Israelis protest judicial overhaul despite violence surge

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Thousands of Israelis gathered Saturday for a weekly demonstration against the government’s contentious judicial overhaul plans, despite security concerns stemming from a surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put his overhaul on hold after mass protests against the plan, which has brought together large swaths of Israeli society in opposition to a series of bills that aim to weaken the country’s Supreme Court.

The main protest in Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial hub, was held less than two kilometers (a mile) from Friday’s attack, in which an Italian tourist was killed and five other Italian and British citizens were wounded when a car rammed into a group of tourists. In a separate incident, two British-Israeli women were shot to death near a settlement in the occupied West Bank.

The spasm of violence in Israel and the West Bank has heightened fears of an even more intense surge, with the rare convergence of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, the Jewish Passover holiday and Easter currently underway.

Leaders of the grassroots protest movement against the judicial overhaul called for the weekly mass protest to continue as planned Saturday, with tens of thousands of people attending for a 14th consecutive week.

They portrayed the anti-government demonstration as a rally of solidarity with those killed and wounded in Friday’s attacks, as well as with Israelis living near the Lebanese border and the Gaza border affected by recent Palestinian rocket fire. In Tel Aviv, protesters held a moment of silence for the victims.

The protest organizers argue that the overhaul plans have diminished Israel’s national security by roiling the military and weakening the country in the eyes of its enemies.

Upon announcing the delaying of the proposed changes in Israel’s legal system, Netanyahu appeared to calm some of the tensions that have fueled three tumultuous months of unrest. But his announcement failed to address the underlying issues that have polarized the nation, and he has vowed to revive the plan in the coming weeks if negotiations on a compromise with the political opposition fail.

The plan would give Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his allies the final say in appointing the nation’s judges. It would also give parliament, which is controlled by his allies, authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit the court’s ability to review laws.

Netanyahu’s supporters say the plan is needed to rein in the powers of unelected judges. Opponents say it will destroy a system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu and his allies in parliament. They also say that Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges, has a conflict of interest at a time when he is on trial.

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