Israeli police deploy horses, stun grenades on 'anarchist' protest

AP , Wednesday 1 Mar 2023

Weeks of anti-government protests in Israel turned violent on Wednesday for the first time as police fired stun grenades and a water cannon at demonstrators who blocked a Tel Aviv highway. The crackdown came shortly after Israel's hard-line security minister urged a tough response to what he said were "anarchists."

Israel protests
Israeli police deploy horses and stun grenades to disperse Israelis blocking a main road during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, March 1, 2023. AP


The violence came as thousands across the country launched a "national disruption day" against the government's plan to overhaul Israel's judicial system. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's allies say the program is meant 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 has a clear conflict of interest in targeting judges as he stands trial on corruption charges.

The government is barreling ahead with the legal changes and a parliamentary committee is moving forward on a bill that would weaken the Supreme Court.

The crisis has sent shock waves 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 compounded his troubles.

The rival sides are digging in, deepening one of Israel's worst domestic crises. Netanyahu and his government, made up of ultranationalists, have branded the protesters anarchists, while stopping short of condemning a West Bank settler mob that torched a Palestinian village earlier this week.

The legal overhaul has sparked an unprecedented uproar, with weeks of mass protests, criticism from legal experts and rare demonstrations by army reservists who have pledged to disobey orders under what they say will be a dictatorship after the overhaul passes. Business leaders, the country's booming tech 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 on horseback in the center of the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, hurled stun grenades and used a water cannon against thousands of protesters who chanted "democracy" and "police state." A video posted on social media showed a police officer pinning down a protester with his knee on the man's neck and another showed a man who reportedly had his ear ripped off by a stun grenade.

Facing the police, protesters also chanted "where were you," a reference to the absence of security forces during the settler attack on the Palestinian village of Hawara, which took hours to quell and which the military said it was not prepared for.

Police said protesters threw rocks and water bottles at police. Several protesters were arrested for disturbing the peace and Israeli media said at least six protesters were wounded. Earlier Wednesday, protesters blocked Tel Aviv’s main freeway and the highway connecting 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 ultranationalist accused of politicizing the police, has vowed to take a tough line. He called on police to prevent the road blockages, labeling the demonstrators "anarchists."

Netanyahu said Ben-Gvir had his full support. "We will not tolerate violence against police, blocking roads and blatant breaches of the country’s laws. The right to protest is not the right to anarchy," he said.

Netanyahu also blamed opposition leader Yair Lapid for fomenting anarchy. Lapid called on police to show restraint and said Netanyahu's government had lost control.

"The protesters are patriots," Lapid tweeted. "They are fighting for the values of freedom, justice and democracy. The role of the police is to allow them to express their opinions and fight for the country they love."

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

"Every person here is trying to keep Israel a democracy and if the current government will get its way, then 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’m very scared for my family and for my friends."

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

The government says the legal changes are meant to correct an imbalance that has given the courts too much power and allowed them to meddle in the legislative process. They say the overhaul will streamline governance and say elections last year, which returned Netanyahu to power with a slim majority in parliament, gave them a mandate to make the changes.

Critics say the overhaul will upend Israel's system of checks and balances, granting the prime minister and the government unrestrained power and push the country toward authoritarianism.

Short link: