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Israel: Unions launch strikes in protest of judicial reforms

March 27, 2023

Departing flights from Israel's main international airport were canceled as protests against the government's proposed judicial overhaul intensified.

Israelis protest near Israel's Supreme Court
Labor unions joined a surging protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to overhaul the judiciaryImage: Ilan Rosenberg/REUTERS

Israel's Airports Authority said on Monday departing flights from the country's main international airport in Tel Aviv were canceled after a strike called to protest the government's planned judicial changes.

The head of the workers union at Ben Gurion Airport, Pinchas Idan, said: "I have ordered an immediate halt to takeoffs at the airport."

The changed flight schedule is expected to affect tens of thousands of travelers en route to different destinations. 

Passengers look at the monitor displaying delayed flights at Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, March 27, 2023
Israeli Airports Authority says flights out of main international airport have been groundedImage: Oren Ziv/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Israeli umbrella organization of trade unions Histadrut has called for a general strike amid ongoing protests against the proposed judicial reforms.

The Histadrut umbrella group represents more than 700,000 workers in health, transit and banking among other fields. 

"I am calling a general strike," Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David said during a televised address. "From the moment this press conference ends, the state of Israel stops."

"We have a mission to stop this legislative process and we will do it," he said, vowing to "continue to fight."

The Israel Medical Association was quick to answer the call, announcing "a full strike in the health system" that will impact all public hospitals.

Israeli embassies around the world were also called on to join the strikes, according to media reports.

President urges halt to judicial reform plans

Earlier on Monday, Israeli President Isaac Herzog urged the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pause the controversial judicial reforms that have sparked massive protests across the country.

This came a day after Netanyahu sacked his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant after he opposed the reforms, which critics say hand the prime minister too much power at the expense of the independence of the judiciary. 

Opposition to judicial reform is mounting in Israel

Following Gallant's sacking, in a spontaneous outburst of anger, tens of thousands of angry Israelis poured onto the streets on Sunday night.

"For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of responsibility, I call on you to stop the legislative process immediately," Herzog, whose position is largely ceremonial, wrote on Twitter.

Reports: Netanyahu could suspend judicial reform plans

As the protests against Netanyahu intensified, ministers from his Likud party showed indications of willingness to hit the brakes on the overhaul. The current government is Israel's most right-wing ever.

On Sunday evening, the prime minister convened an emergency meeting attended by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and Education Minister Yoav Kisch, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Dermer and Kisch advised the prime minister to freeze the legislation, the newspaper said.

Levin reportedly urged the government to stick to the plans and threatened resignation.

Culture Minister Micky Zohar, a close confidant of Netanyahu, said the party would back him if he decided to pause the judicial overhaul.

Far-right coalition partner and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir tweeted on Monday that the government must not "surrender to anarchy" following mass protests.

Later it was reported that Netanyahu would delay any announcements due to blowback from members of his coalition who vowed to resign if the prime minister did not push forward with the controversial reform.

Reuters news agency also reported that Netanyahu and his coalition narrowly survived two no-confidence motions brought by the opposition Monday. The president of the Knesset said the votes tallied 59-53 and 60-51 in favor of the coalition. 

Protests intensify ahead of parliamentary voting

Observers have suggested that the dismissal of Gallant indicates the prime minister and his allies intend to move ahead and ensure the legislation is passed.

Israeli media reported that the Judiciary Committee approved a centerpiece of the overhaul and released to parliament on Monday for final readings.

The government announced the planned changes in January, arguing they were needed to restore a balance between the executive and judicial branches and claiming judges had become too interventionist.

The former defense minister was the first senior member of Likud, the senior party in Netanyahu's sprawling coalition, to speak against the reforms. He said the deep divisions were threatening to weaken the military.

On Sunday night, while a crowd of protesters marched toward Netanyahu's residence, others blocked a main highway in Tel Aviv and lit bonfires.

Israeli protesters raise flags and beat drums during a protest.
Thousands of Israelis poured onto the streets to protest the contentious judicial reforms Image: Saeed Qaq/imago images/ZUMA Wire

The use of water cannons was reported at several of the protests.

The unrest has deepened a monthslong crisis over the prime minister's push to over the judiciary.

ns/fb (Reuters, dpa, AP)