Israel protests as Netanyahu sacks defence minister

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sacked Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, triggering mass protests a day after Gallant broke ranks with the government and urged a halt to a highly contested plan to overhaul the judicial system.

As news of the dismissal spread on Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets late at night across the country. Crowds gathered outside Prime Minister Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem, at one point breaching a security cordon.

Some three months since taking office, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition has been plunged into crisis over the bitter divisions exposed by its flagship judicial overhaul plans.

“State security cannot be a card in the political game. Netanyahu crossed a red line tonight,” opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz said in a joint statement.

They called on members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party not to have a hand in “the crushing of national security.”

In announcing Mr Gallant’s dismissal, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office did not name a replacement nor give any other details.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided this evening to dismiss Defence Minister Yoav Gallant,” it said.

Shortly afterward, Mr Gallant, 64, wrote on Twitter: “The state of Israel’s security has always been and will always be my life’s mission.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu made the decision to sack Mr Gallant after the former navy admiral warned on Saturday that overhaul plans risked “a clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the state” and called for them to be halted.

“At this time, for the sake of our country, I am willing to take any risk and pay any price,” Mr Gallant said in his televised address.

Mr Netanyahu acted in response on Sunday night as he was poised to ratify a central part of the overhaul package, a bill that would tighten political control over judicial appointments, handing the executive wider freedom to name judges to the Supreme Court.

As protesters poured into the streets, police used water cannon to push them back from Mr Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, while in Tel Aviv, where hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets since the beginning of the year, protesters lighted a large bonfire on a main highway.

It was not immediately clear whether the protests would impact the government’s tactics. At least three Likud ministers said publicly that it was time to re-evaluate their strategy and they would support halting the legislation if Mr Netanyahu decided to do so. The head of the parliamentary committee deciding on the legislation said discussions would continue on Monday.

The crisis came as Israel’s security establishment has been bracing for potential violence in the coming weeks as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan overlaps with the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter celebration.

Over the past year, Israeli forces have been conducting nearly daily raids in the occupied West Bank, killing more than 250 Palestinian fighters and civilians, while more than 40 Israelis and foreigners have been killed by Palestinian attackers.

Mr Gallant on Saturday became the most senior member of Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party to say he would not support the judicial overhaul, saying protests that have included growing numbers of military reservists were also affecting regular forces and undermining national security.


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