Hundreds of thousands rally against overhaul; rise in violence against protesters


Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took part in demonstrations across the country held for the 11th Saturday evening directly against the government’s plans to weaken the judiciary, which were marked by numerous acts of violence against protesters.

Organizers of the protests have vowed to intensify demonstrations if the coalition government does not stop its legislative proposals, which lawmakers are due to go ahead with next week, while declaring a “national day of paralysis” on Thursday.

“Next week the Israeli government plans to pass the religious dictatorship and coercion law,” protest organizers said in a statement on Saturday.

“Hundreds of people will continue to oppose them like an iron wall and back on the High Court and the heads of the [judicial] system to stop the coup. All citizens must come out and take a stand in these critical moments for the State of Israel. Together, hundreds of thousands will save Israeli democracy,” they said.

More than 260,000 people demonstrated across the country, including 175,000 in Tel Aviv, 20,000 in Haifa, 4,000 in Netanya, 11,500 in Herzliya, 18,000 in Kfar Saba, and 6,000 in Beersheba, according to a count by Crowd Solution13 company.

Approximately 10,000 protesters gathered outside the Presidential Palace in Jerusalem.

Jacob Frenkel, a former head of the Bank of Israel who was until recently chairman of JP Morgan Chase International, warned that the coalition’s far-reaching plans to reform the judicial system are “destroying the Zionist enterprise from within”.

Speaking at the main protest in Tel Aviv, Frenkel told the crowd that the judicial overhaul will have serious economic consequences for Israel.

“Our friends are shocked and surprised how a country that was the object of envy and admiration destroys the Zionist enterprise by hand in a very large way from within, and all this in less than three months,” he said.

Speaking at a rally in the southern coastal city of Ashdod, opposition leader Yair Lapid accused the government of not being interested in compromise.

“They are pushing forward with their legislation to turn Israel into an undemocratic country. They only have one problem. They did not expect this [demonstrations] come to Ashdod, to Beersheba, to the hills of Gus Etzion, to Rehoboth and to Jerusalem,” he said.

“The government has work to do. It is supposed to provide security to people, it is not doing that. He is supposed to manage the economy, he is not doing that. It is supposed to unite the nation, they are tearing the nation apart,” he said.

Dan Halutz, the former IDF chief of staff, told protesters in Haifa that ultra-Orthodox Israelis should “start learning core studies because F-16 fighter jets are only in English,” as he took a dig at the widespread rejection of the communities to serve in the military and reject the teaching of basic subjects in some Haredi schools.

The former military leader urged the demonstrators to bring more people to the protests, saying that the struggle against the government’s judicial reform is a “liberation war for the State of Israel”.

“And just as we won the War of Independence, you will win the second war of independence,” he said.

An increase in violent incidents against demonstrators was recorded on Saturday.

Police said they detained a 57-year-old man who allegedly rammed his car into a group of protesters in Herzliya, slightly injuring one protester.

The demonstrator was taken to Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, police said.

Police also said officers detained a 24-year-old man for driving a motorcycle into a group of protesters in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. He was suspected of attacking and threatening the demonstrators.

None of the protesters were injured in the incident.

In Tel Aviv, police said about 50 protesters tried to block the Ayalon Highway. Officers closed the road in both directions as they worked to disperse them.

Two were detained while trying to block the northbound route, and two others on Yigal Alon street, near the entrance to the highway, police said.

Several right-wing activists, some in disguise, were seen physically confronting protesters in Tel Aviv.

Footage published by a Haaretz reporter showed police officers pushing one of the masked men away from the crowd.

Right-wing counter-protests in the city, supporting the government’s proposed changes, held signs reading “the left are traitors.”

Earlier in the evening, hundreds of protesters blocked the Karkur Junction along Route 65 in northern Israel. Police deployed water cannons to disperse the crowd, and seven protesters were arrested.

Dozens of veterans of the Shayetet 13 elite naval commando unit were shown outside the home of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in the northern moshav Amikam. Gallant led the unit in the 1990s.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered for the first time in the northern city of Or Akiva, a predominantly right-wing community.

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party threw eggs at the demonstrators. Police said the officers detained three people at the scene for throwing eggs.

News site Ynet reported that they shouted at the protesters, “anarchists, only Bibi,” using Netanyahu’s nickname.

At first apparently, some Bedouin Israelis protested against the government’s plans at the Hura junction in southern Israel.

Standing alongside some Jewish Israelis, the group held signs reading “This is home for all of us” and “Equal rights and democracy for all of us.”

Protest organizers responded to the violence against demonstrators, claiming it was a direct result of “incitement from Netanyahu’s home.”

“When the prime minister’s son calls Nazi demonstrators, this is what happens. The police must arrest him this evening,” the organizers said, referring to statements by Yair Netanyahu comparing protesters to the Nazi paramilitary Sturmabteilung, or SA.

Saturday evening’s protests followed fiery protests earlier in the day when clashes broke out between protesters, police, and residents of a village where National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was spending Shabbat.

The protesters gathered in anticipation of the government bringing forward several controversial pieces of legislation in the coming week, including a bill to allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to receive donations to fund his legal costs in his criminal trials ; a bill to allow the leader of Shas Aryeh Deri to return to the Minister’s office despite a High Court ruling preventing him from doing so; a bill to ensure that Netanyahu cannot be forced to recuse himself because of a potential conflict of interest between his criminal trial and the government’s radical legal reforms; and a bill allowing hospitals to stop people from bringing hametz, or porridge items, into their premises during Passover, an arrangement previously ruled out by the High Court.

At mass protests last Thursday, demonstrators marched and disrupted traffic across the country. The police detained 21 people in several incidents, including two drivers who were accused of pepper spraying demonstrators who blocked the road.

Protesters clash with police stationed during a demonstration against the government’s controversial judicial reform measures, in Tel Aviv, March 16, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

According to Ynet news, about 100 different protest groups participated in a meeting to decide on the next steps to increase the protests next Thursday.

Some of the protest leaders are said to have been calling for a complete shutdown of the country, similar to the protests against recent pension reforms in France, which brought Paris to a standstill.

“Trains are stopped, schools are closed, fuel deliveries have been stopped. The organizers are then threatening that France will stop running if [French President Emmanuel] Macron does not withdraw the reforms. We are demonstrating Israeli democracy, not pensions,” said one of the organizers, according to the unsourced report.

Another protest leader feared that such an action would lead to violence: “We saw what happened on the streets of Paris. We cannot find a situation where we drag the demonstrations to something violent and we go to anarchy in the streets. We will lose legitimacy. We can’t help this. It will be a victory for Netanyahu.”

An official of the Histadrut labor union told the news site that the organization’s chairman Arnon Bar-David was still against a general strike, because “the government is pressuring him not to do it.”

According to the report, teachers are also considering whether to close schools on Thursday as part of the protests.

The government’s plan, as it stands, will allow the Knesset to override court decisions by a bare majority, protect laws entirely from judicial oversight, and put the selection of all judges in the hands of coalition politicians.

Opponents argue that it will seriously weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters call the reform much-needed for reunification in an overactive court.

This weekend’s protest came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other ministers shot down President Isaac Herzog’s proposal for further judicial reform.

Opposition leaders, however, have rallied behind the president’s plan, saying the proposal is workable but not ideal.

The reform plans have sparked intense public criticism and fierce opposition across Israel, prompting mass protests and warnings from economists, legal professionals, academics and security officials. Protesters have been pouring into the streets since January in countless days of “disruption” and “resistance”.

Several polls have indicated that the legislation is generally unpopular with the public. However, a survey on Friday showed that Israelis are split on whether or not the country’s security apparatus should follow the rulings of the High Court of Justice or the government’s decisions in the event of a constitutional crisis.

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