FILE PHOTO: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, looks on as lawmakers convene in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, for a vote on a contentious plan to overhaul the country’s legal system, in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. Maya Alleruzzo/Pool via R
By Rami Amichay and Maayan Lubell
TEL AVIV (Reuters) -Israeli police fired stun grenades and scuffles broke out in Tel Aviv on Wednesday during a nationwide “day of disruption,” raising the intensity of protests against a government plan to overhaul the judiciary.
In images not seen in Tel Aviv for years, police on horseback confronted demonstrators breaching barricades as traffic piled up. Live footage showed police dragging protesters off the road to shouts of “Shame” and “We are the majority and we are out on the streets.”
One Tel Aviv protester who appeared to have been injured by a grenade crouched down, holding his head, while an Israeli flag lay beside him on the road next to a pool of blood.
Israel Radio said police had used a water cannon to disperse demonstrators.
“I came to make sure that my kids will live in a democracy,” a protester named Avichai told Reuters. “We see what happened in Hungary and in Poland and in other countries and we are trying to save the democracy we had for 75 years.”
“I’m not happy with the direction that the government is going, I think it’s a very slippery slope in terms of the blurring between what is independent and what is political,” protester Shoshanna Silberstein told Reuters.
The judicial overhaul would give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition decisive sway in picking judges and limit the scope of the Supreme Court to strike down legislation or rule against the executive.
Netanyahu formed a government two months ago, promising his coalition partners to overhaul the judiciary and entrench Israel’s control of the West Bank where Palestinians hope to establish an independent state.
In parliament, the Knesset’s Constitution, Justice and Law Committee gave initial approval to more proposals in the plan, in a vote boycotted by opposition lawmakers who say Israel will cease to exist as a democracy if it goes through.
“The right to protest is not the right to halt the country,” Netanyahu told a news conference. “It’s not a license to bring the country down into anarchy.”
Netanyahu compared the demonstration to a rampage by Jewish settlers this week through the Palestinian village of Huwara following a deadly Palestinian attack. Police arrested 10 suspects over the rampage in which one Palestinian was killed.
“We won’t take breaking the law not in Huwara, not in Tel Aviv and not anywhere,” Netanyahu said.
Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said some demonstrators had thrown stones and that police would use all means at their disposal to stop “anarchists” from rioting and blocking roads.
The protests have been going on for weeks. The overhaul has yet to become law but it has already affected the shekel currency and drawn concern among some Western allies about the health of Israeli democracy.
“Slow down a little a bit, maybe bring people together, try and build some consensus,” U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides said at Tel Aviv University’s conference of the Institute for National Security Studies on Tuesday.
Netanyahu, on trial on corruption charges that he denies, says the changes will restore balance between the branches of government and boost business. Businesses and economists say the planned reforms could harm Israel as an investment destination.
Opinion polls have shown the plan is unpopular with most Israelis who would prefer a compromise be reached.
Warning that the country is on the brink of “constitutional and social collapse”, President Isaac Herzog is pushing for an agreed accord.