Israel in turmoil as thousands join ‘day of resistance’ against legal reforms

Protesters have blocked ports and roads and are seeking to disrupt the main airport in what they view as a fight for democracy

Israelis demonstrate on Thursday as the government presses on with its contentious judicial reforms. Reuters
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Mass protests hit Israel on Thursday in what the organisers are calling a “day of resistance” against government plans to drastically reform the country’s judicial system.

Critics say the proposed changes could signal an end to democracy in the country.

Tens of thousands turned out for the protests, with targeted action expected throughout the day. Major roads have been blocked and at least 10 people have been arrested.

People also gathered in Tel Aviv’s central Habima Square, symbolically signing a copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Demonstrators blocked traffic into Ben Gurion Airport, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push back his departure for Italy.

The delay gave Mr Netanyahu time to meet the visiting US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, the Prime Minister's Office said.

The protest forced Mr Austin to cut short his time in Israel.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a strong supporter of the reforms, will visit the airport for a briefing at the police’s forward command centre. The minister has been on hand to assess police operations during previous judicial protests, accusing demonstrators of trying to sow anarchy.

Senior opposition party leader Benny Gantz called on the country’s Attorney General to not allow Mr Ben-Gvir to enter police headquarters on Thursday, claiming that he issues inappropriate commands.

Protests last week elicited a heavy-handed response from police, who used horses, water cannon and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators, injuring 11.

On Thursday morning, naval reservists blocked marine traffic at the port in Haifa. The group representing the protesters said “in a dictatorship, the sea is closed”.

It is the latest sign of growing disquiet in military ranks, particularly among the vital pool of reservists on which Israel relies to bolster its armed forces, especially in the most technical and elite units.

The head of Israel’s army told Mr Netanyahu on Sunday that the prospect of increased defections in the military could harm the effectiveness of the country's forces.

It came after 37 out of 40 reserve pilots in an elite air force squadron said they would boycott a training session in opposition to the legal reform proposals.

On Monday, all 10 living former heads of Israel's air force signed an open saying they were “trembling” over what such walkouts would mean for the country's defence.

Former members of Israel's elite special forces unit Sayeret Matkal, in which Mr Netanyahu used to serve, have criticised the Prime Minister for “sacrificing the state of Israel and the people of Israel for your own interests”.

A politician in Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party subsequently told wavering reservists to “go to hell”.

President Isaac Herzog has said Israel is “closer than ever” to reaching a compromise on the government's reforms.

The administration says the package is necessary to rebalance political power away from what it views as a disproportionately powerful and anti-right wing judiciary.

On Thursday, more than 1,000 senior Likud members signed a petition in support of the reform package.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Yariv Levin met a team developing a possible framework to tone down the plans. The framework met sharp criticism from many experts, saying it would still poses a major threat to Israeli democracy.

Updated: March 27, 2023, 11:46 AM