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Israel: Man arrested for driving into anti-government protesters as tensions escalate

President urges calm after government and opposition leaders trade accusations of fuelling internal unrest
Israeli left wing protesters demonstrate against the new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on 7 January 2023 in Tel Aviv (AFP)
Israeli left-wing protesters demonstrate against the new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on 7 January 2023 in Tel Aviv (AFP)

An Israeli man was arrested on Tuesday after he drove his car into a crowd of anti-government protesters, as political tensions grew in the country.

No one was hit in the suspected attack. The driver, a 26-year-old resident of Elad, a city in central Israel, shouted “anarchists, leftists” as he drove into demonstrators who were standing at the side of the road in front of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba.

A protest was held outside the university against the Benjamin Netanyahu-led government, formed with far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies. 

Government opponents had called for protests after Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced a controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary.

If the plan is implemented, Netanyahu’s government will effectively be able to appoint judges unopposed and parliament will be able to override Supreme Court rulings. 

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Critics fear this will weaken the independence of the judiciary ahead of the conclusion of Netanyahu’s trial on charges of suspected bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister denies any wrongdoing.  

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Meanwhile, a war of words between opposition leaders and government officials escalated on Tuesday. 

Zvika Fogel, an MP with the far-right Jewish Power party in the governing coalition, called for the arrest of the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, the former defence minister, Benny Gantz, and former MPs Yair Golan and Moshe Ya’alon. 

Fogel accused them of “treason against the state” and called them “the most dangerous people right now”.

His comments were in response to calls for anti-government protests by the opposition. 

On Monday, Lapid urged the public to challenge the planned judicial overhaul by going out onto the streets in a “war over our home”.

Gantz warned that the plan would lead to “civil war” and joined the call for protests. 

“It’s time to go out en masse and demonstrate, it’s time to make the country tremble,” he said. 

Heated statements 

In response to Fogel’s remarks, Netanyahu and Itamar Ben-Gvir, Jewish Power leader and minister of national security, dismissed the call to arrest the opposition leaders. 

However, they criticised remarks by Lapid and Gantz.

"Lapid and Gantz are setting the country on fire,” Ben-Gvir said on Wednesday. 

In a conversation with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu said: “In a democratic country, the leaders of the opposition are not arrested, just as the ministers of the government are not called Nazis, the Jewish government of the Third Reich, nor the citizens are called to go to civil riots.”

On Saturday, protesters held signs that likened members of the government to Nazis.

In response to Fogel’s remarks, Lapid said: “This is how democracy falls apart, in a day.” 

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The heated statements prompted Herzog to call for calm on Tuesday. 

“I turn to you, elected officials from both ends of the political and public spectrums – show restraint and responsibility,” Herzog tweeted. “We don’t have another country.”

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant echoed Herzog’s message, urging politicians on the right and left to be cautious.

“Words have meaning, and we are entering dangerous territory,” he said. “Even in times of deep disagreement, it is the job of public leaders to maintain national unity.”

The new Israeli government led by Netanyahu was sworn in in late December. It includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties in what has been described as the most right-wing administration in the country's history. 

The government ran on promises of introducing judicial reforms, as well as the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and an increase in Israeli sovereignty in the occupied Palestinian territory. 

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