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Home World News Washington Post World News Israelis intensify protests against government legal overhaul

Israelis intensify protests against government legal overhaul



TEL AVIV, Israel — Weeks of anti-government protests in Israel first turned violent on Wednesday when police fired stun grenades and a water cannon at protesters blocking a highway in Tel Aviv. The crackdown came shortly after Israel’s security minister’s hardline push for a harsh response to what he called “anarchists.”

The violence came as thousands across the country launched a “National Disruption Day” against the government’s plan to overhaul Israel’s justice system. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allies say the program is designed to reduce the influence of unelected judges.

But critics, including influential business leaders and former military figures, say Netanyahu is pushing the country toward authoritarian rule and that he has a clear conflict of interest in attacking judges while on trial on corruption charges.

The government is pushing ahead with legislative changes and a parliamentary committee is working on a bill that would weaken the Supreme Court.

The crisis sent shockwaves through Israel and presented Netanyahu with a serious challenge just two months after returning to power. A wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the occupied West Bank has exacerbated his problems.

The rival parties are digging in, deepening one of Israel’s worst domestic crises. Netanyahu and his government, made up of ultra-nationalists, have labeled the protesters anarchists while not condemning the West Bank settler mob that set fire to a Palestinian town earlier this week.

The legal overhaul has sparked an unprecedented upheaval, with weeks of mass protests, criticism from legal experts and rare demonstrations by army reservists who have pledged not to follow orders under what they say will be a dictatorship after the overhaul is over. Business leaders, the country’s booming technology sector and leading economists have warned of economic turmoil under the judicial changes. Israel’s international allies have expressed concern.

In the first scenes of unrest since the protests began two months ago, police arrived in the center of the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv on horseback, threw stun grenades and used a water cannon against thousands of protesters chanting “democracy” and “police state.” .” A video posted to social media showed a police officer pinning a protester with his knee on the man’s neck.

Protesters threw stones and water bottles at police, police said. Several protesters were arrested for disturbing the peace and Israeli media said at least six protesters were injured. Earlier on Wednesday, protesters blocked Tel Aviv’s main highway and the highway that connects the city to Jerusalem, halting rush hour traffic for about an hour. At busy train stations in Tel Aviv, protesters prevented trains from departing by blocking their doors.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultra-nationalist accused of politicizing the police, has vowed to take a tough stance. He called on police to prevent the roadblocks and labeled the protesters “anarchists.”

Netanyahu said Ben-Gvir had his full support. “We will not tolerate violence against police, the blocking of roads and flagrant violations of the laws of the country. The right to protest is not the right to anarchy,” he said.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid called on the police to exercise restraint.

“The protesters are patriots,” he tweeted. “They fight for the values ​​of freedom, justice and democracy. The role of the police is to empower them to speak their minds and fight for the country they love.”

Thousands of protesters showed up at locations across the country waving Israeli flags. Parents marched their children, techies walked out of work to demonstrate, and doctors in scrubs protested outside hospitals. The main gatherings were expected later Wednesday outside the Knesset, or parliament, and near Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.

“Everyone here is trying to keep Israel a democracy and if the current government has its way, we are afraid we will no longer be a democracy or a free country,” said Arianna Shapira, a protester in Tel Aviv. “As a woman, as a mother, I am very afraid for my family and for my friends.”

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the chief architect of the overhaul, said on Tuesday the coalition is aiming to push through a number of draft judicial overhaul bills in the coming month before parliament goes into recess for the April 2 Passover holiday.

The Knesset will also hold a preliminary vote on Wednesday on a separate proposal to prevent Netanyahu from being removed from office, a move that follows calls for the country’s attorney general to declare him “unfit for office.”

Netanyahu has been at the center of a years-long political crisis in Israel, with former allies turning against him and refusing to sit alongside him in government over his corruption allegations. That political turmoil, with five elections in four years, culminated in Netanyahu’s return to power late last year, with ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties as partners in the current far-right government.

With their immense political power, those allies secured top portfolios in Netanyahu’s government, including Ben-Gvir, who was arrested dozens of times before entering politics and was once convicted of inciting violence and supporting a terror group. Treasury Secretary Bezalel Smotrich, a hot-tempered leader of the West Bank settlers, has been given authority over parts of the territory.

They have pledged to take a tough stance against the Palestinians, which has heightened tensions in recent weeks. Smotrich publicly called for a harsh response to the killing of two Israelis in the West Bank by a Palestinian gunman, saying Israel must “go crazy” shortly before Sunday’s violence. While he later urged restraint, he also said on Wednesday that Hawara, the Palestinian village that was attacked, should be “wiped out”.

In addition to the protests, Netanyahu’s government, Israel’s most right-wing ever, is beginning to show cracks early on, just two months into her tenure.

The government says the legislative changes are intended to correct an imbalance that has given the courts too much power and allowed them to interfere in the legislative process. They say the overhaul will streamline governance and say last year’s elections, which saw Netanyahu return to power with a narrow majority in parliament, gave them a mandate to implement the changes.

Critics say the overhaul will upend Israel’s system of checks and balances, give the prime minister and government unlimited power and push the country toward authoritarianism.

Associated Press reporter Ami Bentov in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report.

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