JERUSALEM (AP) — Tens of thousands of protesters packed the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday night, marking the 28th straight week of demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary. Protest leaders promised further “days of disruption” lie ahead.
Netanyahu’s government gave initial approval to a key portion of the overhaul earlier this week, breathing new life into the grassroots movement. The bill still needs to be approved in two more votes, expected by the end of the month, before it becomes law.
Saturday night protests have become a mainstay of the grassroots movement — but this week’s was larger than usual.
In Tel Aviv, protesters unrolled a massive banner reading “SOS.” They threw paint powder into the sky, streaking it pink and orange. “Handmaids” — women dressed in red robes as characters from the dystopian novel and TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale” — once again took to the streets. Their jarring appearance is meant to drive home the notion that, if the overhaul passes, women could be stripped of their rights.
On Tuesday, protesters blocked major highways and disrupted operations at the country’s main international airport after Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition advanced a bill that is part of the overhaul. Organizers said they would hold another “day of disruption” on Tuesday if he continues to move ahead with the plan.
The Israeli leader was hospitalized on Saturday for dehydration after suffering a dizzy spell and having spent the previous day in the sun without drinking water. He later released a video from the Tel Aviv hospital, saying he felt good. However, Netanyahu was to spend the night in the hospital, according to his office, and a weekly Cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday was pushed to Monday.
Saturday’s protest in Tel Aviv was joined by others across the country. Protesters brandished lit torches outside Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem and demonstrated in the coastal cities of Herzliya and Netanya.
After more than six months of protests, the movement shows little sign of abating. Israel’s national labor union and its medical association have joined a long list of groups speaking out against the bill. Military reservists, fighter pilots and business leaders have all urged the government to halt the plan.
Arnon Bar-David, head of the country’s national labor union, the Histadrut, threatened a possible general strike that could paralyze the country’s economy.
“If the situation reaches an extreme, we will intervene and employ our strength,” Bar-David said, calling on Netanyahu to “stop the chaos.”
The Histadrut called a general strike in March as the government pushed the judicial overhaul legislation through parliament after weeks of protest. The move shut down large swaths of Israel’s economy and helped contribute to Netanyahu’s decision to suspend the legislation.
The Israeli Medical Association, which represents 90% of Israeli physicians, joined the Histadrut Friday, voting to “employ all available means, including significant organizational measures” to oppose the reasonableness bill.
The law will “devastate the healthcare system,” the chairman of the association, professor Zion Hagay, said.
The mass protests have taken place since Netanyahu’s far-right government presented the overhaul plan in January, days after taking office. The protests led Netanyahu to suspend the overhaul in March, but he decided to revive the plan last month after compromise talks with the political opposition collapsed.
The overhaul calls for giving Netanyahu’s allies control over the appointment of judges and giving parliament power to overturn court decisions. The Netanyahu government is the most hard-line ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox in Israel’s 75-year history. His allies proposed the sweeping changes to the judiciary after the country held its fifth elections in under four years, all of them seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to serve as prime minister while on trial for corruption.
Critics of the judicial overhaul say it will upset the country’s fragile system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his allies. They also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest because he is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes.