Thousands of Israelis took to the streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa on Sunday night to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned judicial reforms, which they see as an assault on democracy and the rule of law.
The protests were sparked by Netanyahu’s decision to fire his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who had called for a monthlong pause to the controversial legislation that would strip the Supreme Court of much of its power and independence.
Gallant’s dismissal led to a rift within Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition and raised doubts about the future of the judicial overhaul.
The protesters, waving Israeli flags and chanting “democracy”, blocked major highways and clashed with police in some areas. Some demonstrators dressed as handmaids from “The Handmaid’s Tale”, a dystopian novel and TV series about a totalitarian regime that oppresses women.
The protesters accused Netanyahu of trying to undermine the judiciary and evade prosecution on corruption charges, which he denies. They also expressed solidarity with Gallant and other ministers who have voiced opposition to the court reform.
Netanyahu’s judicial reform bill, which was due to be voted on this week, would allow the parliament to override Supreme Court rulings that strike down laws as unconstitutional. It would also change the composition of the committee that appoints judges, giving more power to politicians and reducing the influence of legal experts.
Netanyahu has argued that reform is necessary to restore the balance between the branches of government and prevent judicial activism. He has also accused the Supreme Court of being biased against him and his allies.
However, critics say the reform would erode the separation of powers and the checks and balances that are essential for a healthy democracy. They also warn that it would pave the way for Netanyahu to pass laws that could shield him from prosecution or grant him immunity.
On Monday, Israel’s largest trade union announced a general strike that shut down transportation, universities, restaurants, and retailers in protest against the judicial reform. All takeoffs from Israel’s main airport, Ben Gurion Tel Aviv, were halted for several hours because of the strike. Workers at the country’s largest port in Haifa stopped working, some universities were shuttered and some of the country’s best-known retailers announced closures.
The strike was seen as a sign of growing public discontent with Netanyahu’s government, which has been in power since 2022 after three inconclusive elections. The government has also faced criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives in Israel.
Netanyahu, who is facing trial on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, has not commented publicly on the protests or the strike. However, he reportedly agreed to postpone the vote on the judicial reform bill after losing the support of some of his coalition partners. He also called on all protesters to act responsibly and avoid violence.