Haaretz reports that over 6,000 protesters in Tel Aviv clashed with police yesterday:
Police arrested 89 demonstrators after more than 6,500 people converged in and around Tel Aviv’s Habima Square on Saturday night, protesting the arrest on Friday of Daphni Leef, a leader of last summer’s social protest movement.
The protesters blocked Ibn Gabirol Street north to Rabin Square, before moving and blocking Ayalon highway. Around 20 demonstrators were removed by police after breaking into branches of Hapoalim, Leumi and Discount banks.
Tel Aviv District Commander Aharon Eksel said Sunday that, “Protesters crossed the line. They set out to clash with the police.”
Daphni Leef, if you are unfamiliar, gained notoriety last year when she erected a tent in the streets of Tel Aviv to protest high housing costs:
It quickly gained momentum, and, a month later, there are 350 tents in Tel Aviv’s “tent city” where she lives, and more than 500 tents in spin-off demonstrations elsewhere in the country. The campaign is dominating the news. A poll by Haaretz suggests that some 87 per cent of Israelis are behind it. A fortnight ago 30,000 people marched in Tel Aviv in support.
Many tried to paint Leef as a “radical leftist” after it was discovered that she signed a letter when she was younger, along with roughly sixty other Israeli youth, refusing to serve in the IDF (referred to in the letter as “the Army of Occupation”). The letter was addressed to then-PM Ariel Sharon, and contained the following language:
The state of Israel commits war-crimes and tramples over human rights, destroying Palestinian cities, towns and villages; expropriating land, detaining and executing without trial, conducting mass-demolition of houses, businesses, and public institutions; looting, closure, curfew, torture, preventing the administration of medical care, constructing and expanding settlements - All these actions are opposed to human morality, and violate international treaties ratified by Israel. In these and other actions Israel systematically prevents Palestinians from maintaining any reasonable life. This reality leads to suffering, fear, and despair, which yield terror attacks.
Daphni has downplayed this letter, however: “I’m very sorry that people choose to talk about a document I signed when I was 16 years old or something like that, when there’s a big, wide protest here. This protest is much bigger than the sum of its parts.”
The “social protest movement,” as it’s been called since its inception, is in many ways Israel’s “Occupy” movement. Their primary demands are for cheaper housing and remediation of economic inequality. Aside from the housing demand, however, the movement’s broader goals have been (some allege) purposefully kept vague. Some have even opined that this was actually planned by U.S. democratic strategists who had their hands in the pudding:
According to an investigative report by Maariv’s Kalman Libeskind, the protests were engineered by a group of media strategists who are directed by prominent Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, John Kerry and others. Greenberg directed the strategists to create a protest that was not led by one specific group, in order to create social ferment. An unnamed left-wing leader would eventually step into this ferment and take the reins, Greenberg predicted.
Israeli political strategists were involved as well:
The Israeli strategists reportedly include Boaz Gaon, Moshe Gaon and Eldad Yaniv, who worked in Ehud Barak’s successful race for Prime Minister in 1999, also in cooperation with Greenberg.
Many are convinced that this is, at heart, a left-wing movement that wants to overthrow the current Likud coalition government. Amnon Abromovich, a political commentator for a local news station, opined last year that “the protest is against policies that favor hareidis and settlers.” Im Tirtsu, a right-wing political organization that originally joined the housing protests, announced in July of last year that they would no longer involve themselves with the protests, proclaiming that “Daphni Leef, who is perceived in the media as the initiator of the struggle, is actually a video editor for the New Israel Fund and Shatil.”
For those unfamiliar, The New Israel Fund is a non-profit organization based out of the U.S. that provides funding for progressive causes to various NGO organizations in Israel. Shatil is the “action arm” of the NIF. They work with over 1,500 other non-profit organizations to provide outreach services for immigrants (most often from arab countries, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union), and to encourage various civil and human rights causes. Perhaps most relevant is their focus on ending discrimination against arab citizens, including Palestinians living in Israel. NIF’s website offers the following summary:
In every Arab community, and in the five mixed cities where both Jews and Arabs live, de facto discrimination is readily apparent. Israel’s 1.37 million Arab citizens vote, pay taxes and speak Hebrew, yet suffer pervasive discrimination, unequal allocation of resources and violation of their legal rights. Housing, education, and income all substantially lag that of the Jewish majority. Only 3 percent of the land in Israel proper is owned by Arabs; permits are rarely granted to Arab families to expand their housing; and most Jewish towns and neighborhoods remain off-limits.
It is not surprising that Israeli Arabs – or Palestinian Israelis as some prefer to be called – see their situation as a cruel paradox. Second-class citizens of a nation at war with their ethnic brethren, in a state identified as the Jewish homeland, many are betwixt and between the demands of ethnicity and of citizenship.
While the NIF usually stops short of offering full-throated criticisms of the Israeli government, they have come under fire for funding organizations that are much less muted in their criticism of Israel’s policy. Isi Leibler, writing for the Jerusalem Post, pulled no punches in January of this year, claiming that NIF money often ends up in the hands of groups which “seek to deligitimize Israel.” Leibler specifically pointed to Adalah, a non-profit organization that litigates on behalf of Arab minority rights in Israel, whom Leibler says “urged foreign governments ‘to reevaluate their relationship with Israel’ and described Israel as ‘a colonial enterprise promoting apartheid.’”
Yet public support for the Social Protest Movement remained shockingly high over the course of the last year. Polls have shown that 80-90% of the Israeli public supports the movement. One poll even showed 85% amongst Likud voters. Despite this, others continue to paint them as “radical leftists.” One man even equated them to communists, noting that “They are using the methods of all the Communist parties in the world…[t]hey take a problem in society and develop it so a revolution happens. And they’re talking about a revolution.”
Much like the Occupy movement in the U.S., the Social Justice Movement has lost some of the steam it originally had when it started. At its peak, there were over 150,000 protesters marching across Israel. It’s not clear whether these protests, to the extent that they remain relevant, will result in substantive political change in Israel. It is also less clear what the impact of these protests will be on Israel’s policy in the occupied territories. If the protesters really are simply concerned about economic justice in Israel proper, then any impact they might have will likely be confined to that realm. It may have a windfall benefit for Arab Israeli citizens, many of whom live as second-class citizens as a result of overt legal discrimination by the Israeli government, and thus suffer disproportionately from economic inequality.
Nonetheless, movements like this, even if they don’t appear to result in any meaningful change at first, can affect a body politic more subtly by raising the awareness of people who don’t participate in the movement, yet may be influenced by it when the time comes to vote at the polls. The next elections in Israel are scheduled to take place until October, 2013. At that time, we’ll see what if any lasting political impact the Social Justice Movement has had in Israel, or if it was just a flash on the radar screen.
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