After seven weeks, tent cities begin to close up shop

By MELANIE LIDMAN
September 5, 2011 00:30

Protesters in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem take down tents; homeless activists say ‘we have nowhere else to go.’




Students dismantle tents

Students pack up tents 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Tent cities around the country began folding up their campsites on Sunday, a day after more than 400,000 Israelis hit the streets in the largest protest of the seven week- old social justice movement.

Students said the move came as the protest movement enters a phase in which the campsites are no longer relevant.

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“The tents are no longer serving any purpose, they are only a symbol. What’s important is the people inside the tents or that were inside them. We don’t need the campsites to show that the protest is strong,” Yuval Badolach, from the National Union of Israeli Students, said in Tel Aviv on Sunday.

As Badolach spoke, a handful of students broke apart the metal frame they had used to attach tarpaulins and stacked up chairs, electrical cables and miscellaneous items collected over nearly two months camping on Rothschild Boulevard.

Badolach said that after the strong showing at the protests on Saturday night, “we are folding up the campsite with our heads held high. We are closing up here on a high note.

“We can continue without the tents. People don’t need to stay in the tents anymore, people need to go back to school and to work, and the neighbors on Rothschild need some quiet and their lives back. We will wait to hear the Trajtenberg [Committee] recommendations and keep on with the dialogue with the government in the meantime.”

The National Union of Israeli Students began packing up on Rothschild Boulevard on Sunday afternoon, and the downtown Jerusalem tent city followed suit in the evening.

The union’s fold-up didn’t seem part of a universal effort by tent-city residents on Rothschild, most of whose tents looked more or less the same as the day before, though there are fewer than a week or two ago.

Also, the tent city is noticeably quieter and less vibrant than in weeks earlier, and throughout the boulevard there are spots of dead grass that hadn’t seen the sun in nearly two months.

In Jerusalem, the break-down was more striking, as activists took down all but a dozen tents in Gan Hasus (Horse Park) in King George Street, clearing away sagging easy chairs and mountains of forgotten clothing.

“There’s some nostalgia, but we’re not stopping the struggle,” said Giora Wahle, who will begin studying for his bachelor’s degree at the Hebrew University in a few weeks. “It was really exciting for the first part to see all the tents across the country, it was clear that this came from the gut and from the heart.”

Demonstrators in the Jerusalem agreed that right after Saturday night’s high point, which they claimed was the largest demonstration ever held in the capital, was the right time to pack up their tents. “It’s the right step in order to continue the protest for the long term,” said Yoni Blasbalg, a website designer and Labor Party activist. “For us to find real solutions, we need to concentrate our efforts.”

Many of the central activists in Jerusalem looked exhausted on Sunday evening, as seven weeks of demonstrations and logistical arrangements for an urban camping village have taken a toll.

Blasbalg said that despite roundthe- clock voluntary guard shifts, the tent city in Jerusalem has dealt with violence and theft, and Rothschild has also seen a number of violent incidents as well as episodes of sexual assault.

Gan Hasus will continue to host community meetings three times a week, in addition to open discussions, performances and meetings of various activist groups who made connections over the past seven weeks. On Sunday, the community meetings, which drew hundreds of people at the onset of the protest movement, was down to three dozen attendees.

“This happened naturally,” said Bar Peled, the spokeswoman for the Ruah Hadasha movement and one of the central organizers of the Jerusalem tent city. She said they had not been pressured by the municipality or police to leave the park.

“People who are here day and night, they understand that it’s time. The people who are against it are the ones who aren’t here as much.”

Peled called it an “elegant exit,” adding, “We’re not fleeing, we’re not being kicked out, we’re folding up the tents in order to continue.”

That optimism was less apparent at south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park tent city, surrounded by the slums of the central bus station neighborhood, where a halfdozen African migrants and homeless people lay passed out on couches and mattresses in the mid-day sun.

“What happens at other campsites has nothing to do with us.

We are people with nothing left to lose and we aren’t going anywhere,” a homeless woman named Rachel said.

Shlomo Ayalo, an Ethiopian- Israeli originally from Beit Shemesh, said, “The people here aren’t going anywhere, because they have nowhere to go. They’ve built a place here in the back door of Israel, for everyone, people of all religions and colors who have been forgotten about. They won’t pack up.”

Meanwhile hundreds of highschool students held their own classes at tent cities in 15 locations around the country Sunday morning, to discuss “social justice” and civics issues.

The classes were part of an initiative called “We are not sardines,” launched on Facebook earlier this summer by a group of teenagers who said they were fed up by what they say are overcrowded classrooms and a decline in the quality of the Israeli school system.

Shahar Izkovich, a high-school student from Tel Mond, said the idea “was to create activities to discuss what is the role of the youth in everything that’s taking place in the protest... There is great importance to learning the facts about what’s happening so you can understand the situation in your country. This is a part of democracy.”

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