Tel Aviv, Israel, Mar. 28: Workers from a range of sectors in Israel launched a nationwide strike on Monday, threatening to paralyze the economy as they joined a surging protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to overhaul the judiciary.
Departing flights from the country's main international airport were grounded, large mall chains and universities shut their doors, and Israel's largest trade union group called for its 800,000 members — in health, transit, banking and other fields — to stop work. Local governments were expected to close the preschools they run and cut other services, and the main doctors union announced its members would also walk off the job.
The growing resistance to Netanyahu's plan came hours after tens of thousands of people burst into the streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at the prime minister's decision to fire his defense minister after he called for a pause to the overhaul. Chanting "the country is on fire," they lit bonfires on Tel Aviv's main highway, closing the thoroughfare and many others throughout the country for hours.
Thousands of protesters gathered Monday outside the Knesset, or parliament, to keep up the pressure.
The overhaul — driven by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and his allies in Israel's most right-wing government ever — has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises. It has sparked sustained protests that have galvanized nearly all sectors of society, including its military, where reservists have increasingly come out publicly to say they will not serve a country veering toward autocracy.
Israel's Palestinian citizens, however, have largely sat out the protests. Many say Israel's democracy is tarnished by its military rule over their brethren in the West Bank and the discrimination they themselves face.
The turmoil has magnified longstanding and intractable differences over Israel's character that have riven it since its establishment. The protesters say they are fighting for the very soul of the nation, saying the overhaul will remove Israel's system of checks and balances and directly challenge its democratic ideals.
The government has labelled them anarchists out to topple a democratically elected leadership and says the plan will restore a balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.
At the center of the crisis is Netanyahu himself, Israel's longest serving leader, and questions about the lengths he may be willing to go to maintain his grip on power, even as he battles charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate affairs. He denies wrongdoing.
The firing of his defense minister at a time of heightened security threats in the West Bank and elsewhere, appeared to be a last straw for many, including apparently the Histadrut, the country's largest trade union umbrella group, which had sat out the monthslong protests before the defense minister's firing.
"Where are we leading our beloved Israel? To the abyss," Arnon Bar-David, the group's head, said in a rousing speech to applause. "Today we are stopping everyone's descent toward the abyss."
On Monday, as the embers of the highway bonfires were cleared, Israel's ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, called again for an immediate halt to the overhaul.
"The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, society — all are under threat," he said. "Wake up now!" (AP)