Israelis Step Up Protests Over Government's Legal Overhaul

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- Israelis protesting a contentious government plan to overhaul the judicial system on Wednesday blocked roads and highways, clashing with police in central Tel Aviv during what organizers dubbed a "national disruption day."

The demonstrations come as the government barrels ahead with the legal changes. A parliamentary committee was moving forward on a bill that would weaken the Supreme Court.

The crisis has sent shock waves through Israel and presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a serious challenge just two months after he returned to power. Israel's longest-serving leader is battling corruption charges even as his government tries to rejig a system that could determine which judges rule in his ongoing trial.

Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and the country's attorney general has barred him from involvement in the overhaul, saying he risks a conflict of interest.

The rival sides are digging in, deepening one of Israel's worst domestic crises.

The legal overhaul has sparked an unprecedented uproar, with weeks of mass protests, criticism from legal experts and rare demonstrations from 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.

Protesters blocked Tel Aviv's main freeway artery and the highway connecting the city to Jerusalem early Wednesday, halting rush hour traffic for about an hour. At busy train stations in Tel Aviv, protesters prevented trains from departing by blocking their doors.

In some of the first scenes of violence since the protests began two months ago, and in rare unrest in the center of the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, police arrived on horseback and hurled stun grenades at protesters on the road who chanted "democracy" and "police state." Several protesters were arrested for disturbing the peace. Police said protesters threw rocks and water bottles at police.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist who has been accused of politicizing the police, has vowed to take a tough line against the protesters. He called on police to prevent the road blockages, labeling the demonstrators "anarchists."

"Israeli police must use all the means at its disposal to protect public order," Ben-Gvir said in a statement. "Freedom of expression and protest yes, anarchy -- not under any circumstance."

In response, 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 demonstrations were expected later Wednesday outside the Knesset 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, who was protesting 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 Apr. 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 urging her to rule on where he can serve as premier while on trial for corruption.

The clash comes as Israel and the Palestinians are mired in a new round of deadly violence and as Netanyahu's government, its most right-wing ever, is beginning to show early cracks just two months into its tenure.

Netanyahu has been the center of a yearlong 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, left only with ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties as partners and forming the current far-right government.

Wielding immense political power, those allies secured top portfolios in Netanyahu's government, among them Ben-Gvir, the minister who oversees police and has in the past been 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 the Palestinians, which has ratcheted up tensions in recent weeks.

They have also been quick to condemn those protesting the overhaul but held back criticism against an attack by radical settlers on a Palestinian town this week.

The government says the 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.