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US defense chief jabs at Netanyahu’s plan to weaken courts as protesters block Israeli airport

By Hadas Gold, Michael Schwartz, Matthias Somm, Richard Allen Greene and Oren Liebermann, CNN

Tel Aviv, Israel CNN  —  US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took a swipe at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to weaken Israel’s judicial system as protesters paralyzed two of Tel Aviv’s main travel arteries on Thursday, intensifying a nationwide movement against the controversial proposals.

A CNN team at Ben Gurion Airport saw people walking towards Terminal 3 with suitcases because of the blocked road during what was billed as a “Day of Disruption,” while a separate demonstration in the city of Tel Aviv saw thousands turn out to protest.

Demonstrators on foot blocked the Ayalon highway, one of Tel Aviv’s main roads, with some resisting initial police efforts to clear it, a CNN team saw on Thursday.

Protesters chanted “democracy,” “shame” and “Where were you in Huwara?” at police, a reference to a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank that was the target of a violent riot by Jewish settlers nearly two weeks ago. Police on horseback eventually succeeded in pushing the crowd off the highway, clearing it.

Israelis protesting against the government's judicial reforms block the main road leading to Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday.

The planned protests overshadowed Austin’s talks with Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, which were delayed for a day at the request of Israeli officials concerned by the threat of disruption from demonstrations. The location of the meeting was also changed from the defense ministry to a location near the airport because of the protests, the Pentagon said.

As demonstrators were taking to the streets, Austin stressed the importance of an “independent judiciary” during a news conference alongside Gallant.

“As President Biden has said, the genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions – on checks and balances, and on an independent judiciary. And the President also noted that building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is greeted by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday.

Opponents of government plans to give Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority have been protesting every Saturday night across Israel for the past nine weeks. The largest protests, in Tel Aviv, have regularly drawn more than 100,000 demonstrators, in a country with a population of just over nine million.

The package of legislation would also give the government the authority to nominate judges, which currently rests with a committee composed of judges, legal experts and politicians. It would remove power and independence from government ministries’ legal advisers, and take away the power of the courts to invalidate government appointments.

Supporters of the plan to overhaul the judiciary say the changes are necessary to rein in a Supreme Court that has become too powerful and is not democratically accountable.

Netanyahu said his meeting with Austin “focused primarily on our joint efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” before boarding a flight to Rome to meet Italy’s prime minister.

Austin also used his news conference to urge Israelis and Palestinians to de-escalate rising tensions in the West Bank ahead of the holidays of Passover and Ramadan, which have been flashpoints for violence in the past. Austin said Palestinian leaders need to combat terrorism and condemn incitement while underscoring US opposition to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“We’re especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians,” Austin noted.

Undercover Israeli Border Police operatives killed three suspected Palestinian militants in the West Bank Thursday morning, just hours before Austin landed, the Border Police announced.

Israeli security personnel work at the scene after a suspected terrorist opened fire in central Tel Aviv on March 9.

The Israeli security forces came under fire from a vehicle on an operation to arrest two suspected Palestinian Islamic Jihad military operatives, returned fire, and killed all three people in the vehicle, the police statement said.

On Thursday evening, three people were wounded when a suspected terrorist opened fire at pedestrians on a street at the center of Tel Aviv nightlife, Israel Police said. The shooting suspect was “neutralized” by police officers, police added, and has died, according to an emergency rescue service.

CNN’s Amir Tal contributed reporting.


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