Israel is preparing for protests as the far-right government targets the courts


Tel Aviv – Tens of thousands of Israelis poured into a central public square in Tel Aviv to protest the country’s far-right government, which in the two weeks since taking power has accelerated plans to reform the justice system and intensified an internal political crisis that its critics have warned could turn violent.

At least 1,000 Israeli police are stationed across the city, as an estimated 80,000 Israelis braved a rainstorm to gather Saturday night in the city’s Habima Square, holding up posters with slogans such as “We will not become Iran” and “Shame!”

Smaller protests took place in front of the president’s residence in Jerusalem, Haifa and other cities across the country. Officers had to be Armed with water cannons and directives from the newly appointed far-right national security minister to crack down on protesters who display “seditious” signs or block roads – and protest organizers warn of the law to allow excessive force.

Opposition to the new government began almost immediately after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in November elections after a year and a half on the sidelines, spurred on by a bloc of formerly far-right partners. In the past two weeks since OpeningHowever, his government embarked on a blitzkrieg of legislative initiatives, calling it “the most powerful”. as a “revision” to correct “the imbalance of the three powers of government”.

But critics say the measures amount to a “coup d’etat” that would destroy the country’s system of checks and balances to save Netanyahu from prosecution in three separate cases. Corruption issues He encourages his extremist religious partners to advance legislation supporting the expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and the application of conservative Jewish law to public institutions.

If implemented, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut said at a conference Thursday that the judicial reform announced by the government this week would be a “fatal blow” to Israeli democracy, abolishing the rule of law and legal protections for individual rights.

“This is an unbridled attack on the judicial system, as if it were an enemy that must be attacked and subdued,” she said.

Among the rights at stake, critics say, is the freedom to protest — a sacrosanct practice in a country notoriously controversial that remained intact even during the draconian virus lockdowns two years ago, when courts ruled in favor of protesters who, during Netanyahu’s previous rule, called for his ouster.

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The new protest movement is being led by left-wing activists and prominent opposition figures from the political center and left who warn that the government, though democratically elected, has overstepped its mandate in attempts to undermine Israeli democratic institutions that, according to polls, show nearly half of the country believes should be preserved.

“If you continue the path you are on, you will bear responsibility for the civil war brewing in Israeli society,” Benny Gantz, the former defense minister, told Netanyahu in a televised statement this week, calling on Israelis to take to the streets. .

On Wednesday, Netanyahu said disagreements are acceptable, but that “you also have to define the boundaries of the conversation… There is no permission to block roads or other things that harm citizens.” His statement came a day after a man from the predominantly ultra-Orthodox Israeli city of Elad tried to use his car to run over anti-government protesters in the southern city of Beersheba.

“This is how democracy collapses in one day,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said after the incident.

Ahead of Saturday’s protest, Israeli police warned of “public chaos” — a rhetorical nod to the hardline national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, who issued new police directives this week to use water cannons against protesters and detain participants who “incite”. “Stickers or blocking roads. It also prohibited raising Palestinian flags in public, which is tantamount to supporting terrorism.

Zvika Vogel, a lawmaker for Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party, said opposition leaders, including two former IDF chiefs of staff, “should be arrested and handcuffed” for calling for protests.

Roy Newman, one of the protest organizers, said the government was making unprecedented efforts to “delegitimize” the movement.

“In the past 10 years in protests from all sectors – the right, the ultra-Orthodox, you name it – there have never been statements like this,” he said.

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Critics say Netanyahu and his political allies have an alternative perspective on the rule of law because, for years, they have been targets of police investigations. In 2019, Netanyahu was indicted on several counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and is currently on trial in three corruption cases. In January 2022, Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party who was appointed interior minister and health minister, was found guilty of tax fraud.

Ben Gvir, a West Bank settler leader who for decades defended young Israelis accused of violently attacking Palestinians, was deemed unfit for mandatory military service because of his extremist activism and was found guilty of racial incitement against Arabs and support for terrorist groups.

Netanyahu’s proposed “judicial review” involves a top-down shift in the Israeli judiciary. it will enable The Knesset overturns Supreme Court decisions by a simple majority. It would allow ministers to have more influence over who they serve Courts – including those overseeing Netanyahu’s corruption trial.

“The king can do no wrong. There are no checks on the government,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, a noted Israeli jurist and professor of law at Hebrew University. “We are in the midst of an attempt by the political majority to change the regime, transforming Israel from a state with a functional liberal democracy into a state Authoritarian populism, religious nationalism, characterized mainly by absolute power in the hands of the majority.”

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