A new wave of social activism is washing over Israel, fueled by years of neglect of the basic needs of the Israeli public. The growing demonstrations centered on demands for affordable housing, which is out of reach for the majority of young Israelis, the tent city rising up in central Tel Aviv, consumer boycotts of blatantly overpriced basic goods, and public anger at low wages and economic monopolies, are bringing people out into the streets in ever growing numbers.The police''s role in this new, people power movement is unclear. On the one hand, police officers, like other vital public servants such as doctors, nurses, social workers, and firefighters - the very people who we rely upon to respond to emergencies of all kinds and save lives - have been exploited and chronically underpaid by the state.Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch has been leading a campaign to increase the disgraceful salaries of police officers since coming into office. At present, starting police officers cannot hope to pass the 5,000 shekel a month mark until he or she rises through five ranks, to become first-sergeant. The process takes around five years to complete, and for many officers, the journey up the chain of command will end there.
And yet, with such meager wages, they are expected to provide homes for their families, pay the bills, and save for the future- a concept that can be described as laughable. Hence, police officers are naturally inclined to understand and sympathize with the wave of public anger better than most. At the same time, it is the police which must maintain public order, and step in when the demonstrations turn violent, as seen from the conclusion of Saturday night''s Tel Aviv demonstration, in which 43 people were arrested for hurling bottles and other objects at police. (Channel 2 video of arrests from last night available here.)Police are seen as the representative of the very system that is exploiting them, and are therefore caught in a paradox. A second consideration is the fact that many members of the public have a negative image of the police, accusing officers of being violent, hostile and inefficient (accusations that surfaced again on Saturday night from protesters. Tel Aviv police in turn accused some of the activists of exploiting their good will to riot). Police, under the leadership of new commissioner Cmdr. Yochanan Danino, are currently hard at work trying to reverse the negative image. Danino has said a wide gap exists between the reality of officers who risk their lives to protect the public and the force''s negative perception among many. Recently, a small unknown group of activists posted a clip on Youtube showing them arriving at a south Tel Aviv police station and launching a spontaneous protest against what they say is unjustifiable police violence they personally experienced last week. The resulting confrontation, caught on film, saw one activist detained for failing to present an ID, and a heated argument over what constitutes a legal association.These are the latest manifestations of the police''s double role in Israel''s new activist phase.