An estimated 80,000 Israelis gathered at Tel Aviv's Habima Square in intermittent rain on Saturday evening in order to protest the government's plans for reform of Israel's judicial system, after a week of growing tension and harsh rhetoric between the reform's supporters and opposers.
The protest's organizers later said that, according to their estimations, over 100,000 Israelis attended the demonstration at Habima Square. Thousands of people also gathered in Haifa and outside of President Isaac Herzog's residence in Jerusalem, organizers said.
After the central demonstration, about 200 protesters walked on to HaShalom Interchange and tried to move towards the Ayalon Highway, but were stopped by police forces. Smaller groups of protestors attempted to get around the police blockade and were subsequently restrained by police forces.
Chief of police Shabtai continues to receive updates on the demonstrations taking place in several locations across the country, according to Israel Police.
During the protest in Jerusalem, police officers reportedly arrested protesters who flew Palestinian flags, footage shared on Twitter by left-wing activist group Free Jerusalem shows. This comes after National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir ordered the police to remove any Palestinian flags flown in public spaces.
עכשיו בירושלים המפגינות שלנו מותקפות באלימות על ידי שוטרים על שהעזו להניף דגלי פלסטין. שימו לב לסרוב של השוטר להזדהות והסתרת השם הפרטי שלו. pic.twitter.com/BpPeUgZhxV— Free Jerusalem (@FreeJerusalem1) January 14, 2023
The planned reform is being spearheaded by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman of the Religious Zionist Party. The plan intends to give the Knesset - Israel's legislative branch - and its government greater control over the judicial system.
This includes giving the Knesset with a 61-MK majority the power to overturn High Court rulings; giving the coalition complete power to appoint High Court judges; cancel the "legal unreasonable factor," which the High Court uses to block decisions made by the government; and making government legal advisors personal appointments of their ministers and block their ability to give binding legal opinions.
'Something has broken'
The president of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, retired High Court judge Ayala Frocaccia, spoke first and said that "something very deep has broken in our social contract, in the framework of rules agreed upon throughout the years of the state."
"We are at the beginning of a new era in which there is a new definition of democracy - not a democracy based on values but a truncated democracy that relies entirely on the 'will of the voter', which no longer gives any weight to other fundamental democratic values.
"We cannot accept as a liberal society the destruction of the values at the foundation of our system. We will fight with all the legal means at our disposal to block the dizzying retreat of light years in the concept of government-citizen relations. We will fight as individuals, as groups and as a broad public for the values of our country.
"We are at a crucial crossroads regarding the values of the future of the State of Israel. With joint forces, and by legal means, we will do everything to protect the values in this country, so that we have a country that is not only strong and smart, but also a good and beautiful country," Frocaccia said.
Chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, lawyer Eliad Shraga, called the demonstrators "sons of light," implicating that the government were agents of "darkness." He led the crowd in calls of "freedom, equality, quality of government." Shraga called on President Herzog to declare that Netanyahu was unfit to serve as prime minister. He called the demonstration the "beginning of the counterattack," and said that he would lead an attempt to institute a constitution and a human-rights.
The demonstrators sang a song usually sung on Hanukah, which includes the words "we came to drive away the darkness, in our hands light and fire."
Another speaker was Orah Peled-Nakash, who was the first woman to finish Israel's Naval Officers Course, and was able to do so only because of the High Court, which paved the way for women to serve in roles that were previously blocked to them.
"We are here because we have not lost hope – we are the hope!" she said.
The loudest cheers were reserved for former Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni.
"A government in Israel went to war against the democratic institutions themselves, in order to rule without straits. No debate, no legitimate criticism, but political takeover. No, elections do not give those in power to destroy democracy itself.
"Poison, lies, slandering each other, marking as an enemy anyone who thinks otherwise; all so that we crumble into pieces and become weaker as a society before the big attack, the dismantling of the defensive wall of democracy on all fronts.
"We will stop you and we will not compromise. Because democracy in Israel, our freedom and our rights are not parts of political trade.
"They can call us traitors, but we are the ones who are protecting the homeland from them. They can threaten us with handcuffs - we are not afraid," Livni said.
Netanyahu's cousin says gov't reforms resemble Nazi Germany
Other speakers included Dan Netanyahu, first cousin of the sitting prime minister. He said that his mother, Shoshana Netanyahu, Bibi's aunt, who herself served as a High Court judge, would have opposed the reform had she been alive.
Dan Netanyahu said that "many in Israel and in the world" saw resemblance between the proposed reforms and the "enabling act" by Nazi Germany, which enabled them to overcome any legal barriers to their plan.
The demonstration also included musical intervals by Ivri Lider and Chemi Rodner.
Politicians who participated in the demonstration included National Unity chairman and former defense minister MK Benny Gantz, Labor chairwoman MK Merav Michaeli, Ra'am chairman MK Mansour Abbas, Hadash-Ta'al MK Ayman Odeh, and many politicians from Yesh Atid and the rest of the opposition parties.
The demonstration's organizers refused to allow current politicians to speak to the crowd in order to send the message that the demonstration was not just by one political side.
Throughout the demonstration, the crowd chanted "Bibi go home", "Disgrace", and "Democracy."
National Security Minister MK Itamar Ben-Gvir put out a statement during the demonstration that the Israel Police had warned him that a group of "anarchists" were planning on blocking the Ayalon Highway. Ben-Gvir called on the police not to enable them the "pictures they wanted," and to treat them exactly as they would treat "Ethiopians, haredim and settlers." Ben-Gvir also expressed his content that there were no Nazi symbols at the protest, according to the report.
Culture and Sports Minister Mickey Zohar said, "The demonstrations are an acceptable democratic expression, just like democratic elections. Tonight, there were tens of thousands of people at the demonstration. In the elections held here two and a half months ago, millions came. We promised the public change, we promised governance, we promised reforms and we will carry out these promises."
Earlier in the evening, the Black Flags Movement issued a statement vowing to fight against "[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's coup d'etat.
"The Jewish people will not give up their freedom for the tyranny of Bibism," the statement read. "Netanyahu's dangerous actions carried out through Justice Minister Yariv Levin are putting the Zionist vision at risk."
The protest group further called on Israel Police officials to "act sharply against provocateurs who will be planted by the fascist camp. Ensure a democratic protest - we are also fighting for you and your families," it added.
Protest leaders and organizers continued to call on Saturday for police officers to "ensure the security of the protestors and allow them to fully exercise their rights to protest and their freedoms of speech."
Labor leader MK Merav Michaeli, who previously confirmed her intention to attend the demonstrations, also called on police to allow for peaceful protests to occur, adding that this is "a struggle of truth and of values. A fight for rights and for freedom."
"I will be there together with MKs and members of the Labor Party to ensure that your rights as demonstrators are protected," Michaeli added. "We cannot run this protest by remote control.
"I also call on the police to act responsibly and professionally. You are not tools in anyone's game. Even if the National Security Minister [Itamar Ben-Gvir] tries very hard to police you, you are the police.
"You are the public's gatekeepers and your responsibility is to protect the public, not to act against it," Michaeli said in a message to police officers.