Israelis gathered in towns and cities nationwide on Saturday for an 11th straight week of protests against the judicial reform plans of the hard-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The protesters fear that the proposed reforms, which are already moving through parliament and would increase the power of politicians over the courts, are a threat to Israeli democracy.
In Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff square, thousands of demonstrators waved the blue and white Israeli flag of Israel, as well as the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ community.
The demonstrators blocked roads as they set off on a march through the heart of the city. “Saving Democracy!” said one placard held aloft by the crowd.
An AFP photographer saw a group of people at a counter-protest in central Tel Aviv in support of the government, with some raising banners that read: “traitor leftists”.
Naama Mazor, 64, a retiree from the city of Herzliya who joined the main rally in Tel Aviv, said she was “worried not about myself, but for my daughters and grandchildren”.
“We want to keep Israel democratic and liberal, Jewish of course, but liberal. We are very concerned it is going to become a dictatorship,” she told AFP.
“There isn’t a half-democracy. We’re either a democracy or a dictatorship. There is nothing in between.”
Sagiv Golan, 46, from Tel Aviv, said the government was “trying to destroy civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and every thing that democracy stands for… We want to show the voice of democracy.”
Addressing protestors in the city of Ashdod, opposition leader Yair Lapid blasted the government for rejecting a proposed compromise.
He said coalition members “don’t want negotiations… They want to run forward with the legislation and turn Israel into an undemocratic state.”
Israeli media reported that tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in more than 100 towns and cities, including Haifa, Jerusalem and Beersheba.
A 57-year-man was arrested after allegedly driving his car into a group of protesters in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, a police spokesperson said, adding one person has been hospitalised.
– Compromise plan nixed –
Since Netanyahu’s government announced the reforms in January, days after taking office, massive demonstrations have regularly taken place across Israel.
Opponents of the package have accused Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charge he denies, of trying to use the reforms to quash possible judgements against him. The prime minister has rejected the accusation.
Expressing concern over the deepening rift in Israeli society, President Isaac Herzog presented a proposed compromise on Wednesday, but the government immediately rejected it.
“Anyone who thinks that a genuine civil war, with human lives, is a line that we could never reach, has no idea what he is talking about,” Herzog said.
Leaders of opposition parties said in a joint news conference on Thursday they supported Herzog’s outline.
“The offer is not perfect,” former premier Lapid said at the time. “It is not what we wanted, but it is a fair compromise that allows us to live together.”
The ruling coalition, which includes ultra-Orthodox Jewish and extreme-right parties, argues the proposed reforms are necessary to correct a power imbalance between elected representatives and Israel’s top court.
Immediately after Herzog’s announcement, Netanyahu called it a “unilateral compromise”, the “key points” of which “only perpetuate the existing situation and do not bring the required balance between the powers”.
The reforms would, among other things, allow lawmakers to scrap supreme court rulings with a simple majority vote.
Other proposals would give more weight to the government in the committee that selects judges and would deny the supreme court the right to strike down any amendments to so-called Basic Laws, Israel’s quasi-constitution.