Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in three cities to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the country’s judicial system and weaken the Supreme Court.
Saturday’s protests in the cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa posed an early challenge to Netanyahu and his ultranationalist security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, who has ordered police to crack down if demonstrators block streets, and avenues where Palestinian flags are flown.
Israeli media, citing police, said the crowds at Habima Square in Tel Aviv had grown to at least 80,000, despite the cold and rainy weather.
The demonstrators, many of them carrying umbrellas and Israeli flags, carried banners reading “criminal government”, “the end of democracy” and other slogans.
Pictures on social media showed a small display of Palestinian flags, in defiance of Ben Gvir’s pleas.
They are trying to destroy the checks and balances of Israeli democracy. “It’s not going to work,” said Asaf Steinberg, a protester from Herzliya, a suburb of Tel Aviv. We will fight until the last minute to save Israeli democracy. »
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, has made reforming the country’s justice system a centerpiece of his agenda.
Just over two weeks ago, his right-wing government launched proposals to weaken the Supreme Court by giving parliament the power to veto court decisions by a simple majority. He also wants to give parliament control over the appointment of judges and reduce the independence of legal advisers.
The justice minister in Netanyahu’s government said that unelected judges wield too much power.
But opponents of the plans say the proposed changes would undermine Israeli democracy. Israeli opposition leaders, former prosecutors and the head of Israel’s Supreme Court have spoken out against the plan.
The legal changes could help Netanyahu escape a corruption conviction or even kill his lawsuit altogether. Since his conviction in 2019, Netanyahu has said the justice system is biased against him.
The new government also announced its intention to pursue a policy of settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and to implement social reforms that have alarmed members and supporters of the LGBTQ community.
Reporting on a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Imran Khan, Al Jazeera’s correspondent, said protesters feared the far-right government threatened democracy in Israel.
This is an anti-government demonstration. They worry about the declining powers of the Supreme Court – a crucial system of checks and balances that have been in place for decades.
There is a lot of anger here towards Benjamin Netanyahu, who they say is a criminal. There are many signs here that he is on trial and should not be the prime minister of Israel. They are also very concerned about the rights of minorities in Israel, especially when it comes to LGBT rights. They fear that these things will come back. »
Thousands also participated in rallies in Jerusalem and Haifa.
No major disturbances were reported, although Israeli media said small crowds clashed with police as they tried to block a highway in Tel Aviv.
And reinforced the police presence before the march. Israeli media quoted the police as saying that the officers had been ordered to be “extremely sensitive” and to allow the demonstration to proceed peacefully. But they also promised a tough response to any vandalism or violent behaviour.
Opinion polls differed on the reforms. Channel 13 TV revealed last week that 53% of Israelis oppose changing the court appointment system, while 35% support it. But Channel 14 TV on Thursday found 61% in favor and 35% against.
Tens of thousands demonstrated tonight. In the elections held here two and a half months ago, millions took part,” tweeted Miki Zohar, a senior figure in Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party.
He added, “We promised the people change, we promised governance, we promised reform – and we will.”