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Israel judicial crisis: Protesters rally in their thousands as first laws passed

As the Israeli government presses on with controversial judicial overhaul, protesters continue march on the streets
Protesters faced water canons at the hand of the police as thousands marched against the judicial reforms (MEE/Oren Ziv)
Protesters faced water cannon at the hand of the police as thousands marched against the judicial reforms (MEE/Oren Ziv)

Israeli lawmakers approved another controversial piece of legislation on Thursday that would shield the country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from being declared unfit for office by the attorney general. 

The vote came just hours before Israelis were set to march for the 11th week in a row as part of nationwide protests aimed at stopping what many believe is a judicial coup.

Netanyahu’s far-right government is moving increasingly closer to pushing through a series of reforms that would give it greater control over the judiciary, in particular appointing judges and overruling the country’s Supreme Court. 

Today’s vote in parliament would mean that there are now only two ways to get rid of the prime minister. The first would be if they declared themselves physically or mentally unfit for the role. The second would be if three-quarters of their cabinet declared them unfit. 

Thousands of people came out onto streets across Israel to protest what they believe is the country’s slide into dictatorship. 

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Israeli protesters clash with police in Tel Aviv on 23 March 2023 (MEE/Oren Ziv)

Many of the protestors blocked highways and clashed with police. At least 40 people were arrested in Tel Aviv alone. 

Shai Harel, a protester blocking the Ayalon highway, a major road connecting the coast of Israel and running through Tel-Aviv, told Middle East Eye he was undaunted by the heavy-handed police action.  

“The water cannons, the arrests and the police violence just motivate me to protest even more, and it will be the same for the other protesters. I was in the morning at a protest in Jerusalem, now I’m in Tel Aviv and in the evening I will go to protest in the Orthodox town of Bnei Brak,” said Harel.

He brandished a bottle of shampoo packed in his bag and said: “I’m ready for another shower from the canons.”

'The laws that are being passed in parliament as part of the government plans will just make more people go out on the streets'

- Efrat Safran, protestor 

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, had earlier branded the protesters as anarchists and told police to break up the gatherings. 

Police on horseback charged at protestors and for the first time in recent weeks water cannons were deployed. 

The police have warned demonstrators that they will not allow main roads to be blocked as pressure from Ben-Gvir mounts on them to crack down harder on the protests.

Efrat Safran, another protester, told MEE: “Ben-Gvir does not understand that the arrests of the leaders of the movement and the use of water cannons will not deter people but quite the opposite will happen. The protest will spread like fire.

“The laws that are being passed in parliament as part of the government plans will just make more people go out on the streets. This government refuses to listen so they will just get more protests,” Safran said.

A major international conference on behavioural economics set to take place at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in May has been cancelled over worries about the ongoing tensions in the country.

Organisers of the event sent participants a letter saying that ongoing protests and tensions in the country had forced them to conclude that “it wouldn’t be appropriate to hold the conference amid this turmoil”. 

Growing political crisis

Israel is in the midst of a political crisis that has pitted Netanyahu’s far-right government against the country’s civil society, academic and business elite, and former government ministers and military figures.

Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, and the judicial reforms in Israel could enable him to evade conviction or see his case dismissed. Since being indicted in 2019, Netanyahu has publicly railed against the justice system, calling it biased against him.

The protesters are hitting out at a plan that would give parliament the power to override the Supreme Court through a simple majority vote, and de facto control over court nominees. 

It would also limit the court’s ability to block legislation that infringes human and civil rights.

Protesters were violently dispersed by police using water cannon during the demonstrations (MEE/Oren Ziv)

Israel has no constitution and there is little separation between the executive and legislative branches, as governments nearly always hold a majority in parliament, the Knesset. 

This has historically meant the Supreme Court is the most effective check on government power.

International pressure

Israeli opposition organisations and activists called on the European Union to apply sanctions on a senior Israeli politician in charge of approving illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank this week. 

In an open letter, more than 700 activists on Wednesday called on Josep Borrell, the EU representative on foreign affairs, to sanction Natalia Averbuch for “committing gross violations of international law and war crimes".

Earlier this month the same group of activists called on the US government to impose sanctions on Netanyahu, in a bid to stop the country from "sliding into a full dictatorship".

"His actions in recent years are a clear example of corruption’s ability to corrode democracy, and clearly justify imposing sanctions on him according to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, enacted in December 2016," the authors wrote at the time.

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