Tens of thousands of Israelis have rallied in three cities to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement changes to the country’s legal system and weaken the Supreme Court.
Saturday’s protests in the cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa present an early challenge to Netanyahu and his ultranationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has ordered police to take tough action if protesters block roads or display Palestinian flags.
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Israeli media, citing police, said the crowd at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square swelled to at least 80,000 people, despite cool, rainy weather.
Protesters, many covered by umbrellas, held Israeli flags and signs saying “Criminal Government”, “The End of Democracy”, and other slogans.
Social media footage showed some Palestinian flags on display, in defiance of Ben-Gvir’s calls.
“They are trying to destroy the checks and balances of the Israeli democracy. This will not work,” said Asaf Steinberg, a protester from the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. “And we will fight until the very last minute to save the Israeli democracy.”
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, has made the proposed changes to the country’s legal system a centrepiece of his agenda.
In office for just more than two weeks, his right-wing government has launched proposals to weaken the Supreme Court by giving parliament the power to overturn court decisions with a simple majority vote. It also wants to give parliament control over the appointment of judges and reduce the independence of legal advisers.
Netanyahu’s justice minister says unelected judges have too much power.
But opponents to the plans say the proposed changes will undermine Israeli democracy. Israeli opposition leaders, former attorneys general and the president of Israel’s Supreme Court have all spoken out against the plan.
The legal changes could help Netanyahu evade conviction for corruption or even make his trial disappear entirely. Since being indicted in 2019, Netanyahu has said the justice system is biased against him.
The new government has also announced intentions to pursue a policy of settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and to roll back social reforms, a reversal that would impact the LGBTQ community.
Reporting from the rally in Tel Aviv, Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan said the protesters were concerned that the far-right government is threatening democracy in Israel.
“This is an anti-government protest. They are worried about the rollback of powers of the Supreme Court – a very crucial system of checks and balances that has been in place for decades,” he said.
“There is a lot of anger here towards Benjamin Netanyahu, who they say is a criminal. There are a lot of signs around here saying he is fighting a court case and should not be the prime minister of Israel. They are also very worried about minority rights within Israel, particularly when it comes to gay rights. They are fearful that those things could be rolled back.”
Thousands of people also turned up for rallies in Jerusalem and Haifa.
No major unrest was reported, though Israeli media said small crowds scuffled with police as they tried to block a Tel Aviv highway.
Police beefed up their presence ahead of the march. Israeli media quoted police as saying officers had been instructed to be “very sensitive” and allow the protest to proceed peacefully. But they also pledged a tough response to any vandalism or violent behaviour.
Polls have diverged on public views of the reforms. Channel 13 TV last week found 53 percent of Israelis were opposed to changing the court appointments’ structure while 35 percent were in support. But Channel 14 TV on Thursday found 61 percent in favour and 35 percent opposed.
“Tens of thousands of people were at tonight’s demonstrations. In the election held here two and a half months ago, millions turned out,” tweeted Miki Zohar, a senior legislator in Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party.
“We promised the people change, we promised governance, we promised reforms – and we will make good on that,” he added.