Tens of thousands of protesters blocked roads in cities across Israel during demonstrations Monday, hours before the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu introduced a controversial judicial overhaul bill.
Demonstrators in Jerusalem turned the streets around the Supreme Court and Knesset into a sea of Israeli flags, which organizers were handing out before the event began.
Among the protesters were a few dozen women dressed in long red dresses and white head coverings, like handmaids in the Margaret Atwood novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” along with drummers, horn-blowers and at least one juggler balancing an Israeli flagpole on his nose.
The Jerusalem demonstration was visibly smaller than one in the same location a week earlier, but still appeared to number about 75,000 people an hour and a quarter after it was scheduled to begin, crowd control expert Ofer Grinboim Liron told CNN.
Protesters had begun to disperse by 4:30pm local time (9:30am ET), a CNN team there observed. The demonstration had largely finished early evening local time in Jerusalem.
But soon after, chaotic scenes emerged inside the Knesset as the session to officially debate the bill for its first reading in parliament began.
Many opposition lawmakers from former Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party raised Israeli flags in the chamber, some draping them over their shoulders, and shouted over government lawmaker Simcha Rothman as debate began. Knesset security took flags away from lawmakers and escorted some out of the chamber.
The controversial judicial reform bill has so far sparked weeks of public protests, a plea from President Isaac Herzog to delay for negotiations, and a rare intervention into Israeli domestic politics by US President Joe Biden.
Netanyahu’s coalition is seeking the most sweeping overhaul of the Israeli legal system since the country’s founding. The most significant changes would allow a simple majority in the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court rulings.
The reforms also seek to change the way judges are selected, and remove government ministries’ independent legal advisers, whose opinions are binding.
US President Joe Biden has expressed concerns over the reforms, saying: “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
On Sunday, Netanyahu defended the judicial reform.
“Israel is a democracy and will remain a democracy, with majority rule and proper safeguards of civil liberties,” he said during an address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“All democracies should respect the will of other free peoples, just as we respect their democratic decisions.
“There’s been a lot of rhetoric that is frankly reckless and dangerous, including calls for bloodshed in the streets and calls for a civil war. It isn’t going to happen. There’s not going to be a civil war,” the Prime Minister added.