Damping the demos

Is the government trying to preemptively crush the protest movement?

By LESSLIE SUSSER
July 10, 2012 16:12
Damping the demos

Damping the demos . (photo credit: RONI SCHUTZER / FLASH 90)

 
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On a broiling Friday afternoon in late June, police dragged Daphne Leef kicking and screaming from Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, leaving the 26-year-old initiator of last summer’s mass social protest with multiple bruises and a broken left arm.

Almost a year earlier, Leef had pitched a tent in the tree-lined central thoroughfare in protest at the lack of affordable housing in the city. Within hours, dozens of tents sprung up in solidarity, sparking a nationwide call for social justice in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets.

This year, however, the city adamantly refused to issue permits for protest tents on the leafy boulevard. Leef’s temporary dwelling was quickly folded up and removed by city inspectors, while police arrested her and 11 other would-be protesters for disturbing the peace.

The police action triggered some of the worst protest violence in the city’s history.

On the Saturday night following Leef’s arrest, police waded into marching demonstrators, some of whom threw eggs, overturned trash cans and smashed bank windows.

Gone was last year’s good-humored summer camp atmosphere. A plethora of cell phone videos and photographs showed police shoving, beating and even choking protesters, many of them young women.

And with over 80 bloodied and bruised demonstrators arrested, this year’s protests threatened to turn even uglier.



Orders from above

Protest leaders accused the police of acting on orders from above to smash the popular movement. Police retorted that because no one was taking much notice of them this year, protesters had turned to violent provocation to grab attention.

After the Saturday night clashes, both sides pulled back, realizing that continued violence would be detrimental to their respective causes. Protests the following weekends passed by relatively quietly. But the uneasy truce left a number of unanswered questions.

Was the police violence directed from above in a premeditated attempt by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to crush the protest movement? What role is being played by Tel Aviv’s mayor Ron Huldai, nominally a member of the opposition Labor party? Is there a hard core of radical protesters pushing for violence? What direction is the rest of this summer’s protest likely to take? And what are its chances of success? The stakes could not be higher. The protest’s intellectual leaders make no secret of the fact that they are out to reverse decades of neo-liberal cutbacks on social spending, and to restore nothing less than a modern version of the Welfare State.

Although they cannot produce hard evidence of specific orders given by the government to the police, or by the police high command to the men in the field, protest leaders are convinced they have fallen victim to an orchestrated government campaign to snuff out this year’s movement before it gathers steam. Indeed, some believe the government took its cue from the successful US zero-tolerance policy against Occupy Wall Street.

Alon-Lee Green, who liaised with the police for the protest movement last year, claims that this year his police contacts have not been prepared to talk to him, let alone coordinate anything. He says it has been almost impossible to obtain permits for demonstrations and the police violence in late June speaks for itself.

A member of the Hadash Communist party and founder, with other prominent activists, of the cross-party Social Protest Movement, Green, 24, argues that the police conducted a systematic, three-stage campaign against the protesters. First, they tried to intimidate the protest leaders by calling them in for questioning before anything had happened. Next, they tried to intimidate would-be protesters by employing physical force. Finally, the authorities tried to delegitimize the protest by using derogatory language, claiming it had been hijacked by “anarchists” and that it had turned violent, when it was the police who had deliberately provoked violent responses.

For Green, the fact that activists from all over the country were summoned for prior questioning proves that there was an order from above. “At about the same time in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, Ashdod and Eilat, social protest activists were called in for questioning about their plans for the summer. If so many different police stations in so many different places called in protest activists and asked them the same set of questions, there must have been coordination on the national level,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “The message we got is, ‘Be careful, we are watching you.’ They also warned that ‘last year we treated you with kid gloves, this year it will be with an iron fist.’ If you put all of this together, a very disturbing picture emerges.”

The slightly built Green, who was arrested twice in June, expects things to cool down now because the government and the police realize that initiating violent clashes only intensifies the protest. “It works dialectically.

For every arrest they make, more protesters come out. For every blow we receive, more people are shocked into joining the protest,” he says.

The most detailed police account of what happened on that violent Saturday night came from Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. At question time in the Knesset four days after the violence, Aharonovitch described two large streams of demonstrators, each with a violent core.

People in the first stream of about 800 protesters threw a huge boulder at police officers, injuring a cameraman standing nearby. They also ripped out windshield wipers from a police van and smashed bank windows.

“I will not allow the police to become the public’s punching bag,” he bristled. The second stream of about 1,000 blocked traffic on the city’s Ayalon freeway. In both cases, Aharonovitch said, police had no alternative but to act to restore order. “I want to emphasize to the members of the House that there is no policy directed from above against social protest of any kind,” he declared.

For many in the protest movement, the bête noire is Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv.

After Huldai, a card-carrying member of the Labor opposition party, banned tents on Rothschild Boulevard and sent inspectors escorted by police to eject Leef, several authors, actors and musicians pulled out of the city’s White Night culture festival and the left-wing Meretz faction withdrew from the municipal coalition.

Hard-core group

Huldai, who has a reputation of being “a rich man’s mayor” acting primarily in the interests of the city’s upper classes, claims to support the protest movement. He says the reason he won’t grant permits for tents on Rothschild this year is because last year the protesters “made life hell” for the boulevard residents. Instead, he has offered an alternative site – the Volovelsky-Karney Park opposite the Arlozorov central train station – where around 20 tents have already been pitched. Huldai points out that it was police, not city inspectors, who were involved in the violent confrontations, and the reason he asked for the police escort was because weeks of monitoring social media showed that a small hard-core group of protesters was planning to use force, which city inspectors have no mandate to handle.

“The conspiracy theory that Netanyahu and Ron Huldai coordinate their moves and that there was some kind of master plan behind this is absurd. The best screenwriters in Hollywood could not have come up with a more fantastic scenario,” Eytan Schwartz, a Huldai aide, tells The Report.

Schwartz claims that much of the criticism of Huldai stems from a failure – sometimes deliberate – to distinguish between the respective purviews of central and local government in Israel. Huldai, he says, would love to be the commander of the local police force, but in Israel the police answers to the central government. The same is true of budgets for housing and transportation or the price of water, electricity and produce in the supermarkets. According to Schwartz, Huldai’s political opponents are trying to use the protest movement to discredit him by implying that legitimate grievances, which should be dealt with by central government, are somehow the mayor’s fault.

“It’s a small, vocal minority who were on Rothschild Boulevard, who wouldn’t allow the city council to convene and who were among those shattering bank windows. You can connect the dots and find the same people in all these groups,” he charges.

In late June, the protest movement’s team of experts, led by Ben-Gurion University professors Yossi Yonah and Avia Spivak, outlined the gist of their proposals for a major restructuring of the Israeli system in the form of a new “socioeconomic contract.”

The basic idea: higher taxation, especially of the rich, to provide revenue for affordable housing and public services like health, education, welfare and transportation.

In the mid-1980s, during the years of hyper-inflation, Israel turned away from the welfare state model as too expensive to maintain. Now, the protest leaders claim, it has gone too far in the opposite direction, paring social services to the bone. The new social contract, signed by a raft of different organizations, calls for a return to the values of social solidarity on which the state was founded. The big question is whether the economy can sustain this – or whether more public spending, as neo-liberal government critics insist, would lead inevitably to the troubles now faced by countries like Greece, Spain and Italy.

Practical

Yonah insists that their master plan is eminently practical. By July 14, the anniversary of Leef’s first tent protest, the Yonah-Spivak panel plans to publish a major study showing how their proposed social democratic alternative would work.

Their study, Doing Things Differently: A model for a well-ordered society, includes an overall social vision, as well as detailed proposals by expert sub-panels on housing, transport, economics, education, health, welfare, social security, employment, public administration and law. “We are taking the bull by the horns and we say this entails deep structural change. Only once there is agreement in principle that this is the way to go will the time be ripe to talk about priorities,” Yonah tells The Report.

In other words, if Yonah has his way, the focus of this summer’s protest will be on root and branch reform of the system, rather than on specific grievances.

And, although social democratic in essence, the movement will not overtly ally itself with any political party. A late-June Dialog poll showed that 69 percent of Israelis back the protest, and Yonah argues that much of this would be lost if the movement were to be identified too closely with existing left-leaning parties. Therefore, he believes the overarching strategy must be to win the socioeconomic debate and permeate the thinking of all parties, including Likud.

But he has no illusions that this will be easy. In his view, the current neo-liberal regime is firmly entrenched. “It is not only a question of the size of Netanyahu’s coalition, 94 of the 120 Knesset members.

The entire ruling establishment is heavily invested in neo-liberal structures, including the mutual dependencies of politicians and capital,” he says. Yonah is also wary of the government’s possible defensive strategies: for example, what he calls “feeding the beast,” deliberately creating untenable deficits and blaming the crisis on public spending so that it can make even further cuts, which before the crisis would have been unpopular.

Yonah also points to weaknesses in the protest movement. There are ego struggles, different groups pulling in different directions and no clear leadership. It is also hard to keep the Sisyphean struggle to implement ideological revolution through slow, evolutionary steps.

“I invariably wake up in the morning optimistic and go to bed at night discouraged,” he says. “But if I didn’t believe that change is possible, I wouldn’t he here.”

The signatories to the new social contract agree. “The demands are not simple and the road to remaking Israel a place worthy of its citizens is long,” they declare. “But we are convinced it is possible. It is not a pipe dream. It is a case of the State of Israel renewing its covenant with its citizens.”

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