People confront with an Israeli police officer as they demonstrate on 'Day of Disruption' in protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on July 11, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

JERUSALEM: Israeli protesters blocked highways leading to Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv at the start of countrywide demonstrations on Tuesday against the government’s planned judicial overhaul that has divided the nation.

The demonstrations came the morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition gave initial approval to a bill to limit the Supreme Court’s oversight powers, pressing forward with contentious proposed changes to the judiciary despite widespread opposition.

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The legislation is one of several bills proposed by Netanyahu’s ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies. The plan has provoked months of sustained protests by opponents who say it is pushing the country toward authoritarian rule.

Anti-overhaul activists called for nationwide mass demonstrations throughout the day, including protests at Israel’s main international airport that could disrupt travel.

Protesters chased disrupted in Tel Aviv. Image Credit: Reuters

On Tuesday, 300 reservists from the military’s cyber unit signed a letter saying they would not volunteer for service, explaining the government has demonstrated “it is determined to destroy the state of Israel.”

“Sensitive cyber abilities with the potential for being used for evil must not be given to a criminal government that is undermining the foundations of democracy,” the letter said.

Police used a water cannon to clear protesters who blocked a main artery leading to Jerusalem. Officers arrested several others who had obstructed a highway next to the central city of Modiin. Demonstrators blocked a main highway in Haifa with a large banner reading “Together we will be victorious,” snarling traffic along the beachfront.

Protesters block Tel Aviv-Haifa highway near Beit Yanai. Image Credit: AP

Police said 24 people were arrested for public disturbance during the protests.

Netanyahu’s allies have proposed a series of changes to the Israeli legal system aimed at weakening what they say are the excessive powers of unelected judges. The proposed changes include giving Netanyahu’s allies control over the appointment of judges and giving parliament power to overturn court decisions.

Netanyahu put the overhaul plan on hold in March after weeks of mass protests. But he decided to revive it last month after talks with the political opposition aimed at finding a compromise collapsed.

People block a highway. Image Credit: Reuters

The Netanyahu government, which took office in December, is the most hardline ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox in Israel’s 75-year history. His allies proposed the sweeping changes to the judiciary after the country held its fifth elections in under four years, all of them seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to serve as prime minister while on trial for corruption.

Critics of the judicial overhaul say it will upset the country’s fragile system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his allies. They also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest because he is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, all of which he has denied.

A wide swath of Israeli society, including reserve military officers, business leaders, LGBTQ+ people and members of other minority groups have joined the protests.