TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Weeks of anti-government protests in Israel turned violent on Wednesday for the first time as police fired stun grenades and a water cannon at demonstrators who blocked a Tel Aviv highway. The crackdown came shortly after Israel’s hard-line security minister urged a tough response to what he said were “anarchists.”
The violence came as thousands across the country launched a “national disruption day” against the government’s plan to overhaul Israel’s judicial system. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allies say the program is meant reduce the influence of unelected judges.
But critics, including influential business leaders and former military figures, say Netanyahu is pushing the country toward authoritarian rule and has a clear conflict of interest in targeting judges as he stands trial on corruption charges.
The government is barreling ahead with the legal changes and a parliamentary committee is moving forward on a bill that would weaken the Supreme Court.
The crisis has sent shock waves through Israel and presented Netanyahu with a serious challenge, just two months after returning to power. A wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the occupied West Bank has compounded his troubles.
The rival sides are digging in, deepening one of Israel’s worst domestic crises. Netanyahu and his government, made up of ultranationalists, have branded the protesters anarchists, while stopping short of condemning a West Bank settler mob that torched a Palestinian town earlier this week.
The legal overhaul has sparked an unprecedented uproar, with weeks of mass protests, criticism from legal experts and rare demonstrations by army reservists who have pledged to disobey orders under what they say will be a dictatorship after the overhaul passes. Business leaders, the country’s booming tech sector and leading economists have warned of economic turmoil under the judicial changes. Israel’s international allies have expressed concern.
In the first scenes of unrest since the protests began two months ago, police arrived on horseback in the center of the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, hurled stun grenades and used a water cannon against thousands of protesters who chanted “democracy” and “police state.” A video posted on social media showed a police officer pinning down a protester with his knee on the man’s neck.
Police said protesters threw rocks and water bottles at police. Several protesters were arrested for disturbing the peace and Israeli media said at least six protesters were wounded. Earlier Wednesday, protesters blocked Tel Aviv’s main freeway and the highway connecting the city to Jerusalem, halting rush hour traffic for about an hour. At busy train stations in Tel Aviv, protesters prevented trains from departing by blocking their doors.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist accused of politicizing the police, has vowed to take a tough line. He called on police to prevent the road blockages, labeling the demonstrators “anarchists.”
Netanyahu said Ben-Gvir had his full support. “We will not tolerate violence against police, blocking roads and blatant breaches of the country’s laws. The right to protest is not the right to anarchy,” he said.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid called on police to show restraint.
“The protesters are patriots,” he tweeted. “They are fighting for the values of freedom, justice and democracy. The role of the police is to allow them to express their opinions and fight for the country they love.”
Thousands of protesters came out in locations across the country waving Israeli flags. Parents marched with their children, tech workers walked out of work to demonstrate and doctors in scrubs protested outside hospitals. The main rallies were expected later Wednesday outside the Knesset, or parliament, and near Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.
“Every person here is trying to keep Israel a democracy and if the current government will get its way, then we are afraid we will no longer be a democracy or a free country,” said Arianna Shapira, a protester in Tel Aviv. “As a woman, as a mother, I’m very scared for my family and for my friends.”
Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the overhaul’s main architect, said Tuesday that the coalition aims to ram through some of the judicial overhaul bills into law in the coming month, before the parliament goes on recess for the Passover holiday on April 2.
The Knesset also is set to cast a preliminary vote Wednesday on a separate proposal to protect Netanyahu from being removed from his post, a move that comes following calls to the country’s attorney general to declare him “unfit for office.”
Netanyahu has been the center of a years-long political crisis in Israel, with former allies turning on him and refusing to sit with him in government because of his corruption charges. That political turmoil, with five elections in four years, culminated in Netanyahu returning to power late last year, with ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties as partners in the current far-right government.
Wielding immense political power, those allies secured top portfolios in Netanyahu’s government, among them Ben-Gvir, who before entering politics was arrested dozens of times and was once convicted of incitement to violence and support for a terror group. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a firebrand West Bank settler leader, has been given authority over parts of the territory.
They have promised to take a tough stance against Palestinians, which has ratcheted up tensions in recent weeks. Smotrich publicly called for a harsh response to the killing of two Israelis in the West Bank by a Palestinian gunman, saying Israel should “go crazy,” shortly before Sunday’s mob violence. While he later urged restraint, he also said Wednesday that Hawara, the Palestinian village that was attacked, should be “erased.”
In addition to the protests, Netanyahu’s government, Israel’s most right-wing ever, is beginning to show early cracks, just two months into its tenure.
The government says the legal changes are meant to correct an imbalance that has given the courts too much power and allowed them to meddle in the legislative process. They say the overhaul will streamline governance and say elections last year, which returned Netanyahu to power with a slim majority in parliament, gave them a mandate to make the changes.
Critics say the overhaul will upend Israel’s system of checks and balances, granting the prime minister and the government unrestrained power and push the country toward authoritarianism.
Associated Press reporter Ami Bentov in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report.