More than 300,000 Israelis rallied last Saturday night across the country in the 10th consecutive week of demonstrations against the government’s efforts to radically overhaul the judicial system. Organisers claimed around half a million turned out for the protests nationwide. Media estimated there were at least 200,000 in Tel Aviv alone.
The protests were held as the coalition readies to charge full steam ahead with its highly contentious remaking of the judiciary, thus far rejecting pleas, including from the president, to scrap its current legislation and instead patiently negotiate a more widely accepted compromise.
Organisers said they would further ramp up their response if the government doesn’t shelve the overhaul legislation, with a planned “day of escalating resistance” declared for Thursday.
This past Thursday saw protesters stage an unprecedented day of protests and disruption, blocking central Israel’s key Ayalon Highway for some two hours and obstructing roads to Ben Gurion Airport alongside rallies, strikes, blockages and other disruptive activities throughout the country.
Protest organisers said they would try to disrupt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned take-off for Berlin, similar to their effort to interfere with his trip to Rome last week, when cars driving at a snail’s pace clogged roads to the airport, forcing the PM to take a helicopter.
“This is one of the most critical weeks in the struggle to safeguard Israeli democracy from those trying to bring about its destruction,” the organisers said in a statement.
“Every Israeli in whose heart is the Declaration of Independence must come out this Thursday with strength and courage to defend the State of Israel.”
Speaking at the main gathering on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street outside government offices after marching from Habima Square, retired justice Hila Gerstel said she supports “repairs” to the judiciary but not its “destruction”.
“For 24 years I served in the judicial system, and along with all its virtues I am well aware of its shortcomings. I established the audit commission, I was one of the most vocal voices for reforming the system and I criticised the conduct of the state prosecution. Precisely because of this, I stand here today and say there is room for repairs, there is no room for destruction,” Gerstel was cited by Channel 12 news as saying.
At a protest in Beersheba, with a record turnout of around 10,000 people, opposition leader Yair Lapid said that while Israel faces “huge challenges” and the “biggest crisis in its history”, the government had “lost interest”.
“The only thing that interests the government is to continue crushing Israeli democracy and the unity of the Israeli people,” Lapid said.
Police estimates cited by Hebrew language media said 50,000 people turned out for the protest in Haifa – also a record – with tens of thousands more in other cities.
Smaller rallies were held in at least 95 different locations across the country, including in Jerusalem, Ashdod, Efrat, Modi’in, Netanya, Kfar Saba, Yavne, Herzliya, Beit Shemesh, Rishon Lezion and Bat Yam.
“This is the largest protest night in the history of the State of Israel,” the organisers said in a statement.
In Jerusalem, a separate right-wing demonstration was held against the current reform package and in favour of compromise, the third time in recent weeks such a rally has been held at the initiative of former minister Yoaz Hendel.
The rallies were largely peaceful, with police detaining a Netanya resident on suspicion of hurling a firecracker at demonstrators in the central coastal city. In another incident, police said officers arrested two suspects for throwing eggs at anti-government protesters in Hadera.
Some protesters charged onto the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, in an effort to block traffic on the key transport artery in central Israel. After a short while the highway was reopened, with three people arrested.
Ahead of the protests, former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz said, “The dictatorship has already begun.”
Mofaz told Channel 12: “I listen to the discussions in the [Knesset] Constitution Committee … a dictatorship is taking place there. There is no discourse there, there is chaos. I am very concerned about what is happening there. I haven’t seen such a harsh reality since the Yom Kippur War.”
The nationwide rallies were held as the coalition was set to prepare core elements of its highly contentious judicial overhaul program for final Knesset readings this week.
TIMES OF ISRAEL