Thousands of demonstrators braved heavy rain Saturday night to gather in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square for protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government and plans for sweeping changes to Israel’s justice system.
Police estimated that around 80,000 people gathered in the square and surrounding streets, many traveling on chartered buses to Tel Aviv from across the country. Demonstrations also took place in Jerusalem and Haifa.
Many in the large crowd, which quickly filled the square, carried umbrellas, Israeli flags and placards denouncing the coalition’s plans to dismantle the judicial system. Some people carried Palestinian flags. “Fighting for Democracy,” proclaimed a large banner at the rear of the elevated stage.
Despite police warnings of possible violence and calls by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir for police to crack down on any unrest, the demonstrations ended largely peacefully, with only a few minor clashes between protesters and police.
Roads near Habima Square were closed throughout the rally, as a police force was deployed to maintain order in the city centre.
Among those attending were former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, former prime minister Ehud Barak, National Unity Party leader and former defense minister Benny Gantz, former IDF chief and National Unity MP Gadi Eisenkot, Labor Party leader Merv Michaeli, and Ram Party leaders were involved. Mansoor Abbas Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Thursday he would not attend the protest after being told he and Gantz would not be allowed to address the crowd.
The demonstrations marked the second week that opponents of Netanyahu’s government took to the streets, severely restricting the judicial review powers of Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s High Court of Justice and cementing political control over the appointment of judges. Opposing proposals to shackle and curtail Israel’s independent judiciary.
Taking the stage in Tel Aviv, Livni vowed that “no one will be above the law, not even the prime minister,” in reference to Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial. “Together we will defend the state, because it is for all of us.”
Addressing MPs pushing for controversial judicial reform, he said: “History will not forget.”
Eliad Shraga, president of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, told the crowd: “Always remember that we prefer the cold and rain of a liberal democracy to the heat and hell of a fascist dictatorship.”
Shraga called on President Isaac Herzog to disqualify Netanyahu from serving as prime minister.
He said the new government aims to “change the DNA of the State of Israel,” transforming it from a secular state to a religious extremist state that harms the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.
“There is something profoundly broken in our social contract, in the basic structure of the rules agreed upon throughout the country’s history,” said former Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procacia.
“We are at the beginning of a new era in which there is a new definition of democracy: not a value-based democracy, but a fragmented democracy that rests entirely on the ‘will of the voter’, which no longer carries any weight to other democratic principles. “No,” said Procaxia.
“The public will not accept the destruction of the values that are the bedrock of our system,” he said. “We are at a terrible moment of decision for Israel’s moral future.”
As the rally continued, several hundreds of protesters began marching towards Ibn Gabirol Street, which was cordoned off by police, blocking vehicular traffic.
“No democracy without High Court,” chanted the marchers to the beat of drums. Despite being stuck in traffic jams, motorists on nearby roads cheered and chanted in support of the march.
Police blocked the entrance to Ayalon Highway, preventing protesters from entering and disrupting traffic there.
Later in the evening, police clashed with some anti-government protesters, as about 200 tried to take to the highway and block traffic. The mob first tried to enter through a traffic junction, and then through the underground parking lot of Azari Mall. Officers managed to push back the crowd, police said.
In Haifa, hundreds gathered in the Horev Center shopping area, while thousands protested outside the presidential residence in Jerusalem, bundled in winter coats and hats, waving Israeli flags and placards and calling for Herzog to step down.
“Boogie, wake up, the house is burning,” chanted the protesters, referring to the president by his nickname. “Boogie, boogie, wake up, the masses are worth more.”
Several hundred demonstrators from Jerusalem marched to Gaza Road, where Netanyahu’s temporary residence is located. Police set up a blockade near the Prime Minister’s residence to stop the crowd.
The crowd, which included families with young children, men wearing kippahs and elderly city residents, shouted, “There are three branches of government in my country, three!”
עזה ארלוזורוב, הפגנה מהרגועות שראינו בואכה ימי בלפור pic.twitter.com/xXM1B58X2r
– Ham Goldich | Haim Goldich (@HGoldich) January 14, 2023
A police officer was also seen assaulting a protester during the protest outside the presidential residence. Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai’s office told Kan Public Broadcaster that the incident is under investigation.
It is unclear what happened before the violence.
החפגנה גדש חלמיטה: שוטר תועד מקפין מפגין פנייו במקאה מול ביט האנסי ישרושלים | לידיאנה מלאה >>> https://t.co/C5C7RLOAfw@SuleimanMas1
(Photo: פרי ג׳רוזלם) pic.twitter.com/aO3xQ7XLwu
— কান নাদ্দান (@kann_news) January 14, 2023
Ahead of the Tel Aviv rally, the district’s police chief, Ami Ashed, said there had been no change in policy toward the protesters.
“Our main goal is that everyone who comes to the demonstration will be able to arrive in an orderly manner and get here in an orderly and safe manner,” Ynet news site said during a tour of the square earlier. The beginning of the event.
“Our only goal is to deal with people who are vandalizing or doing violence. We don’t deal with trivial things,” he told officials.
According to Haaretz daily, police have placed security around the home of Likud’s Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, who lives near Habima Square.
‘We are not recognizing our country’
Sheltering from the rain under a tree, Lorna from Tel Aviv said she came to the protest to try to ensure her grandchildren’s future.
“I think we’re living in the beginning of a dystopian state,” he said. “I see the end of democracy and I feel personally threatened.”
Root came to the protest from Tel Aviv as part of a delegation of three generations of her family. “We are starting to recognize our country,” he said. “And that’s an understatement.”
Hadas traveled from the city of Ganei Tikva. “We don’t like what’s going on here,” he said. “I don’t know if [protesting] Will make a difference. But if we do nothing, surely nothing will change.
Saturday’s rallies were supported by the top groups that have led demonstrations against Netanyahu in 2020: Ein Matzav (No Way), the Crime Minister and Black Flags. They have also been supported by other organizations including the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, the Movement for Quality Government and the Kibbutz Movement.
Before the rallies, former police chief Moshe Karadi said law enforcement officials were aware that far-right activists intended to attack protesters at the demonstrations.
“Elements on the other side sometimes engage rioters in demonstrations for incitement and this demonstration also has knowledge of the matter,” Kan News quoted Karadi as saying at a conference in Beersheba.
He dismissed concerns of possible unrest among protesters, saying it was “fake news from some elements”.
Despite warnings that the protests could attract right-wing agitators, there have been no reports of serious violence.
Two teenagers wearing scarves marking them as fans of the Beiter Jerusalem soccer team, known for its far-right fans, tried to provoke a reaction in Tel Aviv.
“Only Ben Gvir,” a young man shouted repeatedly, referring to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. “Stupid boy,” replied an old woman as the rest of the crowd ignored her.
On Friday, National Unity Party leader Gantz urged Israelis from across the political spectrum to join the Tel Aviv demonstration.
“I call on the entire Israeli public, from left to right, to protest in defense of Israeli democracy. Making your voice heard is the most important civic duty at this time and not ‘civil disobedience’ for trying to suppress claims of protest,” said Gantz, who previously served as defense minister and IDF chief.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, dismissed criticism of the proposed judicial changes a day after Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut warned that his law would deal a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic character.
“We discussed this before the election and we got a clear mandate from the public for it,” Netanyahu insisted in a video on Friday. “I suggest everyone to calm down and have a substantive discussion.”
“When they say that the smallest reform is the destruction of democracy, that is not only a false claim, it does not even allow for the possibility of reaching an understanding … through substantive dialogue in the Knesset,” Netanyahu added. .
Critics of the plans, including top current and former judicial and legal officials, as well as Netanyahu’s political opponents, say Levin’s reforms would threaten basic civil and minority rights but not laws and Ending the apex court’s power to overturn government decisions, and giving operational majority control over the appointment of judges – meaning the judiciary can no longer act as a brake on abuses and excesses by the political leadership. Supporters of the changes argue that the courts have assumed too much power and issued rulings that defy the will of the voters.