Weekly mass anti-government protests across the country on Saturday night saw a notable escalation in violence and swearing by counter-protesters against protesters, with government supporters ramming, hitting, swearing, bullying and otherwise assaulting critics of the coalition’s judicial review plan.
The attacks led to opposition leaders and protest organizers pointing fingers at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who they say is inciting hatred among his supporters and failing to clearly condemn the violence directed at protesters.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted: “The government’s baiting of the protests has caused this. Violent thugs behaved wildly across the country. I call on the Likud to restrain its thugs and on the Prime Minister to condemn them vigorously.”
In a joint statement, the protest leaders said: “The rise in violence is a direct result of incitement emanating from Netanyahu. When the prime minister’s son calls demonstrators Nazis, that’s what it looks like.”
Yair Netanyahu compared the demonstrators to the Nazi (SA) paramilitary Sturmabteilung in his latest incitement against them on Friday.
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National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz said that “violence against protesters is simmering across the country and civil war is looming. Netanyahu, the responsibility is yours. Call for a stop to the violence, slam on the brakes now… stop it all. We are approaching the abyss.”
Police detain a right-wing activist who clashed with protesters at a rally against the government’s review of the law in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on March 18, 2023 (Gili Yaari /Flash90).
And Labor leader Merav Michaeli, referring to the assassination of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, said: “This hatred of protesters, of the left, of the judicial system and of democracy is not innate [activists’] hearts. It is fed to them from above and seeps in… Netanyahu, it has ended in blood before. Stop your militias before it happens again.”
For years, many on the left have accused Netanyahu, the opposition leader at the time of the assassination, of promoting the widespread anti-Rabin hate speech that preceded his assassination, an accusation he vehemently denies.
Violent incidents against demonstrators were recorded in several places on Saturday.
Police said they arrested a 57-year-old man who allegedly rammed his car into a group of protesters in Herzliya, slightly injuring one protester. The protester was taken to Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba for treatment.
מפגין ימני תוקף מפגין מהצד השני. אך ברגעי התקיפה שום שוטר לא היה פה. @bar_peleg @ Haaretz pic.twitter.com/iLW7E0Malb
— Fadi Amun | فادي أمون | פאדי אמון (@FadiAmun) March 18, 2023
Police also said officers arrested a 24-year-old man for driving a motorcycle into a group of protesters in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. He was suspected of attacking and threatening demonstrators.
None of the protesters were injured in the incident.
Several far-right activists, some of them masked, were seen physically confronting protesters in Tel Aviv.
Right-wing counter-protesters across the city, who supported the government’s proposed changes, held up signs that read “Leftists are traitors”.
Well-known Likud agitator Rami Ben Yehuda, who is friends with many Likud MKs and a frequent guest at party events, was filmed yelling at women in Tel Aviv in the now-ubiquitous maid costumes that they were “Hitler’s despicable maids.”
איפה הגינויים לחיית טרף שמופיעה שמופיעה על במות ובכנסים של של @GalitDistel @TallyGotliv @yoavgallant @YoavKisch @NirBarkat @netanyahu @OfirKatzMK בלעתם את הלשון? צבועים! אם ישפך דם זה על הראש שלכם pic.twitter.com/LJcjhXg564
— Moshe Radman משה רדמן (@RadmanMoshe) March 18, 2023
He also called them “Red Bolsheviks, despicable and damned, dancers of Islamic terror, disgruntled white supremacists.”
As hundreds of anti-overhaul protesters first gathered in the northern city of Or Akiva, a predominantly right-wing community, Likud supporters threw eggs at the protesters. Police said officers arrested three people at the scene for throwing eggs.
״תפסו את השמאלנים – האוטו שלהם לא יצא מפה״
עשרות חוסמים את דרכם של זוג שהפגין באור עקיבא, יורקים ומקללים – יויו pic.twitter.com/Y8F05hKBIA
– וואלה! (@wallanews) March 18, 2023
When a couple attempted to leave the rally site in their car, they were surrounded by a mob of right-wing activists who blocked their path, shouted at them and pounded on the vehicle.
— Michal Peylan • מיכל פעילן (@michalpeylan) March 18, 2023
Saturday night’s protests followed a fiery demonstration earlier in the day when clashes erupted between protesters, police and residents of a village where National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was spending Shabbat.
Noting that the unrest in Israel hadn’t escaped the attention of Israeli enemies, Middle East analyst Avi Issacharoff tweeted that a Hezbollah supporter had written: “From the egg tossing to the car ramming to the brawl tonight, we’ll do it again.” say – the temporary entity (Israel) is one bullet away from civil war.”
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took part in nationwide demonstrations against the government’s plans to weaken the powers of the judiciary for the 11th consecutive Saturday night.
The organizers of the protests vowed to escalate the demonstrations if the coalition doesn’t stop its proposed legislation that lawmakers are due to table next week, and declared next Thursday “national paralysis day”.
“Next week, Israel’s government intends to pass laws on dictatorship and religious coercion,” organizers of the protests said in a statement on Saturday.
“Hundreds of people will stand against them like an iron wall, supporting the Supreme Court and the heads of state [judicial] system to stop the coup. Every citizen needs to come out and take a stand for the State of Israel in these fateful moments. Together, hundreds of thousands will save Israeli democracy,” they added.
Over 260,000 people demonstrated across the country, including 175,000 in Tel Aviv, 20,000 in Haifa, 4,000 in Netanya, 11,500 in Herzliya, 18,000 in Kfar Saba and 6,000 in Beersheba, according to a tally by Crowd Solutions firm quoted by Channel 13 News .
About 10,000 protesters gathered in front of the President’s residence in Jerusalem.
כאלף מפגינים מול בית הנשיא בירושלים @noabaranes10 pic.twitter.com/PlVRkpWsvw
— גלצ (@GLZRadio) March 18, 2023
Jacob Frenkel, a former Bank of Israel chief who was until recently chairman of JP Morgan Chase International, warned that the coalition’s far-reaching plans to overhaul the judicial system were “destroying the Zionist enterprise from within.”
At the main protest event in Tel Aviv, Frenkel told the crowd that judicial reform will have serious economic consequences for Israel.
הנגיד לשעבר יעקב פרנקל איתנו בהפגנה. pic.twitter.com/JVroKk3i7S
— Iris Leal (@LealIris_) February 25, 2023
At a rally in the southern coastal city of Ashdod, Lapid accused the government of being uninterested in compromise.
“They are rushing ahead with their legislation to turn Israel into a non-democratic country. You only have one problem. You did not expect [the demonstrations] to come to Ashdod, to Beersheba, to the hills of Gush Etzion, to Rehovot and Jerusalem,” he said.
Dan Halutz, a former IDF chief of staff, encouraged protesters to bring more people to the protests and called the fight against the government’s judicial overhaul a “war of liberation for the State of Israel”.
במקביל בקפלן עשרות מפגיני ימין באו להפגין בסמוך להפגנה. @FadiAmun ” pic.twitter.com/5x5s4vpEOu
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) March 18, 2023
In Tel Aviv, police said around 50 protesters tried to block the Ayalon Highway. Officers blocked the road in both directions while they worked to disperse them.
Two people were arrested trying to block the northbound route and two others on Yigal Alon Street near the entrance to the highway, police said.
Demonstrators block a highway during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s plans to overhaul the Israeli judicial system on Saturday March 18, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
In the early evening, hundreds of protesters blocked the Karkur intersection along Route 65 in northern Israel. Police used water cannon to disperse the crowd and arrested seven protesters.
מכתזיות בצומת כרכור#לא_נחייה_תחת_דיקטטורה pic.twitter.com/IcFJueFuK0
— Gilead Sher (@GileadSher) March 18, 2023
Dozens of veterans of the Shayetet 13 elite naval commando unit demonstrated outside the home of Defense Secretary Yoav Gallant in the northern Moshav Amikam. Gallant headed the unit in the 1990s.
Apparently for the first time, some Bedouin Israelis protested against the government’s plans at the Hura Crossing in southern Israel.
התחלנו. ההפגנה הראשונה בחברה הבדואית בנגב. צומת חורה pic.twitter.com/d5NkzzItTW
— Ilana Curiel (@ilanacuriel) March 18, 2023
The group stood next to several Jewish Israelis and held signs that read “This is the home of us all” and “Equal rights and democracy for us all.”
The protesters rallied as the government was expected to table several controversial laws in the coming week.
Starting Sunday, the Knesset’s Constitutional, Law and Justice Committee will hold four consecutive hearings to prepare the bill that would give the government full control over all judge appointments for their second and third readings in the Knesset.
The bill, presented as an amendment to the Basic Law: the Judiciary, would bar the Supreme Court from exercising judicial review of the Basic Laws to prevent it from striking down the judicial revision package itself.
The government will also introduce a bill that would allow Netanyahu to receive donations to fund his legal costs in his criminal trials; a bill allowing Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return to a ministerial post, despite a Supreme Court ruling barring him from doing so; a draft law ensuring Netanyahu cannot be forced to resign due to a conflict of interest between his criminal trial and the government’s radical legal reforms; and a bill allowing hospitals to bar people from bringing hamez, or leavened goods, to their premises during Passover, an agreement previously struck down by the Supreme Court.
Following the coalition’s rejection last week of President Isaac Herzog’s alternative proposal for judicial reform, Netanyahu and others said the government will consider various options to unilaterally soften the current legislation, but so far they have pushed the bills forward in their original form .
Around 100 different protest groups attended a meeting on Thursday to decide next steps to escalate the protests, according to Ynet news.
Some of the protest leaders were reportedly calling for a full shutdown of the country, similar to protests over recent pension reforms in France that have brought Paris to a standstill.
“Trains are being stopped, schools are being closed, fuel deliveries have been halted. The organizers there are threatening that France will cancel the race if this is the case [French President Emmanuel] Macron is not withdrawing the reforms. We are demonstrating for the existence of Israeli democracy, not for pensions,” said one of the organizers without a source, according to the report.
Another protest leader feared such an action would lead to violence: “We saw what happened on the streets of Paris. We cannot get into a situation where we turn the demonstrations into something violent and create anarchy in the streets. We will lose legitimacy. We can’t shake hands with that. It will be a victory for Netanyahu.”
A Histadrut union official told the news site that the organization’s leader, Arnon Bar-David, remains opposed to a general strike because “the government is pressuring him not to do it.”
According to the report, teachers are also considering closing schools as part of Thursday’s protests.
The government’s current plan will allow the Knesset to overrule court decisions by the slimmest majority, pre-emptively protect laws completely from judicial scrutiny, and place the selection of all judges in the hands of coalition politicians.
Opponents argue that it would drastically weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances, and leave minorities unprotected. Proponents are calling it a much-needed reform to curb an over-activist court.
A number of polls have shown that the legislation is largely unpopular with the general public. However, a poll on Friday showed that Israelis are divided over whether or not the country’s security apparatus should follow Supreme Court rulings or government decisions in the event of a constitutional crisis.