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Israeli Police Use Water Cannons and Stun Grenades on Protesters in Tel Aviv

The confrontations escalated tensions between the political leadership and protesters opposed to the far-right government’s plan to curb the powers of the judiciary.

Source: New York Times

The Israeli police deployed water cannons and stun grenades on Wednesday against thousands of protesters blocking a main road in Tel Aviv, a significant escalation of the confrontation between the political leadership and opponents of the government’s plan to rein in the powers of the country’s judiciary.

The rare use of force by the police against Israeli citizens came as groups of protesters carrying Israeli flags blocked roads, bridges and busy intersections around the country in what organizers called a “day of national disruption.” These actions followed regular protests that began eight weeks ago and have at times disrupted life in Israel’s major cities.

On Wednesday, a few dozen protesters were arrested and a few people were injured. Images on social media and news outlets showed one man who had been hit by a stun grenade with a mangled ear and blood pouring down his neck.

Police videos showed some demonstrators throwing empty plastic water bottles at officers mounted on horseback during the confrontation. Some protesters chanted “shame, shame shame” and “democracy, democracy, democracy.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hard-line minister of national security, the ultranationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir, denounced the protesters as “anarchists” and defended the police.

“We will not allow violence against police officers, the blocking of highways and the gross violation of the laws of the state,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “The right to demonstrate is not a right to anarchy.”

In one of the more bizarre episodes of the day, police forces had to extricate the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, from a hair salon in Tel Aviv at 11 p.m., after hundreds of protesters had gathered outside while she was getting her hair done. Mr. Netanyahu described the behavior of the protesters as a threatening and unprecedented “shameful act.”

The protest organizers accused the police of becoming politicized and said they had crossed the line on Wednesday by obstructing a democratic protest.

As the initially peaceful protests turned into heated confrontations, Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition in Jerusalem pressed on with its plans to make sweeping changes within the judiciary, advancing bills in Parliament that legislators are expected to eventually vote on in coming weeks.

One bill would severely curb review of legislation by the judiciary and allow Parliament to override Supreme Court decisions with a bare majority.

In another sign of the tough stance adopted by the new government after a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank, the Parliament held a preliminary vote on a bill that would allow Israeli courts to impose the death penalty on people convicted of murder in cases of political violence against Israeli citizens.

The chaotic scenes on the streets of Tel Aviv, the commercial and cultural heart of Israel, and the rare display of force by the police reflected the escalating battle that has divided the country.

The government and its supporters say the plan for changes to the justice system is a much-needed reform to curb the influence of an overreaching judiciary and restore the proper balance of power between the courts and the country’s elected representatives.

Critics say the changes will strip the courts of their independence and undermine the country’s democratic institutions, turning the Israeli system into a tyranny of the majority, with no checks and balances or protections for minorities.

Wednesday was the first time protest organizers had declared a “day of national disruption” since this protest movement began.

Parents and students rallied outside schools, and town squares filled with protesting doctors, pilots, high-tech workers and L.G.B.T.Q. advocates. Women’s rights activists dressed in the red robes and white bonnets to mimic the dystopian TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and farmers drove tractors along highways in slow convoys to snarl traffic.

Wednesday’s protests ratcheted up the broad public backlash that has brought tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators out onto the streets in protests weekly, or sometimes more frequently.

Protesters demonstrated on Wednesday night outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

The bill broadening the application of the death penalty was sponsored by Jewish Power, the party in the governing coalition led by Mr. Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in the past for incitement of anti-Arab racism and support for a terrorist group. It will now go back to the security cabinet for special review before it advances any further.

The bill advanced in Parliament as the latest victim of a Palestinian attack, Elan Ganeles, an American-Israeli citizen, was buried in a town in central Israel. Mr. Ganeles, who was 26, was killed on Monday in a drive-by shooting near Jericho in the occupied West Bank.

He grew up in Connecticut and had served in the Israeli military before returning to the United States for university studies. He had come back to Israel to attend a friend’s wedding.

On Wednesday, the Israeli security forces detained two Palestinians suspected in the shooting.