400,000 rally for social justice across the country

‘March of a Million’ called "climax" of mass-protest phase; events held in TA, Jerusalem, Haifa, Afula, Karmiel, Eilat.

March of the Million  (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
March of the Million
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The streets of cities across the country were jammed with an estimated 400,000 protesters on Saturday night, in the largest show of force yet for the social-issues protest movement that has dominated the headlines for two months.
The demonstrations were held under the banner “They [the government] only understand numbers.”
Saturday’s events were billed by organizers as a turning point, an all-out push for a critical mass of protesters to force the government to present solutions to the issues addressed by the movement.
It was expected to be the climax of the mass-street-protests phase of the movement, before participants fold up their tent cities ahead of a long process of negotiations and dialogue with the government.
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In Tel Aviv, the marchers streamed out of Habima Square at 8 p.m. on their way to Hamedina Square, where the final rally was held. The rally was headlined by Mizrachi music superstar Ayal Golan and featured speeches by protest movement leaders Daphni Leef and Itzik Shmuli, the latter the head of the National Union of Israeli Students.
Rallies were also held in Jerusalem, Haifa, Afula, Karmiel, Eilat and several others cities.
Looking at the multitudes gathering in Tel Aviv’s Rothchild Boulevard on Saturday evening, Barak Segel, a member of the group of friends who launched the protests in mid-July, said, “The entire people of Israel have stepped out of their houses to protest. This is one small step for the people of Israel, one giant step for the country.”
When asked about speculation that the movement would begin folding up the tent cities across the country, Segel said, “No, they must stay, the tent cities and the protesters are all in this together. Besides, we need to strengthen the tent cities for the winter.”
When asked if the turnout represented a success, Roee Neuman, long the spokesman of the leaders of the tent-city protest on Rothschild Boulevard, said: “From my point of view, the atmosphere is amazing here. That’s all I can say.”
He added that beginning on Sunday, “the protest will enter a new phase. It could be that the campsites become more concentrated and consolidated, but they won’t be folded up. The protest will keep going and only get stronger until our demands are met.”
As for what the new phase would entail, Neuman said, “There won’t be any mass demonstrations in the coming weeks, but there will be in the future. We will be new protest methods beginning tomorrow.
"There are all types of ways to protest without getting tons of people outside their houses,” he said, citing economic protests such as boycotts.
When asked about the perception that the movement is dying, Neuman said, “I think all the people who came out here tonight are proof that’s wrong.”
Shmuli, for weeks one of the leaders of the protest movement, repeatedly called on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to “Let us live in this country.”
“Mr. Prime Minister, take a good look at us: We’re the new Israelis,” Shmuli said. “We want only one thing: To live in this country. We want not only to love the State of Israel, but also to exist here respectfully, and to live with dignity.”
Shmuli also mentioned recent talk of folding up the tent cities. “The tents are only the wrapping; the people of Israel are the heart of this movement. We will not stop this protest until you, Mr. Prime Minister, give us real solutions.”
The high attendance at Saturday night’s events was partly the result of a decision made by the High Court of Justice on Friday afternoon that the Transportation Ministry would run increased numbers of trains, as well as replacement bus services, to allow people to travel to Tel Aviv to take part in the “March of a Million March” protest.
The High Court hearing came in response to a petition filed by attorney Shraga Biran on behalf of the Hitorerut Yerushalayim (“Awakening In Jerusalem”) social movement, following an announcement by Israel Railways on Wednesday that it would close the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beersheba, Tel Aviv lines on Saturday night to carry out work on the lines.
In Jerusalem, an estimated 50,000 demonstrators crowded into Paris Square, near the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Toddlers sitting on shoulders blew plastic trumpets, teenagers in youth movement shirts danced and sang “My Bibi [Netanyahu] has three apartments” to the tune of “Haman’s Hat Has Three Corners,” and diehard activists waved their well-worn signs as thousands thronged through King George Street.
As with the Saturday night protest a month ago that drew 300,000 across the country, this Saturday’s march attracted young mothers, grandparents, 20-somethings, religious, secular and everything in between.
“We came because the older people also need to come and show their support and encourage the younger generation,” said Hani, a 60-year-old Jerusalem resident marching with her husband. “There’s a real chance that something will change – things have already changed. There’s a change in thinking, there’s hope for optimism, that the way things were is not the way things are going to be.”
Other demonstrators were more cynical.
“I’m pessimistic but trying to be optimistic, I’m doubtful that there will be a big change, but even if there’s a small change it will be something,” said Lehi, who pushed her 11-month-old son, Tom, in a stroller. Tom had been to many of the protests, said Lehi, adding that perhaps someday he’ll be able to look back and say he was at the March of a Million rally in Jerusalem.
“I hope when he is older he will go out and demonstrate for the things that are important to him,” she said. “This struggle is not just important to make a change, it’s important for the country, that the country stands up. People need to go out and demonstrate for what’s important.”
The creative antics the protests showed over the past six weeks did not disappoint on Saturday, as a teenager repelled down an abandoned building and did acrobatic flips below a giant banner of Che Guevarra, as the crowd chanted “Rere- revolution!” Within the larger social protest movement are a few smaller activist groups.
Four hundred people across the country demonstrated with the Tav is for Transportation group, which advocates for improved public transportation and services.
“It’s amazing to see the crowds, and I’m meeting people here who have never been to any of these demonstrations, it’s just so amazing and exciting at every demonstration to be part of this movement,” said Eliraz Shor, a 29-year-old master’s student in Hebrew Literature in Jerusalem.
“The best thing about these demonstrations is that they’re inclusive – everyone can bring what’s important to them. For us, it’s public transportation, but we are all part of the same struggle,” she said.
On Saturday afternoon, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni called on her supporters to join the demonstration.
“Come protest tonight,” she wrote on her Facebook wall. “I hope the masses come. I know, no matter what, that the protesters of summer 2011 brought about the change that Israel needs. The Israel that the protesters want is the country I want for my children. A technical economic change is not enough – we need a change in values and a joint vision. This is the new Zionism.”
A few opposition parties held official gatherings before and during the demonstration.
Signs were distributed to Meretz members and supporters met on Saturday afternoon, calling to “bring back the welfare state.”
MK Ahmed Tibi (UAL-Ta’al) joined the protests, accompanied by dozens of supporters waving his party’s yellow flags.
“Social justice requires a change in priorities and closing the economic gap between the majority and the minority,” Tibi said.
JPost.com staff contributed to this report
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