Tens of thousands of demonstrators braved the rain Saturday night to gather in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government and its plans for sweeping changes to Israel’s justice system.
Police estimated that some 80,000 people crowded the square and surrounding streets, many traveling to Tel Aviv from across the country on chartered buses. Demonstrations were also held in Jerusalem and Haifa.
Many of the large crowd, which quickly flooded the square, carried umbrellas, Israeli flags, and banners denouncing the coalition’s plans to restrict the judicial system. A few of them carried Palestinian flags. “The Struggle for Democracy” proclaimed a large banner at the back of the raised platform.
Despite police warnings of possible violence and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s call for police to quell any unrest, the demonstrations ended largely peacefully, with a few isolated clashes between protesters and police.
Roads near Habima Square were closed throughout the march, as police deployed in force in the city center to maintain order.
Among those present were former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former National Unity Party leader and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, former IDF chief and National Unity MP Gadi Eisenkot, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, and leader of the Balad party. Mansour Abbas. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Thursday he would not join the protest after he was told he and Gantz would not be allowed to speak to the crowd.
The demonstration was the second week that opponents of the Netanyahu government have taken to the streets, protesting Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals to curtail Israel’s independent judiciary by severely curtailing the High Court of Justice’s judicial review powers and strengthening political control over the appointment of judges.
On the podium in Tel Aviv, Livni vowed that “no one will be above the law, not even the prime minister,” referring to Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial. “Together we will protect the country because it is for all of us.”
“History will not be forgotten,” she said, addressing lawmakers advancing the controversial judicial reform.
“Always remember that we prefer the cold and rain of liberal democracy to the heat and hell of fascist dictatorship,” the head of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, Eliad Sharaka, told the crowd.
Shraga demanded that President Isaac Herzog declare Netanyahu unfit to serve as prime minister.
He said the new government aims to “change the DNA of the State of Israel”, transforming it from a secular state into a religious fundamentalist state that harms women’s rights and the LGBT community.
Former Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia said, “Something was deeply broken in our social pact, in the basic framework of rules agreed upon throughout the country’s history.”
“We are at the beginning of a new era in which democracy has a new definition: not a democracy based on values but a fractured democracy based entirely on the ‘will of the voter’, which no longer gives any weight to other democratic principles,” Procacchia said.
She said the public “will not accept…the destruction of the values that are the foundation of our system”. “We are at a defining moment for the moral future of Israel.”
As the march continued, several hundred demonstrators began marching down Ibn Gabirol Street, escorted by police on the road, which was closed to vehicular traffic.
“No democracy without the Supreme Court,” the demonstrators chanted, while drummers beat a rhythm. Motorists on nearby roads cheered and shouted in support of the march, despite being caught in a traffic jam.
Police blocked the entrance to the Ayalon Highway, preventing protesters from entering and disrupting traffic there.
Later in the evening, police clashed with some anti-government protesters, as around 200 attempted to march onto the highway and block traffic. The crowd initially attempted to enter through a traffic intersection, then through the underground car park of the Azrieli Mall. Police said officers managed to push back the crowd.
And in Haifa, hundreds of people gathered in the Horev shopping center area, while thousands protested outside the president’s residence in Jerusalem, donning winter coats and hats, waving Israeli flags and banners, and calling for Herzog to get out.
“Boogie, wake up, the house is burning,” protesters chanted, referring to the president by his nickname, “Boogie, Boogie, wake up, the crowd deserves more.”
Several hundred Jerusalem demonstrators marched towards Gaza Street, where Netanyahu’s temporary residence is located. Police put up roadblocks to prevent crowds from approaching the Prime Minister’s residence.
The crowd, including families with young children, men in kippahs and older townspeople, shouted, “My country has three branches of government, three!”
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– Chaim Goldich | חיים גולדיטש (@HGoldich) January 14, 2023
A police officer was also seen assaulting a demonstrator during a demonstration outside the Head of State’s residence. The office of Israel’s police chief, Kobi Shabtai, told the Kan public broadcaster that the incident was under investigation.
It was not clear what preceded the violence.
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(Psalm: Prior to Jerusalem) pic.twitter.com/aO3xQ7XLwu
– כאן חדשות (@kann_news) January 14, 2023
Prior to the Tel Aviv rally, the district police chief, Ami Eshid, said there had been no change in policy toward the protesters.
The Ynet news site quoted Ishid as saying this during a tour of the field before the start of the event.
Our sole purpose is to deal with people who commit acts of vandalism or violence. “We don’t deal with trivial things,” he told the officers.
According to the Haaretz daily, police put up security around the home of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana of Likud, who lives near Habima Square.
“We are beginning to not recognize our country”
Shedding from the rain under a tree, Lorna from Tel Aviv said she had come to protest in an effort to secure a future for her grandchildren.
“I feel like we are living in the beginnings of a miserable state,” she said. “I see the end of democracy and feel personally threatened.”
Reut came from Tel Aviv to the demonstration as part of a delegation of three generations of her family. “We are beginning to not recognize our country,” she said. “That’s an understatement.”
Hades traveled from the town of Ganei Tikva. “We don’t like what’s going on here,” she said. “I don’t know if [protesting] It will make a difference. But if we do nothing, nothing will change for sure.”
Saturday’s rallies are supported by the major groups that have led protests against Netanyahu in 2020: Ein Matsav (impossible), Minister of Crime and Black Banners. It has also been endorsed by other organizations including the Association for Feminist Equality in Israel, the Government Quality Movement and the Kibbutz Movement.
Ahead of the rallies, former police chief Moshe Karadi said that law enforcement agencies have information that right-wing activists intend to sow discord in the protests.
The Kan news channel quoted Karadi as saying at a conference in Beersheba: “Sometimes elements from the other side plant rioters in the demonstrations for the sake of provocation, and there is information about this in this demonstration as well.”
He downplayed fears of possible unrest among the protesters, saying it was “fake news from certain elements”.
Despite warnings that the protest could attract right-wing agitators, there were no reports of serious violence.
Two young men wearing headscarves to distinguish them from fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, known for its right-wing fanbase, tried to provoke a reaction in Tel Aviv.
“Just Ben Gvir,” one of the teens repeatedly shouted, referring to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. “Stupid boy,” one of the older ladies replied, while the rest of the crowd ignored him.
And on Friday, National Unity Party leader Gantz urged Israelis across the political spectrum to attend the Tel Aviv demonstration.
I call on the entire Israeli public, from left to right, to demonstrate in order to protect Israeli democracy. Making your voice heard at this time is a civic duty of utmost importance and not “civil disobedience” like those trying to suppress the claim of the demonstration,” said Gantz, who previously served as defense minister and chief of the Israeli army.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu shrugged off criticism of the proposed judicial changes a day after Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut warned its legislation would deal a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic character.
“We discussed this before the elections and we got a clear mandate from the public for this,” Netanyahu confirmed in a video on Friday. “I suggest everyone calm down and engage in a substantive discussion.”
Netanyahu added, “When they say that the smallest reform is the destruction of democracy, this is not just a false claim, nor does it allow for the possibility of reaching understandings… through a substantive dialogue in the Knesset.”
Critics of the plans, which include current and former senior judicial and legal officials as well as Netanyahu’s political rivals, say Levin’s reforms would jeopardize basic civil and minority rights by eliminating the Supreme Court’s power to overrule laws and government decisions, except by eliminating them. and giving ruling majority control over the appointment of judges – which means that the judiciary can no longer act as a check on abuse and excess by the political leadership. Supporters of the changes argue that the courts have assumed excessive powers and made rulings that defy the will of the electorate.