(NEW YORK) — Protesters stormed Israel’s streets overnight, as thousands voiced their opposition to a controversial justice reform bill and the prime minister’s decision to fire the defense secretary who spoke out against it.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday unceremoniously dismissed Yoav Gallant a day after Gallant called for a halt to the planned overhaul of Israel’s judiciary that has fiercely divided the country. Military and business leaders have also spoken out against the plan.
Netanyahu’s office announced Gallant’s firing in a terse statement, saying “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided, this evening, to dismiss Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.” The prime minister’s office did not provide further details.
Gallant, a former army general, is a senior member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party. On Saturday, he called for a pause in the controversial legislation until after next month’s Independence Day holiday, citing the threat to Israel’s national security.
After a night of protests, including police water cannons shot at demonstrators, thousands gathered on Monday morning outside the Knesset, where Israel’s parliament meets. Many more assembled in central Tel Aviv, where a massive rally had been planned.
Ronen Bar, the head of Israeli’s intelligence operations, arrived at Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem just after midnight on Monday as protests continued outside.
Ben Gurion Airport, the country’s main international airport, halted all departures on Monday, as Histadrut, the country’s largest trade union, protested against the planned reforms. Arrivals will continue to land at the airport, although as many as 35,000 people were expected to have their travel disrupted.
Netanyahu crossed all the “red lines” on Sunday night, Histadrut’s leader, Arnon Bar-David, said in a statement posted to Facebook on Monday, according to a translation. He called for an “historic” strike to begin on Monday.
The strike action extended to hospitals, cafes and shopping centers, with many remaining closed on Monday morning.
Washington urged Israeli leaders to find a compromise, with National Security spokesperson Adrienne Watson saying in a statement that the White House was “deeply concerned by today’s developments out of Israel, which further underscore the urgent need for compromise.”
“As the president recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Watson said.
Protests have simmered in Israel for months, since the planned changes were rolled out in December. Under Netanyahu’s reforms, Knesset lawmakers would be able to override decisions made by the country’s supreme court, a change that’s seen by many as a move to consolidate power.
The prime minister and President Joe Biden discussed the changes on a March 19 phone call.
Biden at the time told Netanyahu that “democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and that fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” the White House said.
Two prominent Israeli lawmakers came out against Netanyahu’s judicial reforms as protests continued in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Aryeh Deri, one of the founders of the Shas political party, called on Netanyahu to pause the judicial reforms early Monday morning, according to local media reports.
Miki Zohar, minister of Culture and Sports, said early Monday morning that while the “reform of the judicial system is necessary and essential … when the house is on fire, you don’t ask who is right,” according to a translation.
“If the prime minister decides to stop the legislation in order to prevent the rift created in the nation, we must support his position,” Zohar said.
ABC News’ Joe Simonetti, Edward Szekeres, Ellie Kaufman, Nasser Atta, Bruno Nota and Jordana Miller contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.