The roads around the Parliament and Supreme Court in Jerusalem were nearly deserted on Tuesday morning after chaotic late-night scenes of protesters facing off against police on horseback and armed with water cannons.
Demonstrators who camped out for days in a park nearby had packed up quietly after the municipality served them with an eviction order, leaving no trace of their tent city. Shortly before they dismantled it, one protester scrawled on a piece of cardboard, “Next Steps 1. Cry. 2. Fight.”
A small knot of people waved blue and white Israeli flags and a rainbow flag at a junction not far away, but the police wouldn’t allow them to approach the Parliament. One passing car blared its support. But the driver of another shouted out the window, “Only Bibi!” in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Some of the protesters had driven four hours from the far north to get to Jerusalem on Tuesday, a day after the ultrareligious government passed a law limiting the powers of the high court. It was the first step in a larger judicial overhaul plan that opponents fear will undermine Israeli democracy and the rule of law.
Quiet mostly prevailed around the country on Tuesday, with many of the protesters resuming their normal routines. But the mood among opposition supporters was glum, a moment of defeat — a gut punch — after months of fierce defiance.
Though deflated, many remained resolved to fight on.
“There is the shock of defeat and a reassessment of what tools we can use to fight this law,” said Naama Ella Levy, 29, an agriculture worker from northern Israel, adding that there was much more at stake than Monday’s legislation given the broader political and culture wars that have escalated to new heights. She accused Mr. Netanyahu and his government of “doing all they can to polarize the nation.”
Matan Ben-Gera, 40, from Ein Zivan, a Jewish settlement in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights near the Syrian frontier, was one of the few protesters still out on the streets of Jerusalem on Tuesday.
“I’m here only because I’m a father,” Mr. Ben-Gera said, adding that he particularly feared for the future freedoms of his small daughters. “We fear that the ministers and the government will create more and more division. I want to live in peace, first among my fellow Jews and then with our neighbors,” he said. “I am worried.”
Last week, after finishing two weeks of reserve duty in his special forces unit, Mr. Ben-Gera said he informed his commanders that he would not continue serving unless the situation changes. He is one of the thousands of reservists who are threatening to not report for duty, which has led security officials to warn of a potential national security crisis.
“I hope I won’t be faced with the dilemma,” he said. “I really want to go back and serve.”
Supporters of the government expressed relief over the new law and argued that it only strengthened democracy by giving more power to elected officials and less to unelected judges. Amid what many Israelis view as the deepest social rift since the modern state was established, some even empathized with the other side.
Israelis on both sides of the divide were contemplating the message of the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av, which begins on Wednesday evening. It commemorates the disasters in Jewish history, including the infighting that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago.
“Nobody wants, heaven forbid, a civil war,” Ariel Kahana, a political commentator, wrote in Israel Hayom, a right-wing daily, on Tuesday. “Nobody is gloating.”
Gidi Dar, the director of an epic Israeli drama, “Legend of Destruction,” about the calamitous events leading to the destruction of the temple and a staunch opponent of the government’s judicial overhaul, said that with all the shock, pain and anger, this was also a national inflection point that presented an opportunity.
The mission of Israeli liberals, who favor a more pluralistic, open and tolerant society in the battle for the country’s identity, had “suddenly become crystal clear,” he said. But he warned that Israel could slide into a self-destructive civil war.
“We are on the edge right now.”
Many of those who have been protesting against the government for 29 weeks straight are military reservists and veterans who say they are in the opposition movement for the long haul.
Aloni Cohen, 64, a retired technical officer in the Navy’s submarine unit, was manning a tent near Parliament that has served as a base for the protesting reservists. He compared the protest campaign to a submarine that moves slowly toward its goal.
Gil Syrkin, 64, a former chief of an armored brigade in the reserves and a teacher who lives in northern Israel said that on Saturday, he had joined the last leg of a protest march into Jerusalem.
“There’s a feeling that we lost the battle, but we have a whole campaign ahead of us,” he said. “We have determination, love and a shared destiny,” he added. “This gives us hope.”
Another retired officer, Dagan Levin, 58, who works in finance, said democracy is like oxygen.
“When you have it, you don’t feel it,” he said. “When you lack it, you feel how essential it is.”