Israel's anti-judicial overhaul protesters take on the settlers

Pro-Palestinian group took the fight to the heart of pro-settler government on Friday

Demonstrators march on Pnei Kedem. Thomas Helm/ The National
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Dvir, a student who lives in the West Bank settlement of Pnei Kedem, was quick to admit that life can get “boring” on the dry hilltop where he lives.

That is why he and his friends rushed to greet two busloads of anti-government demonstrators on Friday afternoon, despite him and his fellow settlers being committed supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

One of its most famous members, Simcha Rothman, is Dvir’s neighbour.

He’s a great guy. We went to the Dead Sea the other day. He was sunbathing on the ground, shoes off, an unbuttoned shirt. He is one of the most important politicians in Israel but he hasn’t changed at all,” Dvir told The National.

I blame the Supreme Court for doing barely anything to stop these settlements over the years. But the situation would still be so much worse without it
Nurit, Israeli anti-settlement protestor

Mr Rothman is best known for being a key architect of the government’s proposed legal overhaul, which he says will rein in an overly powerful judicial system that takes power away from democratically elected politicians.

But the protesters coming to Pnei Kedem from Tel Aviv disagreed in the strongest terms. They say if the government succeeds, Israeli democracy will die.

They have gone to Pnei Kedem because they argue the issue of settlements, and the far right politicians that support them, is intrinsically linked to Mr Netanyahu's wider campaign to subdue individual freedoms, whether of Israelis or Palestinians.

Their wider movement, the largest in Israeli history, is as strong as it has been since protests began when the government came into power. Demonstrations regularly attract tens if not hundreds of thousands.

But the gathering at Pnei Kedem was far smaller. This is because at the protest today, demonstrators hold a minority view among anti-overhaul protesters: that Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank began the country’s descent into right-wing dictatorship.

Uri, who works for the airport authority, told The National the connection between the two was “clear”.

“The [anti-democratic] vision the new government is trying to force on Israel is the consequence of my country’s approach to the occupied territories in recent decades. Now, the pro-occupation right's takeover of Israel is almost done,” he added.

Tel Aviv resident Doron, who works at an accountancy firm, was even more angry, and did not plan on being an easy guest in Pnei Kedem.

“Sorry, I have to keep making noise,” he said, as the party marched under police escort towards the high-security entrance that blocked the path towards the shipping containers in which many of Pnei Kedem’s residents live.

“These people are the true danger,” Doron said of the settlers. He described the illegal existence of their homes as “steroids” hastening Israel towards dictatorship, in which democratic institutions are trashed, minority rights eroded and international allies alienated.

Nurit, a maths professor, said many in her branch of the protest movement “do not like” the majority of anti-overhaul protesters, “because they don’t care about the occupation”.

“But I think the majority are still the ones doing our job. They are all fighting for democracy. A true one will help the Palestinians, after all. That’s why I still support them,” she added.

Divisive court role

Another notable feature of the anti-occupation branch of the protest movement is that, despite fighting for Israel's courts, it remains deeply critical of them.

“I blame the Supreme Court for doing barely anything to stop these settlements over the years,” Nurit also said.

“But the situation would still be so much worse without it. I wouldn’t have the right to stand here and talk to you. All the leaders of our movement would be in jail. It would be a dictatorship.”

Soon the noisy party reached Pnei Kedem resident Mira and her two daughters, who were doing all they could to be welcoming, pouring water into plastic cups and slicing watermelon to give to the demonstrators.

Mira supported the overhaul but favoured a calm approach. "These protests are to be expected,” she said. “There’s always fear of change, that is why I believe these changes have to be made carefully.”

Dvir, still there with his friends, went even further. “We love these guys because they’re Jews. It’s a shame they don’t like us because we’re Orthodox.”

But he does not love the judiciary.

“Our Supreme Court has more power than in any other western democracy,” he said.

“What’s better, laws decided by a government that is chosen by the people, or by a small number of judges who appoint themselves?”

So far, it seems Dvir, Mira and Mr Rothman’s vision for Israel is winning. The government recently passed the first bill in the overhaul package despite yet more mass demonstrations, strikes and vital military reservists refusing to serve in protest.

But Nurit, who finds herself on the fringes of a losing movement, still manages to find room for optimism.

“Maybe once our fellow Israelis demonstrating against the government see their strength and we get rid of this criminal Netanyahu – who should be in jail for the rest of his life – they will understand what true democracy means,” she said.

“They are bright people who don’t care about the occupation. But at least they have the numbers. We simply don’t.”

Updated: August 08, 2023, 3:43 AM