Mass protests erupted across Israel on Sunday night and into the early hours of Monday morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Yoav Gallant as defense minister, a day after he called on the government to stop its legislative efforts to upend the country’s judiciary.
The nationwide demonstrations, where protesters blocked a major highway in Tel Aviv, lit bonfires and were hit by water cannons outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, capped the first day of a planned weeklong series of demonstrations against the government.
Waving Israeli flags, thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets Sunday night after the Prime Minister’s Office announced Gallant’s sacking, gathering massively in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba and in smaller numbers in localities across the country.
In Tel Aviv, protesters blocked both directions of the Ayalon Highway and lit bonfires on the road, vowing to stay into the night, chanting “democracy!”
As news spread of Gallant’s firing Sunday evening around 10:00 p.m., those in Tel Aviv started making their way to Kaplan street, the site of the weekly protests and then down to block the main Ayalon highway from both sides. On the highway, protesters jumped and danced, shouting “we are not afraid!” and chanting “Bibi go home,” and “Democracy or revolt!”
In Jerusalem, demonstrators scuffled with police, who dispatched water cannons to disperse them and marched from Netanyahu’s home on Gaza Street toward the Knesset and the Prime Minister’s Office.
An unconfirmed Channel 12 report said 600,000-700,000 Israelis were demonstrating late Sunday, with protests reported from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the South.
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai was holding a situational assessment with other police brass to discuss the protests, a spokesperson said late Sunday. The meeting was held at the headquarters of the police’s traffic control division at Beit Dagan, possibly pointing to police prioritizing reopening roads and highways blocked by demonstrations.
Earlier Sunday evening, protesters also gathered in Moshav Amikam to support Gallant outside his home, and called on him not to succumb to pressure from party ministers to give up his opposition to continuing the legislative process. This came before the announcement came that he was fired.
The former general warned Saturday night that the deep national rift formed over the judicial overhaul had seeped into the military, eroding its strength, and urged for a compromise deal with the opposition. He was the first high-profile coalition minister and senior Likud official to do so openly and directly.
עשרות מפגינים חוסמים את צומת קפלן בעקבות פיטורי גלנט pic.twitter.com/GyxLRqSyZm
— אדם קוטב | adam kutub (@adam_kutub) March 26, 2023
“He put the country first, and requested to try and find a different text by independence day,” a demonstrator told Channel 12 news.
As the spontaneous protests broke out, the Knesset’s Constitution Committee has been finalizing core legislation that will give the coalition near-complete control of choosing Israel’s judges. Committee chairman Simcha Rothman announced that discussion in the committee will resume at 8:00 a.m. Monday, Channel 12 said, as the bill is scheduled to be presented for its final readings later Monday night in the Knesset plenum.
Opponents of the overhaul have drawn a line in the sand on the judicial appointments bill, saying it will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character.
Also Sunday night, a separate Knesset committee finalized legislation, ahead of its final Knesset readings, that would bar the High Court from preventing ministerial appointments, enabling Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, to return to the cabinet.
In a sign of escalating protests, a group of universities announced a general strike starting Monday morning in response to Gallant’s firing.
“We, the heads of Israel’s research universities, presidents, rectors, and management, will stop studies in all of Israel’s research universities starting tomorrow morning, amid the continuation of the legislative process that undermines the foundations of Israeli democracy and endangers its continued existence,” the universities said in a statement carried by Hebrew media.
“We call on the prime minister and the members of the coalition to stop the legislation immediately, and immediately enter talks in order to reach an agreed and broad outline,” they added.
In addition, the mayors of Kfar Saba and Herzliya, the heads of the Upper Galilee and Shaar Hanegev regional councils, and the head of the Zichron Yaakov local council, announced a hunger strike, according to Channel 12. The report said the mayors and community leaders will strike in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
Earlier Sunday, protesters rallied outside the home of Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana in Tel Aviv.
Protesters also rallied outside the homes of Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, and Economy Minister Nir Barkat, seeking to up pressure against lawmakers ahead of a scheduled vote this week on a key part of the government’s plans.
Levin, a resident of Modiin, is a key architect of the proposed shakeup of the judicial system, while Dichter, who lives in Ashkelon, earlier reiterated on Sunday that he will back the legislation when it comes up for a vote, following reports that he urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt it.
Dichter is said to be next in line to take up the position of defense minister from Gallant.
Barkat, a former venture capitalist, and Jerusalem mayor has met with tech and business leaders as they express concerns over the economic implications of the judicial changes.
Former Shin Ben security service chief Carmi Gillon addressed protesters outside Dichter’s home, and urged Dichter, who headed the service years after, to change course.
“You, more than any other MK, know that Shin Bet agents without a High Court endanger themselves to stand trial at the Hague. It is unthinkable that a person like you would give a hand to legislation that abolishes the special status of the Israeli Supreme Court,” he said.
Dozens also gathered at a counter-protest outside Dichter’s home in support of the legislation and the Likud minister.
ההורים האהובים שלי, אנשי החינוך והציונות הדתית שחינכו יחד אלפי תלמידים, יצאו מהבית היום להפגין מול ביתו של אבי דיכטר כי הם מבינים את גודל השעה.
וזה כרגע ליד בית ילדותי באשקלון. דיכטר, אלה השכנים שלך, החברים שלך. אל תתן ידך לפגיעה בדמוקרטיה. pic.twitter.com/7eqqvHvKjQ
— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) March 26, 2023
At a rally outside veteran Likud MK Yuli Edelstein’s home in Herzliya, police arrested a reservist commando from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit for allegedly disturbing the peace, according to the Ynet news site. A suspect was also arrested for pepper spraying in the direction of demonstrators.
Edelstein, who has also called for the legislative process to be slowed down, said Sunday that his absence from key votes on the bills was no accident, and renewed his full-throated support for efforts to freeze the government’s judicial overhaul.
In Raanana, protesters, numbering a thousand according to the Walla news site, broke through police barricades and demonstrated right outside the home of Likud MK Danny Danon.
מצור ברעננה על דנון עכשיו מעל אלף איש pic.twitter.com/gClgdolPRg
— לירי בורק שביט (@lirishavit) March 26, 2023
Hundreds also protested against Histadrut chair Arnon Bar David in Kiryat Ono. Bar David has yet to issue a call for a general strike over the government’s plans but has warned the government that the labor union will take action if a compromise isn’t reached.
The powerful labor union will hold a press conference Monday and is expected to announce a general strike, according to Hebrew-language media reports.
Other anti-government demonstrations took place at the homes of Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli, and Likud MK Eli Dallal.
Amid the massive protests bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, Netanyahu said in a speech Thursday night that he would soften parts of the planned shakeup going forward.
But he also said the Knesset would vote in the coming days on a bill to put key Supreme Court appointments, including its presidency, directly in coalition control. It is not yet clear when the vote will be held, though Tuesday has been mentioned as a potential target.
כרגע בקרית אונו אצל ארנון בר דוד המתקרנף pic.twitter.com/JA8EDAFndv
— לירי בורק שביט (@lirishavit) March 26, 2023
Protest leaders on Friday announced the unprecedented nationwide “week of paralysis” aimed at upending daily life in the country, including mass protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
There have been weekly mass protests for nearly three months against the planned legislation, and a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders, and more.
President Isaac Herzog has pleaded with the government to abandon its “oppressive” judicial overhaul and replace it with a framework for consensual reform. But the sides have not entered any direct talks.
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