TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli protesters on Thursday were intensifying their opposition to a contentious government proposal to overhaul the judiciary, with a bid to block Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s route to the airport ahead of an official trip overseas and as the US defense Secretary was visiting.
Demonstrators, who have been out protesting for more than two months against the overhaul, launched a “day of resistance to dictatorship” on Thursday. Protesters waving Israeli flags descended on the country’s main international airport, blocking the artery leading to the departures area with their cars. The disruption snarled traffic and reportedly prompted Netanyahu to make alternate travel plans. He was expected to reach the airport by helicopter.
Elsewhere, protesters blocked main intersections in the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv and other cities. A small flotilla of paddleboards and kayaks tried to close off a main maritime shipping lane off the northern city of Haifa. Some protesters barricaded the Jerusalem offices of a conservative think tank helping to spearhead the judicial changes.
The uproar over Netanyahu’s legal overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises. Beyond the protests, which have drawn tens of thousands of Israelis to the streets and recently became violent, opposition has surged from across society, with business leaders and legal officials speaking out against what they say will be the ruinous effects of the plan. The rift has not spared Israel’s military, which is seen unprecedented opposition from within its own ranks.
Netanyahu, who took office in late December after a protracted political stalemate, and his allies say the measures aim to rein in a court that has overstepped its authority. Critics say the overhaul will upset the delicate system of checks and balances and slide Israel towards authoritarianism.
Critics also say Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, is driven by personal grievances and that he could find an escape route from the charges through the overhaul. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, and says the legal changes have nothing to do with his trial.
Demonstrations were underway across the country as Netanyahu and his allies have pledged to press ahead with a series of bills that would strip the Supreme Court of its ability to review legislation and give coalition politicians control over judicial appointments. An attempt by Israel’s ceremonial president to defuse the crisis through an alternative legal reform has so far been unsuccessful.
“Israel is on the verge of becoming an autocratic country. The current government is trying to destroy our democracy, and actually destroy the country,” said Savion Or, a protester in Tel Aviv.
The protesters main objective Thursday was to complicate Netanyahu’s journey to the airport ahead of a state visit to Rome. Police, handing out traffic tickets as protesters held signs reading, “dictator: don’t come back!” said they would clear the demonstrators by force if they did not move.
Israel’s public broadcaster Kan reported Netanyahu would fly by helicopter to the airport, circumventing the protesters. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment. Protesters waving the blue-and-white Israeli flag gathered at a Jerusalem helipad, where an air force Blackhawk helicopter idled and was reportedly set to take Netanyahu to the airport.
Regular passenger flights were not interrupted, an airport spokeswoman said, although some travelers said they had to leave their cars beyond the protesters’ convoy and reach the terminal by foot.
The police, overseen by ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, have pledged to prevent the disturbances and said they had already made arrests as the protests were underway. Police on horseback were stationed in central Tel Aviv where protesters were marching and a water cannon truck was parked nearby. Red billboards festooning the city’s main highway read “resistance to dictatorship is mandatory.”
Thursday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv, the country’s business center and its liberal heartland, was not nearly as large as the one last week, when police cracked down on what had otherwise been peaceful protests, lobbing stun grenades and scuffling with demonstrators. Those protests ended with Netanyahu’s wife Sara being extracted from a ritzy Tel Aviv hair salon where demonstrators had gathered after catching wind of their presence.
Critics say Ben-Gvir, a key ally in Netanyahu’s coalition government who has dubbed the protesters “anarchists”, is trying to politicize the police.
“We support freedom of expression but not anarchy,” Ben-Gvir told reporters while touring the airport.
The visit Thursday by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was also affected by the protests. An Israeli official said that Austin’s meetings had been moved to a factory near the airport due to the expected disruptions. The protest movement has been centered in central Tel Aviv, near the Defense Ministry. The Israeli official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were 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 has helped craft the overhaul, with barbed wire and sandbags, and hung a banner outside reading “Kohelet is tearing Israel apart.”
Several dozen people, including two former Navy chiefs, were gathered in the waters off Haifa on kayaks, sailboats and stand up paddleboards in a bid to block that city’s shipping lane.
Associated Press reporters Ami Bentov in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Ilan Ben Zion and Isaac Scharf in Jerusalem contributed reporting.