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Israelis protest ahead of court hearing on legal reforms

A sea of flags in Tel Aviv at the latest protest
— Tel Aviv (AFP)

Thousands of Israelis protested on Saturday against the hardline government's judicial overhaul, ahead of a court hearing on a major element of the controversial reforms that have split the nation.

Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government unveiled its proposals in January, tens of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated weekly in what has become the largest protest movement in the country's history.

"There is no such thing as democracy without the Supreme Court. Democracy, democracy!" chanted the protesters in Tel Aviv, where the rallies have taken place every Saturday since January.

"The Supreme Court is Supreme," said one banner unfurled at the protest.

On Saturday, protests were also held in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beer Sheba, Modiin, Herzilya, and some other cities, organisers said.

The latest demonstration comes ahead of a Tuesday hearing in the Supreme Court on annulling parliament's July vote to limit the so-called "reasonableness clause" used by the top court to review some government decisions.

Israel does not have a constitution or upper house of parliament, and the "reasonableness" law was put in place to allow judges to determine whether a government had overreached its powers.

The Supreme Court had used the measure in a high-profile ruling which barred Aryeh Deri, a Netanyahu ally, from serving in the cabinet because of a tax evasion conviction.

Opponents allege that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges he denies, of trying to use the proposed legal overhaul to quash possible judgments against him.

He rejects the accusation.

Demonstrators arriving for the protest made their feelings clear

"On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will have a discussion on whether the law the government has passed is legal or not," protester Yuval Inbar, 21, told AFP.

"If we don't come here (to protest) we are afraid that the government is not going to respect the Supreme Court."

- 'Political takeover' -

The July 24 amendment to the "reasonableness clause" states that the courts cannot hear cases or issue orders against elected officials on the basis of that doctrine, activists say.

Opponents say this will give unlimited powers to the government and pave the way for more authoritarian rule.

"Netanyahu has been hijacked by messianic settlers who are attempting to have a revolution," Josh Drill, a protest leader, told AFP.

"They are trying to do a political takeover and change the system of government to autocracy. That's a revolution and this government is willing to bring the country down with them."

Netanyahu's administration, a coalition between his Likud party and extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, argues that the legal changes are needed to rebalance powers between lawmakers and the judiciary.

Its supporters have also held occasional rallies, insisting that it is illogical for the Supreme Court to hear petitions that judge its own undefined role.

But protesters insisted on Saturday that the court has every right to do so.

"We don't have a system of checks and balances," said Drill.

"If there is a government that is attempting to remove all powers of the Supreme Court ... then in my view it has the right, and it is even mandatory that the Supreme Court protect the democratic process."

The protests have drawn support from across the political spectrum of Israel, among secular and religious groups, blue-collar and tech sector workers, peace activists and military reservists.