempted to enter the Ayalon Highway, but were blocked by officers, according to police, who said traffic was flowing on the highway.
Demonstrations were also held in other cities and locations across Israel, including Haifa (where an estimated 20,000 protested), Jerusalem (where 15,000 were said to gather) and Hod Hasharon, where opposition leader Yair Lapid addressed the crowd.
“If you didn’t go out to the streets, the disaster would have already occurred,” he said. “What’s happened here in recent months is breathtaking.”
הנסיך הקטן מפלוגה ב'
מ"אחים לנשק" נמסר: "נזכור ולא נשכח את טובי בניה ובנותיה של המדינה אשר נפלו למען נצח ישראל ולמען הגנה על ישראל – יהודית ודמוקרטית
דגל קפלן של *אחים לנשק* מוקדש למשפחת השכול"
קרדיט: אביב אטלס pic.twitter.com/ETYmyfL044
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In Jerusalem, thousands marched to Paris Square, near the prime minister’s official residence, from their usual Saturday night gathering point outside the President’s Residence.
Among the speakers, former Likud minister Limor Livnat said the coalition was attempting to impose regime change and to “castrate the High Court.”
She quoted former Likud prime minister Menachem Begin championing the independence of the courts and their ultimate authority to protect individual rights.
Dr. Tali Sela, whose brother was killed fighting in Lebanon in 1993, accused the government of breaching its contract with Israel soldiers. “My brother gave his life on the basis of that contract – that Israel is a democracy… The government is trampling democracy.”
“For the sake of those who gave their lives for this country, I cannot be silent,” she said.
Elsewhere, some 2,000 protesters gathered at the Karkuk Junction in northern Israel, where weekly demonstrations have been held. Some 300 protesters marched from Karkuk to the nearby junction, according to the Ynet news site.
Protesters have been gathering for nearly four months against the hardline coalition’s plans to overhaul the judicial system, bring most judicial appointments under government control, and curb the oversight powers of the High Court of Justice.
Saturday’s demonstrations, held for the 16th weekend in a row, came ahead of a week that will see large rallies from both opponents and proponents of the overhaul, as the nation is set to honor its fallen on Memorial Day and mark 75 years since its founding on Independence Day.
Amid concerns of disruption during Memorial Day, leading opposition lawmakers Lapid and Benny Gantz made a rare call for unity with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, urging Israelis to put aside deep divisions for a single day in honor of those killed. A similar joint call was issued by Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas, who also chairs the Federation of Local Authorities, along with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and more than 115 other municipality heads across the country.
On Tuesday evening, the central torch-lighting ceremony will be held as the country moves from mourning those killed in military service and terror attacks to celebrating 75 years of independence.
The usually apolitical ceremony has taken on a different tone this year amid the government’s plans to shackle the judiciary. Lapid has announced he would not attend the ceremony due to societal divisions he said the government has created due to its radical judicial overhaul program.
Lapid’s decision followed reports that Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who is responsible for the ceremony, plans to cut the live broadcast of the event and switch to a rehearsal recording should the actual torch-lighting ceremony be interrupted by anti-government protestors.
At the same time as the ceremony, a mass rally — billed as the largest in Israel’s history — will be held at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening.
Meanwhile, supporters of the overhaul are set to rally on Thursday evening.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin called on supporters to attend a large demonstration in Jerusalem on Thursday “to stand between the Knesset building and the Supreme Court building and say with unprecedented force: the people demand legal reform. The mandate received by the right-wing government must be realized.”
The Knesset is scheduled to return from its month-long recess on April 30, with a law to put judicial appointments within political control, one part of the legislative package, ready to be passed within days.
Critics say the overhaul, which will shift much of the judiciary’s power into the government’s hands, will make Israel a democracy in name only, shielding leaders from accountability while leaving minority rights largely unprotected and subject to the whims of Netanyahu’s hard-right government. Proponents say the changes are needed to rein in what they see as an overly activist court.