TEL AVIV, Israel – Israeli protesters were intensifying their opposition to a controversial government proposal to overhaul the judiciary on Thursday, blocking the route to the airport of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of an official trip abroad and US Defense Secretary as a tour of ,
Protesters who have been protesting for more than two months against the overhaul began a “day of resistance to dictatorship” on Thursday. Protesters waving Israeli flags descended on the country’s main international airport, blocking with their cars an artery leading to the departure area. The disruption affected traffic and it was unclear how Netanyahu would reach the airport.
Elsewhere, protesters blocked main squares in the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv and other cities. A small group of paddleboards and kayaks tried to close a main sea shipping lane off the northern city of Haifa. Some protesters barricaded the Jerusalem offices of a conservative think tank helping to drive judicial changes.
The furor over Netanyahu’s legal overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises. Beyond the protests, which have drawn thousands of Israelis to the streets and recently turned violent, opposition has grown from across society, with business leaders and legal officials speaking out against the plan’s devastating effects. The rift has not spared Israel’s military, which is seeing unprecedented protests from its own ranks.
Netanyahu, who took office in late December after a long political impasse, and his allies say the measures are aimed at reining in a court that has overstepped its authority. Critics say the overhaul would overturn a fragile system of checks and balances and push Israel toward authoritarianism.
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Critics also say Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, is motivated by personal grievances and may find a way to escape charges through an overhaul. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, and says the legal changes have nothing to do with his lawsuit.
Demonstrations were underway across the country as Netanyahu and his allies vowed to press ahead with a series of bills that would strip the Supreme Court of its ability to review the law and give coalition politicians control over judicial appointments. Israel’s formal presidential effort to defuse the crisis through an alternative legal reform has so far been unsuccessful.
“Israel is on the verge of becoming an autocratic state. The current government is trying to destroy our democracy, and is actually destroying the country,” said Sevian Orr, a protester in Tel Aviv.
The protesters’ main objective was to complicate the journey to the airport ahead of Netanyahu’s state visit to Rome on Thursday. Police handing out traffic tickets as protesters hold placards that read, “Dictator: Don’t Come Back!” Said that if they do not move, they will forcefully remove the protesters.
Israel’s public broadcaster Kan reported that Netanyahu would fly to the airport by helicopter, bypassing the protesters. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment. An Air Force Blackhawk helicopter at a Jerusalem helipad, reportedly prepared to transport Netanyahu to the airport, appeared to be a diversion and took off without passengers.
An airport spokeswoman said regular passenger flights were not disrupted, although some passengers said they had to leave their cars ahead of the convoy of protesters and reach the terminal on foot.
“The protests show how strong our democracy is,” Netanyahu told Italian daily La Repubblica ahead of his visit. “A reform is necessary. Judiciary should be independent, not omnipotent.
Police overseen by ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir have vowed to stop the disturbances and said they had already made arrests while the protests were underway. Police on horseback were stationed in central Tel Aviv where protesters were marching and a water cannon truck parked nearby. Red billboards on the city’s main highway read “Resistance to dictatorship is imperative.”
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Thursday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv, the country’s business hub and its liberal heartland, was nowhere near as large as last week’s, when police cracked down on otherwise peaceful protests, throwing stun grenades and scuffling with protesters. Those protests ended with Netanyahu’s wife Sara being escorted from a formal Tel Aviv hair salon where protesters had gathered after catching wind of her presence.
Critics say Ben-Gvir, a key ally in Netanyahu’s coalition government, who has branded the protesters “anarchists” is trying to politicize the police.
“We support freedom of expression, but not anarchy,” Ben-Gvir told reporters during a tour of the airport.
Thursday’s visit by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was also overshadowed by the protests. An Israeli official said the Austin meetings had been moved to a factory near the airport because of the expected disruptions. The protest movement is centered near the Ministry of Defense in central Tel Aviv. The Israeli official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
On Thursday morning, military reservist protesters barricaded the Jerusalem offices of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative think tank that helped prepare the overhaul, with barbed wire and sandbags, and signs reading “Kohelet is tearing Israel apart” hung a banner.
Several dozen people, including two former Navy chiefs, gathered in Haifa’s waters on kayaks, sailboats and stand-up paddleboards to block the city’s shipping lanes.
Associated Press reporters Ami Bentov in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Ilan Ben Zion and Isaac Sharf in Jerusalem contributed reporting.
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