Thousands of Israeli protesters took to the streets on Tuesday, blocking major highways and thronging the country's main international airport, in countrywide demonstrations against the government's contentious plan to overhaul the country's judicial system..
The demonstrations came the morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's parliamentary coalition gave initial approval to a bill to limit the Supreme Court's oversight powers, pressing forward with a plan that has bitterly divided the nation. Netanyahu's ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies have proposed a series of bills that have provoked months of sustained protests by opponents who say the country is being pushed toward authoritarian rule.
Anti-overhaul activists demonstrated nationwide throughout the day, including a mass protest Tuesday afternoon at Ben-Gurion International Airport. An estimated 10,000 people gathered outside the main hall, blowing horns and waving blue and white Israeli flags. Police kept the crowd from entering the terminal, and travel was not disrupted.
“Civil war! I think we're going that way if they're not going to stop,” said Adi Somech, one of the protesters. Mass protests have taken place since Netanyahu's far-right government presented the overhaul plan in January, days after taking office. The protests led Netanyahu to suspend the overhaul in March, but he decided to revive the plan last month after compromise talks with the political opposition collapsed.
The parliamentary vote overnight Tuesday gave fresh momentum to the protest movement. The bill still needs to be approved in two more votes, expected by the end of the month, before it becomes law.
Police used a water cannon to clear protesters outside of Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv. Officers arrested several others who had obstructed a highway next to the central city of Modiin. Demonstrators blocked a main highway in Haifa with a large banner reading “Together we will be victorious,” snarling traffic along the beachfront.
A crowd gathered outside U.S. diplomatic offices in Tel Aviv, calling on the White House to put pressure on Netanyahu to halt the overhaul. Protests were taking place later Tuesday outside Netanyahu's home in central Jerusalem and in central Tel Aviv.
Police reported a total of 71 arrests nationwide for alleged public disorder. Protesters scuffled with police in various locations, with at least one protester hurt by a police horse, but no major violence was reported. Netanyahu's allies have proposed a series of changes to the Israeli legal system aimed at weakening what they say are the excessive powers of unelected judges.
The proposed changes include giving Netanyahu's allies control over the appointment of judges and giving parliament power to overturn court decisions. The legislation advanced Tuesday aims to strip the Supreme Court of its power to review the “reasonability” of government decisions — a safeguard that proponents say is needed to prevent corruption and improper political appointments.
The Netanyahu government, which took office in December, is the most hard-line ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox in Israel's 75-year history. His allies proposed the sweeping changes to the judiciary after the country held its fifth elections in under four years, all of them seen as a referendum on Netanyahu's fitness to serve as prime minister while on trial for corruption.
Critics of the judicial overhaul say it will upset the country's fragile system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his allies. They also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest because he is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes.
The United States, Israel's most important ally, has also criticized the overhaul effort, urging Netanyahu to move slowly and seek a broad consensus on any legal changes. On Tuesday, a member of Netanyahu's Cabinet, Amichai Chikli, accused Israeli opposition leaders of coordinating the criticism with the White House.
A wide section of Israeli society, including reserve military officers, business leaders, LGBTQ+ people and members of other minority groups have joined the protests. The ongoing unrest has unnerved foreign investors and caused Israel's currency, the shekel, to drop in value.
On Tuesday, 300 reservists from the military's elite cyber warfare unit signed a letter saying they would not volunteer for service, explaining the government has demonstrated “it is determined to destroy the state of Israel.” “Sensitive cyber abilities with the potential for being used for evil must not be given to a criminal government that is undermining the foundations of democracy,” the letter said.
Fighter pilots and members of other elite units also have threatened to stop reporting for duty. In a speech Tuesday evening, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant lashed out at those who refuse to report for duty, saying it threatened the country's security and was a “prize for our enemies.”
Arnon Bar-David, head of the country's national labor union, the Histadrut, threatened a possible general strike that could paralyze the country's economy. "If the situation reaches an extreme, we will intervene and employ our strength,” Bar-David said, calling on Netanyahu to “stop the chaos.”
The Histadrut called a general strike in March as the government pushed the judicial overhaul legislation through parliament after weeks of protest. The move shut down large swaths of Israel's economy and helped contribute to Netanyahu's decision to suspend the legislation.