Thousands of people are holding protests in front of the Israeli parliament as lawmakers engage in a heated debate on a bill that would give politicians greater power over appointing judges.
The plans, which would give right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greater control of appointments to the Supreme Court bench, have triggered widespread protests.
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Many protesters carried the blue and white Israeli flag and posters decrying what they saw as an attack on the country’s democratic institutions. “Shame! Shame!” they chanted. Some placards read “Save Israel Democracy” and “The whole world is watching”.
Other demonstrations were held outside schools around the country.
The Knesset Constitution Committee voted to send the first chapter of the plan to the plenum for a first reading, after a rowdy start to the meeting in which at least three opposition lawmakers were thrown out forcibly, to shouts of “shame, shame”.
“You will burn up the country,” Idan Roll of the centrist Yesh Atid party told Simcha Rothman, the panel chairman from the hard-right Religious Zionism bloc, before being ushered out.
Netanyahu, currently on trial on corruption charges that he denies, says the changes are needed to curb activist judges who have overreached their powers to interfere in the political sphere.
Critics say they risk destroying Israel’s system of democratic checks and balances by weakening the courts, handing unbridled power to the executive and endangering civil liberties and human rights.
Morning trains from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Monday were packed with people, many carrying Israeli flags and protest signs, heading to the planned demonstrations outside the Israeli parliament or Knesset, and other sites across the country.
Many businesses, including tech startups and law firms, gave permission to employees to join the nationwide strikes, local media reported.
Local English newspaper Haaretz said in an editorial that the government was “doing everything it can to sabotage these protests”.
Israel’s Education Minister Yoav Kisch said teachers who choose to skip school “won’t be paid and absent students will be deemed truants”, Haaretz reported.
“Despite the problems and pitfalls, only large-scale public participation in both the demonstration and the strike can alter the path of destruction down which the government is marching,” it added.
On Sunday evening, President Isaac Herzog made a rare televised plea for consensus, and warned that Israel was “on the verge of legal and social collapse”.
“I am appealing to you with a request not to introduce the bill for its first reading,” Herzog said.
United States President Joe Biden has urged Netanyahu to build consensus before pushing through far-reaching changes, saying in comments published by The New York Times on Sunday that an independent judiciary was one of the foundations of US and Israeli democracies.