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Anti-reform protesters try to block Ben-Gurion Airport on ‘Day of Resistance’

Seven demonstrators were arrested for damaging the Jerusalem office of the Kohelet Policy Forum, which helped draft the judicial reform bills.

Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against the government's planned judicial reforms, March 9, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against the government's planned judicial reforms, March 9, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

Organizers are staging another day of disruptive demonstrations against the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms on Thursday, including an attempt to prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from departing for Rome.

On what has been dubbed a “Day of Resistance to Dictatorship,” morning protests were seen in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

In Israel’s capital, hundreds of IDF reservists protested outside the offices of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative think tank spearheading the legal overhaul. The Kohelet protest was put on by the Brothers in Arms reservist group.

Seven people were arrested at the Kohelet protest for attempting to block the entrance to the building, according to the Israel Police Spokesperson’s Unit. Video from the scene showed piles of cement bags and wire coil fencing along with protest signs at the front door.

Thousands of security personnel were positioned across Israel to deal with Thursday’s events.

The protests follow a similar “Day of Disruption” last Wednesday during which demonstrators blocked roads, disrupted the national passenger rail system and marched in cities across the country. Clashes broke out between protesters and police in Tel Aviv, with several arrests made.

Disruptions in Tel Aviv

In Tel Aviv on Thursday morning, high-tech workers set up a massive replica locomotive with a banner reading, “Democracy is the fuel for the economy’s locomotive.”

Police said on Thursday morning to expect several road closures, and heavy traffic was being experienced in other parts of the country as well.

Protesters in the afternoon managed to break through the police barrier and block traffic on the Ayalon Highway, a major north-south freeway that runs through central Tel Aviv, carrying hundreds of thousands of daily commuters.

Israelis protest in Haifa Port, March 9, 2023. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90.

In Haifa, maritime traffic to the port was being blocked by a flotilla organized by “Sailors to Save Democracy.”

According to organizers, Thursday’s protests will include large public demonstrations, marches at universities and demonstrations involving those in the military, high-tech and health-care sectors.

Israelis protest at Ben-Gurion Airport, March 9, 2023. The sign reads, “Dictator, Don’t Return!” Photo by Erik Marmor/Flash90.

Chaos at Ben-Gurion Airport

Protesters are trying to cause disruptions at Israel’s main international gateway on Thursday by driving back and forth between the entrance to Ben-Gurion Airport and Terminal 3, its main passenger facility.

Some media reports indicated that organizers offered to pay the fuel costs for demonstrators to drive to the airport and back, in addition to 250 shekels ($70) each.

Security personnel are stationed at the entrance to the airport equipped with water cannons.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir told Zman Israel from Terminal 3 that the protesters are “trying to blackmail us with threats, protests and blocked roads that will only be opened if there is no reform. It won’t matter. The reform will pass by the end of the month.” He added that while he supports the right to protest, they can’t prevent travelers from reaching the airport.

Demonstrators were also attempting to block highways leading to Ben-Gurion Airport with the aim of preventing Netanyahu from making his flight for a diplomatic visit to Italy.

U.S. defense secretary forced to change plans

Netanyahu took a helicopter to the airport from Jerusalem, where before his departure he met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, whose itinerary for his Israel visit was changed due to the demonstrations.

Austin arrived in Israel for a one-day visit from Egypt as part of his brief Mideast tour that began in Jordan and also included an unannounced visit to Iraq. Instead of traveling to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, Austin will participate in a meeting at a factory near Ben-Gurion Airport.

The venue change came at the request of Israel’s Defense Ministry, according to Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, with Israeli officials reportedly concerned about demonstrations taking place close to the Kirya military headquarters in central Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu heading to Italy

Netanyahu’s visit to Italy will be one of his first trips abroad since retaking office in December after his right-wing coalition won the Nov. 1 election. He is expected to meet with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and other senior officials before returning to Israel on Saturday night.

He and his wife, Sara, were to travel on a Boeing 737 for the four-hour flight instead of a larger Boeing 777 wide-body airliner due to a lack of qualified pilots willing to fly the 777.

In an interview published Thursday in the Italian daily la Repubblica, Netanyahu said that the protests “show how solid our democracy is.” He went on to say that the judicial reforms are “necessary” and that “the judiciary must be independent, not omnipotent. This is the substance of the debate. Protests are a natural part of this confrontation, but I believe we will overcome them.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid stayed defiant, telling Israeli media on Thursday that the judicial reforms are the pretext for an undemocratic power grab by the ruling coalition.

“If they pass the legislation, there will never be elections. Every time they lose at the polls, they’ll declare a special security situation and won’t hold elections. There will be no democracy here,” Lapid said.

The prime minister also said in the interview with la Repubblica that he will ask Meloni to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.

“It is time for Rome to recognize Jerusalem, our capital for the last 3,000 years,” said Netanyahu.

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