Israeli protesters rally at airport to stop judicial overhaul

Police arrest dozens in Tel Aviv as demonstrators mass at Ben Gurion Airport and in Jerusalem against government legislation.

Tel Aviv, Israel – Thousands of protesters have rallied at several locations across Israel, including its main airport, to try to stop the passage of the far-right government’s “judicial reforms” bill.

Tuesday’s “day of disruption” blocked highways. Protesters rallied at Ben Gurion International airport and the United States mission in Tel Aviv, a day after the Israeli parliament passed the first of three votes on the bill. At least 70 protesters were arrested, and water cannon were used against some protesters in West Jerusalem.

“We see this law as the key to dictatorship in Israel,” Roee Neuman, one of the leaders of the protest movement, told Al Jazeera.

The government had failed to pass a comprehensive “judicial reform” bill in March after mass protests and strikes and has since divided up its various measures in a rapid scramble to pass legislation that would weaken the judicial role in government oversight before the end of the Knesset’s summer session on July 30.

Udi Samanovitch, one of thousands of demonstrators outside the airport, held a sign reading, “Bibi: Enemy of Democracy”, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He explained the reasoning behind the protest’s location.

“Israel is like an island, and this is the main gate to the free world, so we want to tell [the government] that we are going to be here and let the world know about the terrible situation we are in,” Samanovitch said.

At the second airport protest in consecutive weeks, protesters were greeted by a large number of security officers who were prepared to keep protesters out of the terminal itself, thus allowing flights to operate without disruption.

In a large area designated for the protest, many used earplugs to protect themselves from the noises of megaphones, horns, drums and whistles.

Thousands of Israeli flags and a number of pride flags could be seen although no Palestinian flags, representing the country’s Palestinian minority as well as the millions living under Israeli occupation, appeared to be present.

Outside the US mission in Tel Aviv, a large crowd gathered with many protesters waving American flags.

The crux of the protesters’ anger is a bill that abolishes the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn government decisions on the grounds of “reasonableness”, a standard that has been used by the court to overturn administrative rulings in a wide variety of contexts from national security issues to the approval of government appointees.

The current bill has taken an unusual and rushed route to potentially becoming law, passing through the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, chaired by Knesset member Simcha Rothman, as opposed to the slower and more deliberative process through the Ministry of Justice.

Critics of the move include a senior scholar within the conservative legal community, Yoav Dotan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose research was cited by Rothman in making the case to scrap the “reasonableness” provision.

“Rothman and his assistants are citing my work, which is very critical of reasonableness,” Dotan told Al Jazeera, “but what they did not say is that the solutions that I propose are very different from theirs. I did not propose to scrap reasonableness altogether,” a move that Dotan sees as part of the government’s agenda “to get rid of judicial review altogether”.

It is not just the court’s discretion to overturn government actions via the standard of reasonableness that is currently under legislative threat.

Last week, the Knesset also passed the first reading of a bill that would replace the independent Israel Bar Association with a government-run Lawyers Council, which would free up the two seats on the Judicial Selection Committee currently held by the lawyers group, thus providing the government a large enough majority on the selection committee to unilaterally select its own judges.

These and other measures, including the planned removal of judicial oversight over Israel’s Basic Laws, will “effectively give Israeli governments nearly unlimited power without any institutional checks in light of Israel not having a constitution or bill of rights”, said Michael Koplow, chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum.

Israeli police
Protesters blocked roads across Israel on July 11, 2023, hours after parliament adopted in a first reading a key clause of the government’s judicial overhaul package, which opponents say threatens democracy. [Ahmad Gharabli/AFP]

Democracy only for Israelis?

While protesters have focused on arguing that Netanyahu’s government is eroding Israel’s democracy with its push for changes to the judicial system, many have argued that the country, including those in the opposition, have long ignored Palestinian rights and freedom.

One university professor at the airport who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that much of the protest movement was seeking to avoid being labelled as left wing.

“The occupation is a contentious point, … and protest organisers who are from the ‘pro-occupation’ Israeli left don’t want the movement to be coloured by lefty-right partisanship,” she said. At the same time, the professor insisted: “Everyone who is protesting here wants a settlement with the Palestinians and wants them to thrive as much as we are thriving.”

Neuman has defended the movement’s omission of occupation-related advocacy, citing its inclusion of “settlers and Israelis from every walk of life”. He argued that protecting the courts’ autonomy “is the most critical thing to Israel’s future and independence and protection of human rights”.

However, in a rare show of solidarity at Saturday’s weekly West Jerusalem protest, Diana al-Hallaq – the sister of Eyad al-Hallaq, an autistic man killed by an Israeli soldier in 2020 only for the soldier to be acquitted last week – addressed the Israeli crowd outside the presidential residence and placed the injustice the Israeli court system represents for Palestinians in the spotlight.

Diana and other members of the al-Hallaq family stayed for hours to speak to protesters. Laura Wharton, a Jerusalem city councillor who escorted the family to the protest, said they had been “beautifully received” with demonstrators expressing their support.

As the protests were going on Tuesday, a family of Palestinians were the latest to be evicted from their home in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem.

If the judicial overhaul passes, it may have far-reaching implications on the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to Koplow. “There is a real danger that the judicial overhaul’s proponents will end up with what they want, which is full Israeli control of the West Bank, without realising or understanding the complete implications of what that will mean in terms of potential PA [Palestinian Authority] collapse and the subsequent Israeli responsibility for managing and funding every aspect of daily life for 3 million Palestinian non-citizens of Israel,” he said.

Further votes planned

A second and third reading are required for the bills to become law, during which time amendments may be proposed, although Rothman has insisted on passing the bill in its current form.

While Neuman declined to mention the specific tactics that organisers have planned to increase pressure on the government, the possibility of wider labour strikes and protesters refusing to serve in the military loom in the immediate future.

Gabi Sibon, a retired colonel for the Israeli army reserves and current fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said that while “the threats of refusing service have not really been implemented, …  it is very dangerous, unacceptable and should be delegitimised”.

This week, the ruling Likud party wrote a letter calling for an Israeli journalist who called for refusals to serve in the military on her Twitter page to be investigated.

With both sides digging in their heels, the only thing that appears certain is a further escalation of words and actions. “We are fighting for the existence of Israel,” Samanovitch said. “We cannot afford to lose this battle.”

Source: Al Jazeera