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Judith SudilovskyMarch 31, 2023
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan outside the parliament in Jerusalem, Monday, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan outside the parliament in Jerusalem, Monday, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

While “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” may have been a great formula for sweeping the Oscars, winning seven awards, that approach is not really conducive to a calm and productive political or private life. But that is what life in Israel has been like in recent weeks as anti-government protests, terrorist attacks and Israel Defense Forces’ raids into Palestinian cities have become almost daily occurrences.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been coming out into the streets for the past three months in escalating pro-democracy protests against the most politically and religiously extreme right-wing government Israel has ever had, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two of Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers are deeply entrenched in the settler movement: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party (Jewish Power), who has been convicted of supporting a terrorist organization and incitement to racism; and Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich of the National Unity party, who has made inflammatory statements against the L.G.B.T. community, Arab citizens of Israel, non-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians. In March, he asserted there was no such thing as a Palestinian people.

Israelis have been coming out into the streets for the past three months in escalating pro-democracy protests against the most politically and religiously extreme right-wing government Israel has ever had.

As Israelis protested in the streets, I.D.F. raids continued on the West Bank. According to a count by The Associated Press, as of March 23, those raids left 85 Palestinians dead, including both militants and civilians, and 15 Israelis, including one paramilitary police officer, have been killed in Palestinian terrorist attacks.

But the greatest upheaval has been caused by the anti-government demonstrations that have blocked major highways. Israelis have been protesting a proposed judicial overhaul that many see as a threat to Israeli democracy and a cynical attempt by Mr. Netanyahu to avoid a corruption trial.

Large demonstrations erupted in spontaneous and historical proportions this week following Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to fire his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, on March 26. Mr. Gallant had expressed dissatisfaction with the proposed judicial overhaul the ruling coalition remains intent on passing, arguing that it was endangering Israel’s security.

The prime minister is facing three criminal indictments and has given free rein to Justice Minister Yair Levin to continue to push through what opponents and protestors say is anti-democratic legislation. The proposed judicial changes would in effect cancel any legal oversight the Supreme Court would have on parliamentary rulings. Critics charge the changes imperil Israel’s fragile democracy.

One section of the law, already passed, effectively strips the courts of the power to declare a prime minister unfit for office. It has been nicknamed the “Netanyahu Law” because the court will now no longer be able to declare the prime minister unfit for office despite the indictments against him.

The proposed judicial changes have been denounced by former members of the security services, academics, members of the military reserves—including elite air force pilots who declared they would not serve under a dictatorship—physicians, high tech and legal professionals and a wide swath of Israeli society. The resisters say they support democratic values and reject what they see as an encroaching dictatorship. Protestors include elementary school-aged children on through to elderly Holocaust survivors.

Proposed judicial changes would in effect cancel any legal oversight the Supreme Court would have on parliamentary rulings. Critics charge the changes imperil Israel’s fragile democracy.

On March 27, hundreds of thousands of Israelis descended on Jerusalem to protest in front of the Knesset in a powerful, peaceful demonstration chanting, singing and waving Israeli flags, which until now were largely used as a symbol of nationalism only by the political right. The entire nation came to a standstill, as the National Labor Union called for a country-wide strike, including the closing of universities, museums, malls and historic sites, and the grounding of air traffic at Ben Gurion International Airport for 12 hours—briefly causing some consternation among pilgrims visiting the Holy Land for Easter.

Protestors called for a halt to the judicial overhaul and the creation of a constitution—which Israel does not have—enshrining basic rights. Those have been theoretically protected in a set of Basic Laws drawn up at the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Some demonstrators also called for an end to the occupation of the West Bank, and others supported the rights of women, minorities and Israel’s L.G.B.T. community—all which are threatened by provisions in the judicial overhaul.

That evening, Mr. Netanyahu announced a postponement of the final parliamentary votes on the law, but he added a worrisome promise to Mr. Ben Gvir to establish a national guard under Mr. Ben Gvir’s control. Israeli pundits noted Mr. Netanyahu’s uncharacteristic loss of control over his own government’s policies. The leaders of the coalition and opposition parties met on March 28 at the residence of Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog for negotiations on the future of the judicial overhaul plan.

Conspicuously missing in the demonstrations are the Arab citizens of Israel, who for the most part have been staying out of the fray.

“It is very sad to say that nowadays not only Christians but the vast majority of Arabs in Israel are in a mode of indifference, taking a kind of wait-and-see stance,” Wadie Abu Nassar, coordinator of the newly formed Forum of Holy Land Christians, said. “Most of them feel they are not really welcomed in the demonstrations. They are not in favor of the government…. Most people are concerned with the ongoing violence going on around the judicial overhaul. The violent incidents are of great concern.”

Indeed, in the past month there were four attacks on Christian holy sites—two at Mount of Olives sites in Jerusalem, one by an ultra-Orthodox American man at the Franciscan Church of the Flagellation and the other at the Greek Orthodox Tomb of Mary by a man whom Israeli police described as a Moldavian Christian citizen of Israel, both of whom were described as mentally ill.

Conspicuously missing in the demonstrations are the Arab citizens of Israel, who for the most part have been staying out of the fray.

In two incidents over the past 10 days in Nazareth in northern Israel, Franciscan and Salesian nuns were attacked in their schools. Though official condemnation of the attacks did not mention who the attackers were, sources knowledgeable of the incidents confirmed that they were extremist Muslim Arabs.

“This violates the sanctity of the house, the place and the institution,” the Salesian nuns wrote, noting in a statement on March 23 that the attack had been perpetrated by “five unknown masked people” and announcing a half-day strike to protest the violence.

Following a shooting incident on March 16 in the school and convent of the Franciscan nuns, which took place while the nuns were in the convent church during their prayer, Latin Patriarchal vicar Bishop Rafic Nahara appealed to Israel Education Minister Yoav Kish in a letter to carry out a “thorough and expeditious” investigation to apprehend the perpetrators.

“This is a very dangerous precedent since this is the first time such an incident has occurred against a church school in Israel,” Bishop Nahara wrote. “We take this incident very seriously because Christian monasteries and schools have always been outside the cycle of violence that occurs in Arab society. Miraculously no one was injured and a major disaster was averted.”

Crime in Arab communities in Israel has become pandemic for a variety of socio-economic and political reasons and now with a promise of a new national guard under his control, Mr. Ben Gvir said he would use it to focus on criminal organizations, especially in the Arab sector—though it is yet to be seen whether or not what detractors describe as Mr. Ben Gvir’s private militia will actually come into being.

Nevertheless, its mere prospect is viewed with trepidation by members of the Arab community. To them Mr. Ben Gvir represents not equal protection under the law but more racist hatred directed at Arabs.

“I am really concerned about the holidays coming up, especially about Orthodox Easter. Many pilgrims are coming from all over Israel and the police aren’t always tolerant and smart in handling the situation.”

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa and other Roman Catholic and Melkite church leaders visited the two schools in a sign of solidarity and support.

“Recently, the Holy Land has been the scene of numerous attacks on Christian places of worship, notably in Nazareth…. These two schools welcome all members of the Arab community, without any discrimination,” they noted in a Facebook post following the visit.

A statement by the patriarchs and church leaders called to de-escalate tensions and to “find a more lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Many worry about escalating tensions during an upcoming holiday season that will include overlapping Passover, Easter and Ramadan observances, with worshippers of the three faiths converging in the Old City over the Holy Week period.

“These painful developments make it ever more necessary not only to immediately de-escalate tensions in words and deeds, but also to find a more lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in accordance with international resolutions and legitimacy,” they wrote on Feb. 28. “With all people of good will, we pray to the Lord for peace and justice in our beloved Holy Land, where all have been tormented by this painful, long-term conflict.”

Mr. Abu Nassar expressed concern over the upcoming holiday period, especially during the Orthodox Easter’s Holy Fire ceremony on Holy Saturday. Over the years, the day of the ceremony has become more tense with thousands of local Christians and foreign Orthodox pilgrims wanting to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the mysterious and sacred lighting of the holy fire from Jesus’ tomb, and Israeli police forcefully restricting movement out of consideration for fire safety rules, as well as for the numerous Muslim and Jewish worshippers arriving to the Old City for prayers.

“I am really concerned about the holidays coming up, especially about Orthodox Easter…. Many pilgrims are coming from all over Israel and the police aren’t always tolerant and smart in handling the situation,” he said. “They will be under pressure because of Ramadan, and it is also close to Passover so there will be a period of very high tension. They will also need to take into consideration all the security issues in the political arena.”

And while Christians are small in numbers, they should be taken into consideration, too, he said.

“In the last 10 years I have seen tens of Egyptian Coptic pilgrims crying because they save all their money with the single goal of getting into the Holy Fire Ceremony and they are not even allowed into the church,” he said. “Palm Sunday is important for everybody, and they need to take Christians into consideration.”

While in the Palestinian territories there has been for some time a trend of Christians emigrating from the Holy Land, this is a growing new phenomenon among Christian Arab citizens in Israel, he said.

“Every day my girls are begging me to leave, and I am trying to tell them we have to be resilient,” Mr. Abu Nassar said. “We shall not surrender. We are not the only ones in this situation.

“I believe if people of good will leave, things will deteriorate rapidly.”

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