The Washington Post

At protest of judicial overhaul, Israeli police crack down with unusual force

11 hospitaliz­ed as officers use water cannons and stun grenades at march


TEL AVIV — Israeli police launched a forceful crackdown Wednesday on thousands of protesters who were marching along a central highway in Tel Aviv calling for a halt to a rapidly advancing judiciary overhaul.

Police lobbed hundreds of stun grenades, fired water cannons and arrested at least 40 people in response to Wednesday’s “Day of Disruption,” in which flag-waving Israelis flooded the streets and blocked major thoroughfa­res in dozens of places across the country.

Eleven Israelis were hospitaliz­ed with injuries suffered during the violent confrontat­ion with police, which escalated after protesters breached a barricade, shouting, “Shame!” Officers, many on horseback, scrambled to disperse the crowd, at times appearing to use indiscrimi­nate force.

Three of the injured underwent surgery, including one man who lost his ear after being directly hit with a stun grenade. Such aggressive police tactics are rarely seen inside Israel and were more reminiscen­t of Israeli military operations in the West Bank, where soldiers are often heavyhande­d with Palestinia­n civilians.

Wednesday’s escalation came after two months of antigovern­ment protests in which tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Tel Aviv, Israel’s financial hub. They say the judicial overhaul being rushed through the Knesset by the country’s new right-wing government will weaken the Supreme Court, remove legal protection­s for minorities and allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid prosecutio­n in his ongoing corruption trial.

As demonstrat­ors marched through the streets shouting, “Democracy!” the Knesset preliminar­ily voted in favor of a bill to make it more difficult to declare Netanyahu unfit to serve as prime minister, and another to enforce the death penalty for convicted terrorists.

The scenes of officers wrestling peaceful protesters to the ground came as police faced mounting criticism for not doing more to hold Israeli settlers accountabl­e for a violent weekend rampage in the West Bank.

At one point, protesters in Tel Aviv chanted, “Where were you in Huwara?” — the Palestinia­n town where, after a Palestinia­n shot and killed two Israeli brothers, hundreds of Israeli settlers attacked civilians at random, burning cars, businesses and homes, many with children inside. One Palestinia­n man was killed by a settler who shot him in the abdomen, the man’s family said.

“The right to protest is not the right to commit anarchy,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said about the use of force by police in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, after days of refusing to condemn the settlers’ attacks against Palestinia­ns.

Following Sunday’s rampage — dubbed a “pogrom” by several Israeli officials — Israeli police arrested 11 settlers. Police have released five of them, citing a lack of evidence, and are keeping three under house arrest; police are continuing to interrogat­e five others who were arrested late Tuesday, said Dean Elsdunne, an Israeli police spokespers­on.

But many worry that violence by settlers will continue as long as they receive support — implicit or explicit — from the current government. Two of its most senior ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir, responded to the killing of the Israeli brothers with promises of revenge. Smotrich called for the Israeli military to “strike at the Palestinia­n cities with tanks and helicopter­s, mercilessl­y, in a way that will send the message that the landlord has gone mad.”

“The teenagers who descended on the village knew that the security forces’ hands were tied. At most, they would be detained for a night or two. They are immune from the law,” wrote Nahum Barnea in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. “The rampaging teenagers could see in [Smotrich and Ben Gvir] and their factions moral support for their acts.”

On Wednesday, Smotrich went further, telling a conference that he thinks “the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it.”

The judicial overhaul has revealed deep schisms in Israeli society at a time of mounting violence and instabilit­y. At least 62 Palestinia­ns and 14 Israelis have died in the clashes since the start of the year.

As militancy grows among young Palestinia­ns in the West Bank, and Israel increases the scope and volume of its military raids, the army now faces resistance from within, which experts say could threaten its ability to operate in the field. Veterans of the elite Israeli military intelligen­ce unit, 8200, have joined a long list of those threatenin­g to refuse to perform reserve service in protest of the judicial overhaul.

“We will not volunteer for a country that unilateral­ly changed the basic social contract with its citizens,” said a letter from 8200 published on the Israeli news outlet Walla earlier this week.

“Our new politics now includes people with messianic visions, in very high positions, who believe Armageddon-style chaos is something that could potentiall­y lead to a better future,” said Yotam Margalit, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s school of political science. “And Netanyahu, who was always careful with the use of force, is now dependent on those people.”

In response to the crackdown in Tel Aviv and the rampage in Huwara, Netanyahu has issued statements backing his far-right ministers.

“I fully support National Security Minister Ben Gvir, the police commission and the Israel police officers, who are working against lawbreaker­s who are disrupting the daily lives of Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu said Wednesday.

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