JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police on Wednesday fired stun grenades and water cannons at demonstrators who blocked a Tel Aviv highway and protesters scuffled with police near the Israeli leader’s home as weeks of anti-government protests turned violent for the first time. In a late-night incident, dozens of police were called in to extract Netanyahu’s wife from a salon besieged by protesters.
Thousands across the country staged a “national disruption day,” the latest in a string of mass protests against Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary and weaken the country’s Supreme Court.
The plan has drawn heavy criticism from wide swaths of Israeli society and pleas from international allies for Netanyahu to slow down. A wave of unusually intense Israeli-Palestinian violence in the occupied West Bank has helped fuel tensions, with radical West Bank settlers rampaging through a Palestinian town earlier this week.
Netanyahu and his coalition partners, a collection of ultra-Orthodox and hard-line nationalist parties, say the plan is needed to rein in the powers of unelected judges. Critics say Netanyahu, a defendant standing trial for corruption charges, holds a personal grudge against the justice system and is pushing the country toward autocracy.
In Tel Aviv, crowds of protesters amassed outside a salon where Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, had gone to get her hair done late Wednesday. Israeli media said police were called to rescue her as protesters chanted, “The country is burning and Sara is getting a haircut!”
Videos on social media showed hundreds of people outside the building, screaming and blowing horns. In one video, dozens of members from the paramilitary border police rushed through the streets of Tel Aviv toward the salon, and the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, called on the forces to “protect her life.”
Police announced several hours later that they had successfully “rescued” Mrs. Netanyahu. Amateur videos showed her being whisked into a black vehicle that drove away as the crowd chanted “shame.” Netanyahu later tweeted a photo of him embracing his wife, saying she had returned home safely. “The anarchy has to stop,” he said. “This can lead to the loss of life.”
The Netanyahus have been criticized for being out of touch with regular Israelis and living a lavish lifestyle at taxpayer expense. Last week, an Israeli parliamentary committee approved new funding for Netanyahu and his family.
In a late-night address, Netanyahu criticized the anti-government protesters and attempted to compare them to the violent mob of settlers that tore through the West Bank town of Hawara this week, torching dozens of homes, businesses and cars and killing one Palestinian. The rampage followed the killing of two Israeli brothers as they drove through the town.
“The freedom to demonstrate is not a license to drag the country into anarchy,” Netanyahu said. “We will not accept breaking the rules and violence, not in Hawara, not in Tel Aviv and not anywhere.”
Netanyahu made no mention of a call Wednesday by his Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a firebrand West Bank settler leader, for Hawara to be “erased” by the Israeli state.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called on Netanyahu to “publicly and clearly reject” Smotrich’s comments, describing them as “repugnant,” “disgusting” and “irresponsible.”
Smotrich later tried to walk back his comments, saying he didn’t mean to “wipe out” the entire town, but only to take tough action against militants and their supporters.
Protests continued into the night. Near Netanyahu’s Jerusalem home, demonstrators briefly broke down a barricade and scuffled with security forces.
Since they started two months ago, the protests have been large, colorful, rowdy — and violence-free. But that changed Wednesday, after Ben-Gvir, leader of a far-right party, ordered police to take tougher action against “anarchists” who blocked roads.
In the first scenes of unrest, police arrived on horseback in the center of the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, hurled stun grenades and used a water cannon against thousands who chanted “democracy” and “police state.”
A video posted on social media showed a police officer pressing his knee into a protester’s neck and another showed a man who reportedly had his ear ripped off by a stun grenade. Police said protesters threw rocks and water bottles at the officers.
In Tel Aviv and later in Jerusalem, the protesters shouted “Where were you in Hawara?” at policemen, referring to Sunday’s settler rampage. The military has said it was not prepared for the mob in Hawara, and that it took hours to bring the situation under control.
Police said they arrested dozens of protesters nationwide for disturbing the peace Wednesday while 11 people were hospitalized with various injuries, according to Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.
Earlier in the day, protesters blocked Tel Aviv’s main freeway and the highway connecting the city to Jerusalem, halting rush hour traffic for about an hour. At busy train stations in Tel Aviv, protesters prevented trains from departing by blocking their doors.
Thousands turned out across the country waving Israeli flags. Parents marched with their children, tech workers walked out of work to demonstrate, and doctors in scrubs rallied outside hospitals.
“Every person here is trying to keep Israel a democracy and if the current government will get its way, then we are afraid we will no longer be a democracy or a free country,” said Arianna Shapira, a protester in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu’s allies have called for dialogue with the opposition but shown no signs of backing down from the judicial overhaul – which includes a proposal to give them control over the appointment of judges and another bill that would allow parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions.
Critics, including influential business leaders, former military officers, academics and economists, say the plan will erode the country’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister. President Joe Biden has expressed concern about the program, and Israel’s currency, the shekel, has tumbled in value because of concerns about capital flight.
Both Ben-Gvir and Netanyahu turned their wrath toward opposition leader Yair Lapid, accusing him of encouraging the unrest and trying to plunge the country into new elections.
Lapid called on police to show restraint and said Netanyahu’s government had lost control.
“The protesters are patriots,” Lapid tweeted. “They are fighting for the values of freedom, justice and democracy. The role of the police is to allow them to express their opinions and fight for the country they love.”
Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the overhaul’s main architect, said Tuesday that the coalition is barreling ahead with its plans to turn some judicial overhaul bills into law before the parliament goes on recess for the Passover holiday on April 2.
Netanyahu has been the center of a years-long political crisis in Israel, with former allies turning against him and refusing to sit with him in government because of his corruption charges. The political turmoil — with five elections in four years — culminated in Netanyahu returning to power late last year, with ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox partners in the current far-right government.
Those allies secured top portfolios in Netanyahu’s government. Ben-Gvir, who before entering politics was arrested dozens of times and was once convicted of incitement to violence and support for a terror group, is in charge of overseeing the Israeli police. Smotrich has been given authority over parts of the occupied West Bank.
The staunch ideologues have promised to take a tough stance against Palestinians. Smotrich publicly called for a harsh response to the killings of the two brothers in Hawara shortly before Sunday’s mob violence.