Israelis took to the streets en masse on Thursday in protest against the government’s overhaul of the court system, blocking roadways across the country and intensifying a months-long campaign decrying the move.
Thousands of people carrying flags and signs marched on a Tel Aviv thoroughfare stopping traffic in the middle of the workday. A small group burned tires in the street outside a seaport, briefly blocking trucks. Police forced demonstrators from the road in front of a conference center in central Israel.
The protests have escalated since the start of the year when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government introduced new legislation that would limit the authority of the Supreme Court.
The plan has stirred concern for Israel’s democratic health at home and abroad. Military reservists have joined the protests and senior officials in the Finance Ministry warned this week of an economic backlash.
In Jerusalem, crowds gathered along the walls of the Old City from which they hung a huge replica of the country’s declaration of independence.
“What we are doing here is we are fighting for our lives. We are fighting for our lives as a Jewish people together in the state that we have been building for 75 years,” said Avidan Friedman, who was wearing a Jewish prayer shawl over his head.
“We are fighting because we feel like what’s going on now is tearing us apart and we are calling on the government to stop.”
Netanyahu in the meantime pushed ahead with the legislation, which includes bills to give the government decisive sway in electing judges and to limit the court’s power to strike down laws. On Thursday a law was ratified limiting the circumstances in which a prime minister can be removed.
Netanyahu – on trial for corruption charges he denies – says the judicial overhaul is needed to restore balance between the branches of government. Critics say it will weaken Israel’s democracy and hand uncontrolled powers to the government of the day.