“Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in protest against prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s attempts to weaken the powers of the Supreme Court”
Sunday April 02 2023, 12.01am BST, The Sunday Times
By Anshel Pfeffer, Jerusalem
On Monday night, Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced a “time-out” to the political dispute that has paralysed the country for nearly three months and has brought hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters onto the streets.
His government, he said, would suspend controversial legislation that would have drastically weakened the Supreme Court and instead begin a period of “true dialogue” with opposition parties to seek a compromise on constitutional changes.
But by the time that Netanyahu seemed to be extending an olive branch, matters were already taking an ugly turn, a stone’s throw from his office. Over a hundred thousand demonstrators had stood throughout the day outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, protesting against legislation that they claimed would put Israel on the path to being a dictatorship. Now the government’s supporters, summoned via social media, were arriving in Jerusalem and gathering next to the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties was sworn-in three months ago, determined to take on the “left-wing” Supreme Court. The furious backlash from Israel’s predominantly secular middle-class had shaken them. Moderate Likudniks, including the defence minister Yoav Gallant, had called for a pause. So too had the ultra-religious parties, originally among the prime motivators of the legislation. In recent days, alarmed at the prospect of being held responsible for the strife, their leaders had begun privately to urge Netanyahu to climb down. Their followers were conspicuously absent from the pro-government rally.
Most of those who did turn up were instead eager to show, after 12 weeks during which the opposition had ruled the streets, that they were there as well, and supported the government’s “legal reform”. There were even some well-natured debates on the sidelines, between supporters of the two sides, over the true meaning of democracy.
But there were also hundreds of young men in black, some with their faces covered, spoiling for a fight. They attacked journalists, political opponents and Arabs. Hours later, they rampaged on the streets of Tel Aviv as well, terrorising pro-democracy protesters who took cover in basements and side-streets.
Netanyahu in his televised address ignored the violence. “You arrived in a spontaneous, unorganised and unfunded way” he congratulated his supporters, ignoring the fact that they had been organised and bussed in by proxies of his Likud party. “I’m just asking you to act responsibly and not be dragged into any provocation.” He promised them “we won’t let anyone steal the nation’s choice. We won’t give up on the path we were elected to lead”.
Hours earlier, Netanyahu had met Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, and now the national security minister in his government. Ben-Gvir had threatened to quit the coalition over Netanyahu’s halting of the legislation. Without the Jewish Power members, Netanyahu would have lost his majority. To keep him in the fold, Netanyahu signed a letter promising the formation of a “national guard” which would be under the command of Ben-Gvir’s ministry: essentially a private militia for Israel’s most extreme politician, a man with convictions for inciting hatred against Israel’s Arab citizens and for supporting Jewish terror organisations.
The opposition and the organisers of the pro-democracy protest movement fear this is part of an attempt by the government to take the fight over the constitution to the streets. In other parts of the country, government supporters attacked protesters. Near Bet She’an in the north, they blocked a motorway, interrogating drivers in their cars over whether or not they supported the government.
On Thursday, another right-wing rally was held in Tel Aviv. This one was smaller and less violent than Monday’s but once again, young men in black marched through the streets singing “your village should burn” — originally a racist chant used to taunt supporters of Arab football clubs during matches. It was now being used against Jewish political opponents as well. Some of the marchers adapted it to “your Supreme Court should burn”.
Three far-right supporters who had made a video of themselves on the way to Jerusalem on Monday, promising to harm anti-government protesters, were arrested on the way by the Shin Bet security service. But many more rioters got through.
A Channel 13 TV news reporter had a rib broken and his spleen ruptured. An Arab driver, who had stopped to fill his car in the nearby petrol station, narrowly avoided being lynched.
Many of the rioters are associated with La Familia, a racist and violent body that began as an “ultras” supporters group of Beitar Jerusalem, the Israeli Premier League football team, which has historical ties with Netanyahu’s Likud party. While the team’s management denies this is official policy, Beitar remains the only top-tier club in Israel which has never had an Arab player. This is enforced, in part, by groups such as La Familia, who in 2013 burnt down the club office.
Maya Zinshtein, an Israeli documentary maker whose film on La Familia, Forever Pure, won an Emmy award in 2018, says that in recent years, the group has operated less as a supporters’ club, and more as a political pressure-group. “I began seeing members of the group, who I had seen in the past on the football terraces, in far-right protests. That’s when Ben-Gvir suddenly became linked to them, he wasn’t known as a fan of Beitar Jerusalem before that, but suddenly he started coming to games.”
Ben-Gvir, 46, who began his political career in his teens, as a youth organiser for Kach, a far-right party, which in 1994 was proscribed by the Israeli government as a terror organisation, has for years roamed the streets of Jerusalem and other cities, with a band of boys and young men, turning up in the aftermath of terror attacks and picking fights with political opponents and Arab passers-by. In the past few years, La Familia members, in their black hoodies, were among his rowdy entourage. There has also been an increasing overlap between La Familia and Lehava, a far-right group led by former members of the Kach party, which focuses on “assimilation” and preventing relationships between Jews and non-Jews.
Israeli security officials have called in the past for both La Familia and Lehava to be outlawed as either organised crime or terror groups. But their political connections have protected them. Prominent politicians, such as Likud’s transport minister, Miri Regev, have proudly had their pictures taken with members of La Familia.
“Most of the members of La Familia and Lehava are bored 16 and 17 year-olds,” said a police officer who has dealt with both groups. “But behind them are people with extensive criminal records who use them for their purposes, whether political or criminal.”
Zinshtein, the film-maker, says: “La Familia’s influence within Beitar Jerusalem has actually diminished in recent years. The club owners realised that they were much more trouble than they were worth as supporters, that they were causing damage, not just when they burnt down the museum, but by ruining Beitar’s image. If the right-wing think they will boost them now, they’re making a huge mistake. La Familia is about chaos, for chaos’ sake.”
Almog Cohen, a Knesset member of Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party and a former police officer, denies that La Familia are part of the protests. “I was at the demonstration on Thursday night and didn’t see any of them there. I just saw young people, like me.” Cohen, 35, is also adamant that the new “national guard” isn’t going to be Ben-Gvir’s private militia. “It’s a tactical force that will allow the police to fight things like land-theft and organised crime and respond to violent events happening simultaneously in different locations, which the regular officers are less focused on. Of course, it will be under police command. Previous governments planned to found such a unit but there wasn’t enough funding. It’s only because the minister is now Ben-Gvir that people are making a fuss about it.”
Clashes between the government’s supporters and opponents are not the only potential flashpoint, of course. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simmering as well. Last month, after two Israelis were murdered by a lone Palestinian gunman in the Occupied West Bank, Israeli settlers rampaged through the Palestinian town of Huwara, setting dozens of buildings and vehicles alight and killing one citizen.
On Friday night, in east Jerusalem, Muhammad Al-Osaibi, a young doctor from the southern town of Hura, was shot dead by police during Ramadan celebrations. The police claim he tried to grab an officer’s gun. His friends deny this. Footage of the incident only shows the beginnings of a scuffle. The police claim the shooting itself occurred in a “blind spot” not covered by cameras.
As Jews prepare for the Passover festival and Muslims continue marking the month of Ramadan, the threat of violence engulfing Israel is ever present.