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Police enforcement at issue as reform opponents plan more disruptions

Major Israeli shopping center chain threatens to shut down for Tuesday's "Day of Resistance."

Israelis block the Ayalon Highway during a protest in Tel Aviv, July 5, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Israelis block the Ayalon Highway during a protest in Tel Aviv, July 5, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

The Israeli government is awaiting a response from the attorney general to its inquiry on the state’s enforcement policy as anti-judicial reform protesters gear up for major disruptions on Tuesday.

At the start of Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his coalition would like answers from Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara about the enforcement policy regarding “threats and assaults on elected officials, calls to civil revolt and disobeying the law, blocking roads and illegal strikes.”

The premier emphasized the “sacrosanct” right to peacefully demonstrate but within the limit of the law, which doesn’t include actions infringing “on the basic rights of millions of citizens and which are carried out almost on a daily basis during the demonstrations.”

Netanyahu then cited examples from the past months of mass demonstrations that have included blocking roads such as the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, disrupting access to Ben-Gurion Airport, harassing government ministers and threatening to refuse military service.

Israelis protest in Haifa against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, July 8, 2023. Credit: Flash90.

“The public needs to receive an answer to the question: What is the enforcement policy and is it uniform? In a democratic country, there cannot be a situation in which there is one enforcement policy regarding a certain public and a second enforcement policy regarding another public,” the prime minister said.

Netanyahu’s comments come amid a revival of the protests seen earlier this year, timed to coincide with the restarting in the Knesset of legislation to reform the judicial system. 

Protest organizers threatened a “Day of Resistance” on Tuesday should coalition lawmakers advance a bill this week to end the Supreme Court’s use of the standard of “reasonableness” to cancel government decisions.

Following a 9-4 vote in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the proposed amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary will head to the full Knesset as soon as Monday for the first of three readings necessary for it to become law.

Big Shopping Centers announced on Sunday that it would close malls across Israel on Tuesday if the proposed legislation moves forward, prompting a criminal complaint to be filed and a call for a boycott of the company, which owns and manages 25 shopping malls across the country.

The BIG Shopping Mall in Kiryat Shmona, in the Galilee Panhandle, Jan. 13, 2023. Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90.

Lawyer Aviad Wisoli filed the complaint with Competition Commissioner Michal Cohen, the head of the Israel Competition Authority. It also calls for a criminal investigation to be opened against the company.

“The closure of the ‘Big’ centers is a binding agreement between the Big group and far-left movements that stage protests against Knesset legislation,” Wisoli wrote in the complaint, which Cohen’s office confirmed was received.

The complaint alleges that the closures could “seriously harm the public,” by, for example, denying medical care to someone who has an appointment or by not providing essential foods that must be fresh.

“Under the Economic Competition Act, forming a restrictive arrangement without permission from the commissioner of competition is an offense punishable by up to five years in prison,” the letter states.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir called for a boycott of Big and demanded an apology, insisting that the Knesset vote would take place “despite all those acting thuggishly.”

Also on Sunday, opposition leader Yair Lapid urged the Histadrut labor federation to declare another general strike.

Yesh Atid Party head Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 3, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

“It needs to be part of [the protests]. Workers’ rights will be harmed,” Lapid told Army Radio.

The Histadrut’s general strike on March 27 against the government’s judicial reform initiative set off a cascade of similar strike calls, from the Israel Medical Association to fast-food chains. Takeoffs at Ben-Gurion were grounded when the Israel Airports Authority joined the strike.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich in early April ordered his ministry to assess the damages resulting from the Histadrut’s general strike and to investigate the possibility of initiating legal proceedings against the labor federation.

Meanwhile, demonstrators continue to harass government officials. Army reservists organized an overnight rally starting Saturday evening outside of the home of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Amikam, a moshav located south of Haifa.

“Together we will pin our hopes on the defense minister, who has already proven that, in obedience to his conscience, he will not allow damage to Israel’s security and for the nation to be torn apart,” the protest group Brothers in Arms said in a statement.

Israelis protest against the judicial reform initiative, outside the home of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Moshav Amikam, July 8, 2023. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90.

In March, Gallant called for a temporary halt to the judicial reform program, saying the coalition’s legislative push threatened national security. The move drew criticism from the ruling coalition and Netanyahu announced the defense minister’s firing, only to later reverse the decision.

On Saturday, a group of more than 420 reservists from the elite Shayetet 13 Israel Navy commando unit sent an open letter to Gallant threatening to not show up for duty if the judicial reform legislation advances.

This and other threats drew a response from IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi on Sunday, who called on reservists to report for duty.

“These last few days force us to focus on the security mission and the cohesion that supports it. In today’s reality, we don’t have the right not to respond to every challenge and mission,” Halevi said.

The protests have turned violent at times and many arrests have been made, although some in Netanyahu’s coalition are calling for a tougher stance. This led to the resignation last week of Tel Aviv District Police Commander Ami Eshed, which in turn sparked demonstrations that again shut down the Ayalon Highway.

Protesters have also engaged in intimidation, with video circulating of the owner of Israel’s conservative Channel 14 news and his family in their car being surrounded by hostile activists.

Ben-Gvir pressed the police about enforcement at the Tel Aviv protests, with Dep. Supt. Yoav Telem saying that six indictments were filed out of 572 arrests for assaulting police officers and that no investigations were opened on suspicion of criminal conspiracy to organize a riot.

“For shame. There is no enforcement,” Ben-Gvir said.

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