West Jerusalem – Hundreds of protesters have set up an encampment outside the Israeli Knesset amid last-ditch efforts to halt the government’s controversial judicial reforms.
Legislators began a debate on the first major part of the reforms on Sunday, with a vote expected to take place on Monday.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
The bill would curb the Supreme Court’s powers by stopping judges from striking down government decisions for being “unreasonable”.
The government says the judicial reforms are needed to limit the powers of judges but opponents say they are a threat to democracy.
The makeshift protest camp was built late on Saturday in a large municipal park opposite the Knesset in West Jerusalem after tens of thousands of Israelis completed a march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Sapir, a biology student at Bar-Ilan University who joined the protest march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Friday, said “It was very hot and emotional [seeing] the opposition of the entire nation [along with] people bringing water and food and caring for all our needs.”
Benny Gantz, a prominent opposition leader, visited the camp and sought to reassure protesters that the opposition would continue to oppose the legislation.
“The emergency hour is not on its way, it has already come, and we all need to go on strike now,” pleaded Tali Gilan to Benny Gantz.
Gilan, a social worker and art therapist from Pardes Hannah, joined the march on Friday for its final leg to Jerusalem and spent the night in the camp.
“I cannot speak with my daughters … how can I tell them to be Zionists in a state like this?” Gilan told Gantz, begging him to boycott the Knesset debate.
“You know the numbers … it is 56 to 64,” responded Gantz to the assembled crowd, referring to the opposition’s numerical predicament in the 120-seat Knesset or parliament.
He defended his decision to proceed to parliament, citing the opposition’s pledge to “[do] everything we can” to slow down the vote, noting that if a boycott were held the bill could be passed into law “in seven minutes”.
Surrounded by protestors expressing their frustration that the opposition was not doing enough, he tried to reassure the crowd that they were united.
“We agree with the same goals – a free and democratic Jewish Israel,” he said, encouraging them to “keep up [the] protest”.
Absent from the Knesset proceedings on Sunday was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was being held for supervision at the Sheba Medical Center after having a pacemaker fitted.
His office said the prime minister would be discharged on Monday, after the ermergency heart procedure delayed his weekly cabinet meeting, a sit-down with the Israeli Army Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi, and a planned historic visit to Turkey.
The crisis over the reforms has spread throughout Israeli society, including the military where reservists have threatened not to report for service if the reforms are not halted. Several former security and military officials, including three former army chiefs of staff, warned that reforms were damaging the military and the country’s security.
“We place full responsibility on you, Prime Minister Netanyahu for eroding the [army] and compromising Israel’s security,” they wrote in a letter.
Right-wing supporters of the judicial reforms were planning a large protest backing the legislation in Tel Aviv, where the anti-government protests began 29 weeks ago.
Haggai Matar, the executive director of +972 Magazine, told Al Jazeera that “70 percent of the [advertised] buses to the [Tel Aviv] protest are coming from settlements … and its not any big settlements [like Ariel]… [but the] far out tiny towns that are the most extreme.”
“The people who are really willing to go and fight for this thing is the religious settlement right[-wing]” and their supporters in government, he said.
Around the well-maintained park grounds by the parliament on Sunday, the makeshift “tent city” saw more amenities under construction, such as large shades being built as the temperature in Jerusalem is hovering around 35C (95F) in the middle of the day this week.
Kitchens with huge surpluses of food and an electric station for charging phones were already set up.
Taking in the scenes of the “tent city” was one of the park gardeners, a Palestinian from Jerusalem who declined to be named for this article.
“I have hope for the future but not because of the protests,” said the gardener. “Democracy left a long time ago for Palestinians.”