JERUSALEM: Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken part in what some are calling the biggest protest in the country’s history.
Protests against government plans for a radical overhaul of the judicial system have been running for 10 weeks.
Record numbers of demonstrators turned out in cities such as Haifa, while about 200,000 are believed to have taken to the streets in Tel Aviv.
Critics say the reforms will undermine democracy but Benjamin Netanyahu’s government says planned changes are better for the electorate.
Organizers said as many as 500,000 pro-democracy protesters took to the streets nationwide on Saturday, in what the Israeli Haaretz newspaper called “the largest demonstration in the country’s history”.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid told crowds in the southern city of Be’er Sheva that the country was facing “the greatest crisis in its history”.
“A wave of terrorism is hitting us, our economy is crashing and money is escaping the country. Iran just signed yesterday a new agreement with Saudi Arabia. But the only thing this government cares about is crushing Israeli democracy,” he said.
Tamir Guytsabry, a protester in Tel Aviv, told Reuters: “It’s not a judicial reform. It’s a revolution that [is] making Israel go to full dictatorship and I want Israel to stay a democracy for my kids.”
The protests against the judicial reforms have brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets.
The reforms aim to give the elected government decisive influence over the choice of judges and limit the ability of the Supreme Court to rule against the executive or strike down legislation.
The issue has caused deep divides in Israeli society and, significantly, has seen reservists – the backbone of Israel’s military – threatening to refuse to serve as a way of showing their opposition.
On Monday, in an unprecedented move, dozens of reserve fighter pilots in an elite Israeli Air Force squadron said they would not report for training. They later reversed course and agreed to attend and hold talks with their commanders.
On Thursday, protesters blocked roads and attempted to stop Netanyahu flying out of the country. He later took off for Rome.
The government has stood firm in the face of the uproar, claiming the protests are being fueled by political opponents.
Critics say the planned reforms, which are already making their way through parliament, will politicize the judiciary and could lead to an authoritarian government.
Netanyahu says the reforms are designed to stop the courts overreaching their powers and that they were voted for by the Israeli public at the last election. (Int’l News Desk)