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Some 80,000 rally in Tel Aviv against government’s sweeping judicial overhaul


Tens of thousands of demonstrators braved rainy weather Saturday night to gather at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square for protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government and its plans for sweeping changes to Israel’s justice system.

As of 8:30 p.m., police estimated some 80 thousand people were in the square and surrounding streets, with many traveling to Tel Aviv from around the country on hired buses. People continued to arrive, and with the square at capacity, crowds filled the nearby streets.

Several roads near the square were shuttered. Police said they’d deployed in force in the city center to maintain order. On Thursday police had warned against potential unrest during the protests.

According to the Haaretz daily, police had also placed security around the home of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana (Likud), who lives near the square.

Demonstrations were also being held in Jerusalem and Haifa.

Hundreds of people gathered at the Horev Center in Haifa, while thousands protested outside the President’s Residence in the capital, bundled in winter coats and hats, waving Israeli flags and placards and calling for the president, Isaac Herzog, to emerge.

Ahead of the Tel Aviv rally, the chief of police’s Tel Aviv District, Ami Eshed, said that there was no change in policy.

“Our main goal is that everyone who comes to the demonstration will be able to arrive in an orderly manner and leave here in an orderly and safe manner,” Eshed was quoted by the Ynet news site as saying during a tour of the square prior to the event’s start.

“Our only goal is to deal with people who are committing vandalism or violence. We don’t deal with things that are trivial,” he told officers.

Thousands of people protest against the Israeli government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The demonstrations will mark the second week that opponents of Netanyahu’s government take to the streets, protesting Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals to shake up the judiciary by severely curbing the High Court of Justice’s judicial review powers and cementing political control over the appointment of judges.

Reut from Tel Aviv came to the protest as part of a three-generation delegation from her family.

“We are starting to not recognize our own country,” she said. “And that’s an understatement.”

Hadas traveled from Ganei Tikva. “We don’t like what’s happening here,” she said.

“I don’t know if [protesting] will make a difference. But if we don’t do something then for sure nothing will change,” she added.

Saturday’s rallies were being backed by top groups that led protests against Netanyahu in 2020: Ein Matzav (No Way), Crime Minister and the Black Flags. They have also been endorsed by other organizations, including the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, the Movement for Quality Government and the Kibbutz Movement.



“Bougie, wake up, the house is burning,” the demonstrators chanted, referring to the president by his nickname.“Bougie, Bougie, wake up, the public is worth more.”

Israelis protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on January 14, 2023. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Ahead of the rallies, ex-police chief Moshe Karadi said law enforcement had information that right-wing activists intended to plant agitators at the protests.

“Elements from the other side sometimes plant rioters in demonstrations for the sake of provocation and there is information on this matter in this demonstration as well,” Kan news cited Karadi as saying at a conference in Beersheba.

He downplayed concerns of potential unrest among the demonstrators, saying it was “fake news from certain elements.”

On Friday, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz had urged Israelis from across the political spectrum to attend the Tel Aviv demonstration.

“I call on the entire Israeli public, from left to right, to come to protest for safeguarding Israeli democracy. Making your voice heard at this time is a civic duty of the highest importance and not ‘civil disobedience’ as those trying to suppress the demonstration claim,” said Gantz, who previously served as defense minister and IDF chief.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, brushed off criticism of the proposed judicial changes a day after Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut warned their enactment would deal a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic character.

Thousands of people protest against the Israeli government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We discussed this before the elections and we received a clear mandate from the public for this,” Netanyahu asserted in a Friday video. “I suggest everyone calm down and enter into a substantive discussion.”

“When they say that the smallest reform is the destruction of democracy, this is not only a false claim, it also does not allow for the possibility to reach understandings… through substantive dialogue in the Knesset,” Netanyahu added.

Critics of the plans, which include top current and former judicial and legal officials as well as Netanyahu’s political rivals, say Levin’s reforms would put basic civil and minority rights at risk by severely limiting the top court’s authority to strike down laws and government decisions. Proponents of the changes argue that the courts have assumed excessive powers and issued rulings that defy the will of the voters.

Along with Gantz, a number of other politicians were expected to attend the demonstration in Tel Aviv. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Thursday that he would not join the protest after being told that he and Gantz would not be allowed to address the crowd.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said Friday that he would be in attendance and called on anyone “who cares about the State of Israel and its democratic character” to be there.

“If there is a water cannon, I will stand in front of it,” Huldai told Channel 12 news, amid calls by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir for police to take a harder line against protesters. “To protest is a cornerstone of democracy,” the mayor added.

According to Kan and the Ynet news site, police have barred protesters from marching or blocking roads as conditions for authorizing the rally in Tel Aviv. Several marches were held during last week’s protest, during which some demonstrators also briefly blocked a major highway.

Channel 12 news reported that some protesters were planning to march toward the Azrieli shopping center despite the police ban, and to block roads — which could lead to conflict with officers.

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