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Israeli Doctors Strike to Protest Judicial Overhaul

Israeli doctors began a 24-hour strike Tuesday, while black ads covered newspaper front pages to protest a parliamentary vote ratifying the first part of a move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right legislative coalition to enact curbs on judicial review of governmental actions.

The physicians’ walkout covered most of the country, though not Jerusalem, where thousands took to the streets Monday night and scuffled with police. Authorities responded by firing water cannon and a foul-smelling spray at protesters, with nearly 40 demonstrators arrested. Ten officers were injured, they said.

Israeli security forces use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking the entrance of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, July 24, 2023.

Israeli security forces use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking the entrance of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, July 24, 2023.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Tel Aviv, burning tires, setting off fireworks and waving national flags.

The ads on the all-black fronts of four major newspapers declared Monday’s parliamentary vote “A Black Day for Israeli Democracy.” The ads were paid for by a group describing itself as worried high-tech workers.

Israeli lawmakers celebrate by taking a selfie after approving a key portion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's divisive plan to reshape the country's justice system, on the floor of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, July 24, 2023.

Israeli lawmakers celebrate by taking a selfie after approving a key portion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive plan to reshape the country’s justice system, on the floor of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, July 24, 2023.

The 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament, voted 64-0 in favor of the first part of sweeping changes that call for curbing powers of the judiciary, from limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions to changing the way judges are selected. In the Monday vote, lawmakers backed by Netanyahu approved a provision that would prevent judges from overturning government decisions on the grounds that they are “unreasonable.”

The vote came after a raucous debate and opponents shouting “Shame!” at the majority. The 56 opponents of the measure stormed out of the chamber before the vote.

Protest leaders say that growing numbers of military reservists would no longer report for duty if the government continued with its plans to change the judiciary’s role in Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy. Former top military leaders have warned that Israel’s war readiness could be at risk.

One reservist was fined $270 and another was given a suspended 15-day jail sentence for not heeding call-ups for training, the military said, in what Israeli commentators said were the first disciplinary actions stemming from the protests.

A demonstrator wearing a mask depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes part in a sit-in to block the entrance of the Knesset, in Jerusalem, July 24, 2023.

A demonstrator wearing a mask depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes part in a sit-in to block the entrance of the Knesset, in Jerusalem, July 24, 2023.

The Histadrut public sector union, with 800,000 members, threatened to call a nationwide strike. The parliamentary action also drew a rebuke from Israel’s closest ally, the United States, with the White House calling Monday’s vote “unfortunate.”

Britain urged Israel to maintain the independence of courts, build consensus and preserve robust checks and balances. Further Knesset action now could be delayed, with parliament in recess.

A political watchdog group and the Israel Bar Association have filed challenges to parliament’s initial move to rein in judicial power.

The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, along with five other senior justices, cut short a trip to Germany to return home to deal with the crisis. But how they might rule on legislation curbing their own authority was uncertain.

The Israeli Medical Association, which represents nearly all of Israel’s doctors, called for the Tuesday strike across the country, with only emergencies and critical care in operation.

“The vast majority of physicians know they will not be able to fulfill their oath to patients under a regime that does not accept the role of reason,” said Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health. The new law restricts the power of the courts to overrule laws that they consider unreasonable.

Some material in this report came from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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