This story originally appeared in Common Dreams on March 26, 2023. It is shared here with permission.
Decades into the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine, massive crowds flooded Israel’s streets on Sunday for another round of demonstrations to “save a democracy that never existed,” as one journalist recently put it.
Sunday’s protests were sparked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu firing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who a day earlier advocated for a one-month pause to an ongoing judicial overhaul “for the sake of Israel’s security,” given military reservists’ concerns. Saturday also saw hundreds of thousands of Israelis join nationwide rallies, the 12th straight week of mass action against the looming changes.
“The state of Israel’s security has always been and will forever be my life’s mission,” Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commander, declared in response to his dismissal.
A White House National Security Council spokesperson said, “We are deeply concerned by the ongoing developments in Israel, including the potential impact on military readiness raised by Minister Gallant, which further underscores the urgent need for compromise.”
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which is also fighting against the judicial overhaul, argued Gallant’s ouster “proves once again” that Netanyahu “is not institutionally, ethically, or morally qualified” to serve as prime minister and vowed to consider legal action to stop the “scandalous and disgraceful” dismissal.
Israeli analyst Meron Rapoport told Middle East Eye that Gallant’s firing was “a desperate, extreme move by Netanyahu,” whose decision was blasted by political opponents and other key Israeli figures while praised by far-right leaders.
“Netanyahu’s descent into authoritarian madness,” as one U.S. reporter described it, leaves Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich—the Religious Zionism leader who recently said that “there’s no such thing as Palestinians” and Israel should “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Hawara—as the only minister in Israel’s Ministry of Defense.
Israeli Defense Ministry Director General Eyal Zamir on Sunday decided to cut short his trip to the United States. In Israel, demonstrators filled Tel Aviv’s main highway. Police used water cannons on protesters who broke through barricades at Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem. Universities announced an indefinite strike. On Monday, dozens of doctors intend to call in “sick” while 26 heads of local authorities plan to launch a hunger strike at the prime minister’s office.
In what one reporter said “could be a game-changer,” the head of Histadrut, the Israeli trade union federation that has so far resisted pressure to join protests against the judicial coup, scheduled a press conference for late Monday morning.
After 18 “fulfilling and rewarding” months as the Israeli consul general in New York, Asaf Zamir resigned Sunday, saying that “following today’s developments, it is now time for me to join the fight for Israel’s future to ensure it remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world.”
Meanwhile, Israeli journalist Haggai Matar, executive director of +972 Magazine and Local Call, said in a series of tweets that Gallant, who should be tried at the International Criminal Court “for his war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza,” was fired “for the wrong reasons.”
“Netanyahu fired him for trying to slow down Israel’s transition into a fully authoritarian state toward Jews,” Matar wrote. “Of course, it has been a dictatorship toward Palestinians for decades, and now that logic is expanding into Israel and Jews, while paving the way for even worse attacks on Palestinians.”
Of the latest protests, he added: “This is all so inspiring—and at the same time, so dreadful to know that all these forces have been silent for so long on apartheid. Silent, or actively participating and profiting from it. And yet now they are on an all-out battle under the slogan of democracy.”
American-Israeli reporter Mairav Zonszein wrote for The Daily Beast on Wednesday that “Israelis who have bent the rule of law to suit their ideology for decades are now themselves becoming the target of a far-right that is using its newly won power to bend it even further.”
“Each party in the Israeli government has specific and explicit goals that the various laws in this judicial overhaul package would serve,” Zonszein explained. Ultra-Orthodox parties want to ensure “their constituency does not have to serve in the military” and the Shas Party aims to enable leader Aryeh Deri “to serve as a minister despite several recent convictions of tax fraud.”
“For the religious, nationalist, racist, far-right parties—Jewish Power and Religious Zionism, both headed by settlers who are now senior ministers in government—it’s about extending Israeli sovereignty over all occupied territory,” she continued. The Likud party wants to keep expanding “Israel’s settlement enterprise, consolidate power over media, culture, and public institutions—and for Netanyahu, it is about assuming enough control over the courts, through appointing judges, to evade conviction.”
Netanyahu, who did not campaign on judicial reforms, returned to power last year—and established the most far-right government in Israel’s history—despite facing various charges of corruption, which he denies.
“The act of creating new laws in order to serve its interests on the ground is precisely what Israel has been doing for 56 years as an occupying power,” Zonszein stressed, adding:
While protesters—many of them among the most privileged in Israeli society—walk in the streets demanding the “rule of law” and “democracy,” Israeli forces are demolishing Palestinian homes; standing alongside settlers who are terrorizing Palestinians; denying freedom of movement and assembly; holding people in prolonged detention without trial; killing unarmed protesters; carrying out torture; and deporting Palestinian activists. And within Israel, Palestinian citizens face structural discrimination and inequality under an explicit policy that prioritizes Jewish rights.
There is also a small but dedicated anti-occupation bloc that carries signs at the protests with messages like: “There is no democracy with occupation” and “Democracy for all from the river to the sea.” At one of the recent protests, a gray-haired woman held up a sign that may sum it up best: “We were silent about occupation, we got a dictatorship.”
U.S.-Palestinian journalist and Palestine Chronicle editor Ramzy Baroud contended in an opinion piece for Common Dreams earlier this month that “a proper engagement with the ongoing protests is to further expose how Tel Aviv utilizes the judicial system to maintain the illusion that Israel is a country of law and order, and that all the actions and violence in Palestine, however bloody and destructive, are fully justifiable according to the country’s legal framework.”
“Yes, Israel should be sanctioned, not because of Netanyahu’s attempt at co-opting the judiciary, but because the system of apartheid and regime of military occupation constitute complete disregard and utter violation of international law,” Baroud concluded. “Whether Israelis like it or not, international law is the only law that matters to an occupied and oppressed nation.”
Yonah Lieberman, co-founder of the U.S. group IfNotNow, noted that earlier in the weekend, Israeli soldiers forced Palestinian worshippers out of the Al-Aqsa Mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Responding to footage from Israeli protests Sunday night, Lieberman said: “Furious young people fighting an authoritarian for their rights. Reminds you of popular uprisings that have happened over and over again across the world. But if these were young Palestinians they would have been shot—the Jewish privilege inherent in Israel’s apartheid system.”
“A popular uprising to overthrow Netanyahu and his extremist government will not lead to democracy and equality for all in Israel,” he added. “Only overthrowing the entire apartheid system will lead to democracy and equality for all.”
This post has been updated with comment from Yonah Lieberman.