‘A plan to change Israel’s DNA’: 80,000 rally in Tel Aviv against judicial overhaul

Tens of thousands of demonstrators braved the rainy weather Saturday night to gather in Tel Aviv’s Habim Square to protest the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and its plans for radical changes to Israel’s justice system.

Police estimated that around 80,000 people gathered in the square and the surrounding streets, many traveling to Tel Aviv from all over the country on chartered buses. Demonstrations were also held in Jerusalem and Haifa.

Despite police warnings of possible violence and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gwiro’s call for police to quell any unrest, the demonstrations ended largely peacefully, with only a few isolated clashes between protesters and police.

Roads near Habima Square were closed throughout the rally as police were deployed in the city center to maintain order.

Those present included former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, former prime minister Ehud Barak, National Unity Party leader and former defense minister Benny Gantz, former IDF commander Gadi Eisenkot (National Unity) and Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli.

The demonstration marked the second week that opponents of Netanyahu’s government have taken to the streets to protest Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals to shake up the judiciary by severely curtailing the High Court of Justice’s judicial review powers and establishing political control over the appointment of judges.

in 2023 January 14 thousands of people protest against the Israeli government in Habima Square in Tel Aviv. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On stage in Tel Aviv, Livni promised that “no one will be above the law, not even the prime minister… We will protect the state together because it is for all of us.”

Addressing lawmakers pushing for the controversial judicial overhaul, she said “history will not forget.”

Eliad Shraga, chairman 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 declare Netanyahu unfit to serve as prime minister. He said the new government seeks to “change the DNA of the state of Israel,” transforming it from a secular state to a religious fundamentalist state that undermines the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.

People protest against the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, 2023. January 14 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Former Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia said that “there is something deeply broken in our social compact, the basic rules that have been agreed upon throughout the country’s history.

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“We are entering a new era in which democracy has a new definition: not a values-based democracy, but a fragmented democracy that relies entirely on the ‘will of the voter’, which no longer gives any importance to other principles of democracy.” “

Procaccia said the public “will not accept … the destruction of the values ​​that are the foundation of our system … We are at a critical moment when a decision must be made about the moral future of Israel.”

Israeli protesters take part in a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government in the coastal city of Tel Aviv in 2023. January 14 (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP)

During the rally, several hundred protesters began marching along Ibn Gabirol street, accompanied by police, along a road that was closed to vehicular traffic.

“No democracy without the Supreme Court,” chanted the marchers with drummers. Nearby motorists cheered and gasped in support of the march despite being stuck in traffic.

Police blocked the entrance to the Ayalon highway, preventing protesters from entering and disrupting traffic.

Later in the evening, police clashed with some anti-government protesters as about 200 people tried to enter and block the highway. At first, the crowd tried to enter from the intersection and then through the underground parking lot of the Azrieli shopping center. Police said officers were able to push the crowd back.

Protesters clashed with police after the 2023 January 14 participated in a demonstration against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Tel Aviv. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In Haifa, hundreds of people gathered outside the Horev Center in Haifa, while thousands protested outside the capital’s presidential residence, wearing winter coats and hats, waving Israeli flags and banners and calling for the resignation of President Isaac Herzog.

Several hundred Jerusalem protesters marched towards Azza Road, where Netanyahu’s temporary residence is located. Police blocked roads to prevent crowds from approaching the Prime Minister’s house.

The crowd, which included families with small children, people wearing kippahs and elderly residents, chanted: “My country has three branches of government, three!”

A police officer was also seen attacking a protester during the demonstration near the President’s residence. The office of Israel’s police chief, Kobi Shabtai, told public broadcaster Kan that the incident was under investigation.

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What preceded the violence was unclear.

Before the Tel Aviv rally, Ami Eshed, chief of the Tel Aviv police district, said the policy had not changed.

“Our main goal is that everyone who comes to the demonstration can arrive in an orderly manner and leave here in an orderly and safe manner,” Eshed was quoted as saying by the Ynet news site during a tour of the square before the start of the event.

“Our sole purpose is to deal with people who commit vandalism or violence. We don’t deal with things that are trivial,” he told officials.

According to the Haaretz daily, police set up security around the home of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana (Likud), who lives near Habima Square.

Israeli protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Tel Aviv in 2023. January 14 (Jack Guez/AFP)

Sheltering from the rain under a tree, Lorna from Tel Aviv said she came to the protest to secure her grandchildren’s future.

“It seems to me that we are living in the beginning of a dystopian state,” she said. “I see the end of democracy and I feel personal danger.”

Reut came from Tel Aviv to the protest as part of a three-generation family delegation. “We are starting to not recognize our country,” she said. “And that’s an understatement.”

Hades traveled from Ganei Tikva. “We don’t like what’s going on here,” she said. “I don’t know if [protesting] will change. But if we don’t do something, nothing will really change,” she added.

Saturday’s rallies were supported by top groups, 2020. who led the anti-Netanyahu protests: Ein Matzav (no way), the crime minister and the Black Flags. They have also been endorsed by other organizations, including the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, the Quality Government Movement, and the Kibbutz Movement.

“Bougie, wake up, the house is on fire,” chanted the demonstrators, referring to the president by his nickname. “Bougie, Bougie, wake up, society deserves more.”

in 2023 January 14 Israelis protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government outside the presidential residence in Jerusalem. (Jessica Steinberg/The Times of Israel)

Before the rallies, former police chief Moshe Karadis said law enforcement had information that right-wing activists were planning to plant agitators at the protests.

“Elements on the other side sometimes plant rioters in demonstrations for the purpose of provocation, and this demonstration also contains information on this issue,” Kan news quoted Karadis as saying at a conference in Beersheba.

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He downplayed concerns about possible unrest by demonstrators, saying it was “fake news from certain elements”.

Despite warnings that the protest could attract right-wing agitators, there were no reports of violence.

Two teenagers wearing headscarves marking them as fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, known for their right-wing fans, tried to provoke a reaction in Tel Aviv.

“Only Ben Gvir,” one teenager shouted repeatedly, referring to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. “Stupid boy,” replied one older lady as the rest of the crowd ignored him.

Israeli protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Tel Aviv, 2023. January 14 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Friday, National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz called on Israelis from across the political spectrum to join the Tel Aviv demonstration.

“I call on all Israeli society, from the left to the right, to come and protest for the protection of Israeli democracy. “Having your voice heard is a vital civic duty at this time, not ‘civil disobedience’ as those trying to quell the demonstration claim,” said Gantz, who previously served as defense minister and IDF commander.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu dismissed criticism of the proposed changes to the courts, a day after Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut warned that their adoption would deal a “death blow” to the country’s democratic character.

in 2023 January 14 thousands of people protest against the Israeli government in Habima Square in Tel Aviv. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We discussed this before the election and we got a clear mandate from the public,” Netanyahu claimed in a video on Friday. “I suggest everyone to calm down and start a substantive discussion.

“When it is said that the smallest reform is the destruction of democracy, it is not only a false statement, it also does not allow for an understanding … through a substantive dialogue in the Knesset,” Netanyahu added.

Critics of the plans, which include current and former top judicial and legal officials and Netanyahu’s political rivals, say Levin’s reforms would endanger basic civil and minority rights by severely limiting the supreme court’s power to overturn laws and government decisions. Proponents of the changes argue that the courts have assumed excessive powers and passed rulings against the will of the voters.

Gantz is also expected to attend the demonstration in Tel Aviv. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Thursday he would not join the protest after being told he and Gantz would not be allowed to address the crowd.

Israeli protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Tel Aviv, 2023. January 14 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said Friday that he would attend and invited anyone “who cares about the State of Israel and its democratic nature.”

“If there is a water cannon, I will stand in front of it,” Huldai told Channel 12 News, following calls by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gwiro for police to take a tougher stance against protesters. “Protest is the cornerstone of democracy,” the mayor added.

According to Kan and the Ynet news website, police banned protesters from marching or blocking roads to allow a rally in Tel Aviv. Last week’s protest included several marches, with some demonstrators also briefly blocking a major highway.

Channel 12 News reported that some protesters were planning to march towards the Azrieli Mall and block roads despite a police ban, which could lead to clashes with officers.


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