The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israeli police violently crack down on protest over judicial overhaul

Police hold back demonstrators blocking the Ayalon Road in Tel Aviv's city center on Wednesday. (Abir Sultan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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TEL AVIV — Israeli police launched a forceful crackdown Wednesday on thousands of protesters who were marching along a central highway in Tel Aviv calling for a halt to a rapidly advancing judiciary overhaul.

Police lobbed hundreds of stun grenades, fired water cannons and arrested at least 40 people in response to Wednesday’s “Day of Disruption,” in which flag-waving Israelis flooded the streets and blocked major thoroughfares in dozens of places across the country.

Eleven Israelis were hospitalized with injuries suffered during the violent confrontation with police, which escalated after protesters breached a barricade, shouting, “Shame!” Officers, many on horseback, scrambled to disperse the crowd, at times appearing to use indiscriminate force.

Three of the injured underwent surgery, including one man who lost his ear after being directly hit with a stun grenade. Such aggressive police tactics are rarely seen inside Israel and were more reminiscent of Israeli military operations in the West Bank, where soldiers are often heavy-handed with Palestinian civilians.

Wednesday’s escalation came after two months of anti-government protests in which tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Tel Aviv, Israel’s financial hub. They say the judicial overhaul being rushed through the Knesset by the country’s new right-wing government will weaken the Supreme Court, remove legal protections for minorities and allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid prosecution in his ongoing corruption trial.

As demonstrators marched through the streets shouting, “Democracy!” the Knesset preliminarily voted in favor of a bill to make it more difficult to declare Netanyahu unfit to serve as prime minister, and another to enforce the death penalty for convicted terrorists.

The scenes of officers wrestling peaceful protesters to the ground came as police faced mounting criticism for not doing more to hold Israeli settlers accountable for a violent weekend rampage in the West Bank.

At one point, protesters in Tel Aviv chanted, “Where were you in Huwara?” — the Palestinian town where, after a Palestinian shot and killed two Israeli brothers, hundreds of Israeli settlers attacked civilians at random, burning cars, businesses and homes, many with children inside. One Palestinian man was killed by a settler who shot him in the abdomen, the man’s family said.

“The right to protest is not the right to commit anarchy,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said about the use of force by police in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, after days of refusing to condemn the settlers’ attacks against Palestinians.

Following Sunday’s rampage — dubbed a “pogrom” by several Israeli officials — Israeli police arrested 11 settlers. Police have released five of them, citing a lack of evidence, and are keeping three under house arrest; police are continuing to interrogate five others who were arrested late Tuesday, said Dean Elsdunne, an Israeli police spokesperson.

But many worry that violence by settlers will continue as long as they receive support — implicit or explicit — from the current government. Two of its most senior ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir, responded to the killing of the Israeli brothers with promises of revenge. Smotrich called for the Israeli military to “strike at the Palestinian cities with tanks and helicopters, mercilessly, in a way that will send the message that the landlord has gone mad.”

“The teenagers who descended on the village knew that the security forces’ hands were tied. At most, they would be detained for a night or two. They are immune from the law,” wrote Nahum Barnea in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. “The rampaging teenagers could see in [Smotrich and Ben Gvir] and their factions moral support for their acts.”

On Wednesday, Smotrich went further, telling a conference that he thinks “the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it.”

The judicial overhaul has revealed deep schisms in Israeli society at a time of mounting violence and instability. At least 62 Palestinians and 14 Israelis have died in the clashes since the start of the year.

As militancy grows among young Palestinians in the West Bank, and Israel increases the scope and volume of its military raids, the army now faces resistance from within, which experts say could threaten its ability to operate in the field. Veterans of the elite Israeli military intelligence unit, 8200, have joined a long list of those threatening to refuse to perform reserve service in protest of the judicial overhaul.

“We will not volunteer for a country that unilaterally changed the basic social contract with its citizens,” said a letter from 8200 published on the Israeli news outlet Walla earlier this week.

“Our new politics now includes people with messianic visions, in very high positions, who believe Armageddon-style chaos is something that could potentially lead to a better future,” said Yotam Margalit, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s school of political science. “And Netanyahu, who was always careful with the use of force, is now dependent on those people.”

In response to the crackdown in Tel Aviv and the rampage in Huwara, Netanyahu has issued statements backing his far-right ministers.

“I fully support National Security Minister Ben Gvir, the police commission and the Israel police officers, who are working against lawbreakers who are disrupting the daily lives of Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu said Wednesday.