Israeli mass protests against reforms block roads and airport
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Israeli mass protests against reforms block roads and airport

Dec 30, 2023

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WATCH: Protesters flood the streets of Tel Aviv

Protesters in Israel have blocked roads and attempted to stop the prime minister flying out the country amid nationwide demonstrations against controversial judicial reforms.

Vehicles obstructed access roads to Ben Gurion airport, from where Benjamin Netanyahu later took off for Rome.

The weeks-old protests are some of the biggest Israel has ever seen.

Critics say the reforms will undermine democracy; the government says planned changes are better for the electorate.

In Tel Aviv, thousands of protesters, many waving Israeli flags and carrying signs with slogans against the reforms, marched towards an intersection close to the city's busiest road, the Ayalon highway.

Shay Harel, 64, carried a sign with a target drawn in the middle, which he said was for the "policemen with the M16 [machineguns]".

"Last Wednesday they threw [stun] grenades at me, they hit me with horses - young soldiers who don't know what they're doing," he told the BBC.

"I don't blame them, they get their orders. I blame the Netanyahu family, who are demolishing my country. I won't let it happen, I'm ready to give my life for it. I have written my will," he said.

Mr Harel joined protesters who confronted lines of Israeli border patrol officers and mounted police.

The BBC followed hundreds of protesters who broke off from a main march, taking side streets before scaling fences and pouring onto the highway.

There were violent scuffles as lines of officers pushed back protesters. Security forces pinned one man to the ground before detaining him. Another was led away to a police truck as protesters cried "shame" at the police.

One protester, Rina Benny, walked along a line of security forces and offered them red roses. None accepted.

"It's flowers against the guns," she told the BBC. "I was a soldier for many years, and now I am a soldier in the street. I want to save my country for grandchildren... because it was a great democracy and now somebody stole it from us," she said.

"When I was a soldier we knew exactly what we were fighting for. Now I don't know... and we don't know how it's going to end, it's terrible" she said.

Meanwhile convoys of cars streamed towards the airport from early morning, causing gridlock at the entrance to try to block Mr Netanyahu from getting there by road. He flew in by helicopter instead.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin landed at the airport on Thursday and was reportedly forced to alter his schedule because of the protests.

In talks with his Israeli counterpart, Mr Austin expressed concern about escalating violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It came hours after three Palestinian militants were killed in a gun-battle with Israeli forces in the town of Jaba.

Israel said the militants had opened fire as an undercover unit carried out an arrest raid. The official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, said the three had been "executed".

Elsewhere in the demonstrations in Israel, students blocked one of the main entrances to the northern port city of Haifa, while in Jerusalem hundreds of military reservists demonstrated outside the offices of a pro-reform right-wing think tank.

Some blocked the entrance to the office with sandbags and seven reservists were arrested, local media reported.

In Israel, military service is compulsory, and most men are required to do reserve duty every year afterwards, mostly up until the age of 40.

The protests against the judicial reforms have been going on for about 10 weeks, bringing at times hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets.

The issue has caused deep divides in Israeli society, and significantly has seen reservists - the backbone of Israel's military - threatening to refuse to serve as a way of showing their opposition.

On Monday, in an unprecedented move, dozens of reserve fighter pilots in an elite Israeli Air Force squadron said they would not report for training. They later reversed course and agreed to attend and hold talks with their commanders.

Mr Netanyahu's government has stood firm in the face of the uproar, claiming the protests are being fuelled by political opponents.

Critics say the planned reforms, which are already making their way through parliament, will politicise the judiciary and could lead to an authoritarian government.

Mr Netanyahu says the reforms are designed to stop the courts over-reaching their powers and that they were voted for by the Israeli public at the last election.

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