Protesters and police clash in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv
JERUSALEM >> Israeli police on Wednesday fired stun grenades and water cannons at demonstrators who blocked a Tel Aviv highway, while protesters scuffled with police near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence in Jerusalem as weeks of anti-government protests turned violent for the first time.
Thousands across the country staged a “national disruption day,” the latest in a string of mass protests against Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary and weaken the country’s Supreme Court.
The plan has drawn heavy criticism from wide swaths of Israeli society and pleas from international allies for Netanyahu to slow down. A wave of unusually intense Israelipalestinian violence in the occupied West Bank has helped fuel tensions, with radical West Bank settlers rampaging through a Palestinian village earlier this week.
Netanyahu and his coalition partners, a collection of ultra-orthodox and hard-line nationalist parties, say the plan is needed to rein in the powers of unelected judges. Critics say Netanyahu, a defendant standing trial for corruption charges, holds a personal grudge against the justice system and is pushing the country toward autocracy.
In Tel Aviv, crowds of protesters amassed outside a salon where Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, had gone to get her hair done late Wednesday. Israeli media said police were called to rescue her as protesters chanted, “The country is burning and Sara is getting a haircut!”
The Netanyahus have been criticized for being out of touch with regular Israelis and living a lavish lifestyle at taxpayer expense. Last week, an Israeli parliamentary committee approved new funding for Netanyahu and his family.
In a late-night address, Netanyahu criticized the anti-government protesters and attempted to compare them to the violent mob of settlers that tore through the West Bank town of Hawara this week, torching dozens of homes, businesses and cars and killing one Palestinian.
“The freedom to demonstrate is not a license to drag the country into anarchy,” Netanyahu said. “We will not accept breaking the rules and violence, not in Hawara, not in Tel Aviv and not anywhere.”
He also said the protests “crossed a red line” by “threatening my wife in Tel Aviv.”
Netanyahu made no mention of a call Wednesday by his Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a firebrand West Bank settler leader, for Hawara to be “erased” by the Israeli state.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called on Netanyahu to “publicly and clearly reject” Smotrich’s comments, describing them as “repugnant,” “disgusting” and “irresponsible.”
Smotrich later tried to walk back his comments, saying he didn’t mean to “wipe out” the entire town, but only to take tough action against militants and their supporters.
Protests continued into the night. Near Netanyahu’s Jerusalem home, demonstrators briefly broke down a barricade and scuffled with security forces.
Since they started two months ago, the protests have been large, colorful, rowdy — and violence-free. But that changed Wednesday, when National Security Minister Itamar Ben-gvir, leader of a farright party, ordered police to take tougher action against “anarchists” who blocked roads.
In the first scenes of unrest, police arrived on horseback in the center of the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, hurled stun grenades and used a water cannon against thousands who chanted “democracy” and “police state.”
A video posted on social media showed a police officer pressing his knee into a protester’s neck and another showed a man who reportedly had his ear ripped off by a stun grenade. Police said protesters threw rocks and water bottles at the officers.
In Tel Aviv and later in Jerusalem, the protesters shouted “Where were you in Hawara?” at policemen, referring to Sunday’s settler rampage that went largely unchecked and unpunished. The military has said it was not prepared for the mob in Hawara, and that it took hours to bring the situation under control.