Balfour protests: When rights of protesters shatter rights of neighbors

Tensions reach a boiling point between residents and those anti-Netanyahu protesters camped outside his residence on Balfour Street.

DEMONSTRATORS WITH megaphones in hand on Saturday night, January 16. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
DEMONSTRATORS WITH megaphones in hand on Saturday night, January 16.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Anna (she asked not to be fully identified) almost burst into tears when recounting what happened last week. 
“It was about 5:30 a.m. I was already awake (at my age it is common to wake up at dawn). I was enjoying the beginning of one more day in my long life. But the calm and quietness in my neighborhood were suddenly disrupted by megaphone calls I couldn’t understand. I was paralyzed by fear – had something terrible happened and were the police warning us about some attack? 
“It took me several minutes to realize it was the protesters on Balfour Street. God forgive me, at that moment, I hated them. I couldn’t believe they would do such a rude thing, totally disregarding the residents there. Yes, you can write it: I felt, for the first time since this protest started, that I hated them.”
Anna, 82, is not alone. Many Rehavia residents, and some further afield who hear the din of the ongoing demonstrations – those who agree with and support the protests on Balfour, and those who oppose them – suffer from the noise, dirt, large police presence, blocked streets and overall disruption of their usual calm life in one of the capital’s most prestigious neighborhoods. Calls to the municipality to enforce limits regarding the noise and hours of the protests have been, according to many residents, poorly heeded, if not completely disregarded. 
Some protesters admit that their presence has disrupted the quiet life of the residents and express some sympathy, while others simply ignore this aspect of the situation – which has now reached the 30-week mark. 
MOST RESIDENTS have fled Efrat Benn’s Azza Road building due to the protests. (Marc Israel Sellem)
MOST RESIDENTS have fled Efrat Benn’s Azza Road building due to the protests. (Marc Israel Sellem)
THE PROTESTS began almost four years ago with a small but dedicated group of Jerusalemites who met on a regular basis at Paris Square near the Prime Minister’s Residence, every Saturday evening. They stood there with signboards for a couple of hours. Their presence was extensively covered in social media and little by little, the group grew.
Some tie the major mushrooming of the demonstrations with the first coronavirus lockdown. Suspecting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was exploiting pandemic restrictions to evade his trial and legal difficulties, protest leaders felt it necessary to ramp up the protests and shift them to the Balfour compound. Before local government realized where things were headed, an encampment popped up on the sidewalk and a daily struggle was born, pitting protesters against the police and municipal supervisors. 
Tents appeared, as did benches, food supplies, signs, flags and more. The city provided a portable toilet, but positioned it at some distance, in Independence Park, so some protesters used the gardens in nearby residential buildings as sanitary facilities. Although they claim this does not happen anymore, it raised significant anger among local residents, including those who personally support the ideals behind the protest. 
Another issue that arose when the protest grew in size is the noise, including the use of megaphones. The law allows their use within specific hours, but there is no agreement as to what those hours are. According to the protesters, it is allowed on Motzei Shabbat until 11 p.m., but residents suffering from it say the rules permit it only until 9:30 p.m. and certainly not before 7 a.m.
An especially unbecoming display occurred last month during a TV show in which protest movement representatives were invited to respond to residents’ complaints. Sadi Ben-Shitrit, a movement leader (and close relative of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana) said of the residents, “I don’t care about them; as far as I am concerned, they can move to another neighborhood.” 
Most of the protest leaders rejected Ben-Shitrit’s declaration and expressed their empathy with neighbors’ suffering, but none concluded that the demonstrations should move to another non-residential location like Sacher Park (though such Tel Aviv protests are held in Rabin Square) or renounced it completely. For most of the protesters, the protest is more crucial and serves a highly important cause.
THIS PAST Sunday afternoon, the Azza Road pavement between the barriers at the entrance to Balfour Street and Terra Sancta College was loaded with protest tents. A small group of demonstrators interacted with passersby. The tent of veteran protester Amir Haskel was soldierly: orderly, clean, well-stocked and organized. 
“There is practically nothing you’d want that we don’t have here,” says Haskel with a shy smile. 
Haskel is aware of the inconvenience his movement has caused many residents, but believes that what he and his partners are doing is so essential that it is a price that should be paid. 
“I’m here so that when the day comes and my grandchildren ask what I did and where I was in those days, I won’t have to say with shame that I remained cozily at home,” echoes Haim Fliker, a retired Jerusalemite. “I’m here because this is really impossible to bear any more: the corruption, the wrongdoing of the regime – I had to come. We are here because we care about the social, political and economic situation of this country. Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is the ultimate expression of our worries. He is the symbol. 
“But we care about the whole country. It is clear to us that we have to get rid of this cancerous tumor. Yes, it is a cancer, and like a cancer it reaches every part of our society and destroys it.”
What about the suffering of the neighborhood residents?
Fliker hesitates and then says they are doing their best to keep things acceptable. 
“As you can see, it is in order and we keep it clean.” 
He admits he is aware of the inconvenience, but he also believes that the gravity of the protests requires some sacrifices. 
‘IT IS clear to us that we have to get rid of this cancerous tumor.’ (Marc Israel Sellem)
‘IT IS clear to us that we have to get rid of this cancerous tumor.’ (Marc Israel Sellem)
BUT FOR Yossi Zinger, who lives right above Paris Square, the center of the protests, the sacrifice is a heavy burden – particularly on Saturday evenings, when gatherings swell. 
“Somehow the goal of these protesters has become more central than our lives here. Between the need and the importance of a democratic society that respects the right to demonstrate – something as dear to me as to all the protesters – somehow, the balance has been lost. The right to protest is highly important; we do not want here a society that silences citizens, but we also want a society where our rights as residents are not crushed without consideration for our most basic needs.”
Zinger is not alone. Efrat Benn, a mother of two, lives on Azza Road. She says that over the approximately seven months since the protests started, her building has lost most of its tenants. 
“We have 10 apartments in the building, which is located close to the protest tents. Besides me and one apartment that has been turned into an office, the rest are empty. All the other residents have left. They couldn’t stand it anymore. 
“But even worse,” adds Benn, who has recently been elected a representative of Rehavia at the new board of the Ginot Ha’ir local council, “I planned to sublet my house for the vacation period, because that’s the only way I can afford a vacation, but I couldn’t find anyone willing to spend two or three weeks here with that nuisance so close. Is that fair?”
Marco Sarrabia, who made aliyah from France 30 years ago and is a member of the Labor Party, begs to differ.
“Protesting against a threat to the democracy is a duty,” he asserts. 
Sarrabia, affiliated with a group of French-Israelis who demonstrate under the banner of “Democrates mobilises” (from the French “mobilized democrats”), says that while he wouldn’t want to harm neighbors’ quality of life in any way, he feels he fights for them as well. 
“This is such an important issue, we fight here for all of us. We are often joined by people who are not affiliated with any left-wing party because they understand the importance of this protest. We need to ensure our country remains democratic. I don’t think we are disturbing the residents that much. 
“After all, many of them express their support and even bring us snacks and beverages. They understand the significance of our actions.”
“THE PROTESTS are filled with hate and zero consideration for the sanctity of Jerusalem,” counters another local resident. “My parents literally live in torture, starting Shabbos afternoon into the early hours of Sunday morning, as the protesters completely disobey court guidelines for their protests. Not to mention the corona risk for all the elderly in the area. 
“One night, a protester about 25 years old was screaming on her megaphone about 72 years of ‘occupation.’ A resident came to her and said, ‘Please, it’s very late. My little kids can’t sleep and there are Holocaust survivors in this building who also can’t sleep.’ The woman bellowed onto her megaphone, ‘I don’t care!’ Meanwhile, the police that did nothing at Balfour stink-bombed a haredi protest in another part of town. 
“These people are filled with hatred and it scares me to think how it could end up, but the police and the media treat them completely differently than any religious protest. It’s beyond out of control.”
Zinger, a recently elected representative at the Ginot Ha’ir local council for Talbiyeh, also sees differences in the way the police treat protesters at Balfour compared to other protesters, especially haredim in other parts of the city. 
“At Balfour, they are usually treated nicely, especially when compared to what goes on at haredi protests, and I wonder why. It’s as though nobody – not the police, not the municipality – wants to mess with them. Perhaps the authorities are afraid to treat them a bit more with resoluteness, a bit tougher, for fear they will turn them into martyrs? 
“I don’t know, but whatever the reasons are, we, the residents, including those who believe in the right of protest, are paying a high price.”
THE FEELING among the protesters is totally different. Haskel cites the many times he had to talk to and meet with police officers; the lack of understanding of protesters’ needs from the municipality; the lack of patience for what he and the many protesters see as a civil obligation for which they are ready to forgo comfort. Haskel is not a young man, but he nevertheless did not hesitate to pass his nights in a sleeping bag for months in the heat and the cold for something he believes is for the good of the country. 
None of the protesters dismiss the inconvenience to nearby residents, but they emphasize their consideration in trying to limit the damage. They see the attitude of police as not merciful; the numerous times that Haskel and his partners have been arrested is in their eyes clear proof they are not enjoying any special conditions. 
“We even rented an apartment in the neighborhood so we could have the facilities required for an extended stay. The municipality is not helping – the portable toilet is far from here, so you can see nothing is done to ease things for us,” adds Haskel.
“We are not against the right to protest – we all agree that this is a basic requirement in a democratic society,” responds Benn. “But they are not the first protesters here. We had the Gilad Schalit tent and protest for about three years. We had the families of children suffering from cancer who protested against the closure of an oncology department here, and many others. None of them used megaphones at late hours or at dawn. That’s one big difference.”
Zinger adds, “It’s not just the noise and the disturbance – we are entitled to the quality of life we expected when we decided to live here – but what about the need to enable an ambulance to reach here? I am a paramedic and if I get a call for duty, how can I make my way on a Saturday evening when the whole area is crowded? Does anybody think about that?”
(FROM RIGHT) Amir Haskel, Haim Fliker, Dani Danieli (standing) and another protester commiserate in Haskel’s well-organized tent. (Marc Israel Sellem)
(FROM RIGHT) Amir Haskel, Haim Fliker, Dani Danieli (standing) and another protester commiserate in Haskel’s well-organized tent. (Marc Israel Sellem)
DANI DANIELI, former CEO of Beit Avi Chai and member of the Avi Chai fund, and today an organization consultant for directors, has been in the nucleus group of Paris Square protesters for more than four years. A prominent figure at the protests, he has been arrested several times by the police – but is always discharged without indictment. 
“There is no way we can be accused of disregarding the residents’ needs and comfort,” says Danieli. “We do everything possible to avoid disrupting their lives. We keep the place clean, we do not violate the rules and the conditions laid down by the police and the municipality. We are very careful and respectful. However, the police and the municipality are not really helping here.”
Asked how he feels about the remarks of some neighbors that police treat the protesters at Balfour with kid gloves while using tougher means against other protesters, Danieli agrees that when he sees the way haredim or settler protesters are treated by the police, there is a difference. 
“Having said that, let’s remember that we, the different groups protesting at Balfour and on the bridges or marching in the city, are not using any violence. We strictly and carefully observe the law and the rules set by the police – so why would they treat us badly? Not that the police haven’t used force a few times and made groundless arrests, but we do not give them any reason for that, so of course it looks and feels different from what is going on at haredi or settler protests.”  
He adds that apart from once, when the police used tasers, limits have been respected by both sides. But Danieli takes a totally different tone when mentioning the municipality and its attitude toward the protesters throughout the many weeks of the protest. 
“The way the municipality treated us and our partner protesters coming from other cities made me ashamed to be a Jerusalemite, such as when the mayor and his staff confiscated a lot of material, including the nylon sheets we brought to protect us from the wind and rain. Throughout these months – apart from city council members Yossi Havilio and Laura Wharton, who expressed sympathy and tried to help – we faced a hostile municipality.” 
Danieli recalls with anger the municipality decision to remove, on Shabbat, Haim Zlait’s “Gibor Israel” statue from Paris Square as one of the worst acts against the protesters. The five-meter, six-ton statue depicted a protester.
“For such a harmless thing, this mayor and his staff didn’t hesitate to transgress the sanctity of the Shabbat and sent employees to remove it. I think it’s a shame.”
ZINGER SUMS it all up.
“My prime concern is for the fragile balance between the right to protest and the right of residents to be respected. At the local council, this issue has become a hot potato, something that everybody is avoiding. I do not agree with that approach. There must be a way to enable both and now that I have been elected to the local council, this is going to be one of my major tasks.”
The police responded to In Jerusalem’s request for comment: “We are sorry the situation has been presented in such a distorted way. Contrary to what is said, the Israel Police are enabling the weekly protests in accordance with the law, reducing as much as possible the harm to area living conditions. All activity takes place in accordance with the court’s decisions and the law. Through the months of protests, dozens of lawbreakers have been arrested, given fines and in some cases even indicted. Regarding the evacuation of the tents, this is the municipality’s prerogative.”
A spokesman for Mayor Moshe Lion said the municipality is focusing on ensuring its services meet residents’ needs.
“We do what the law instructs us to do – like preserving the access to the sidewalk, evacuating the tents and the material when the Court requires it while preserving the rights of the protesters. The court [District Office for Local Affairs] will rule on February 3, and until then, the situation on the ground is frozen.”
A reporter’s view: Protest quandary
The democratic right to protest and the equally important right to one’s quality of life has been an issue for a long time. As John B. Finch reportedly said in the 1880s, “Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.” 
One may be a supporter of a protest, but when your baby’s sleep is disrupted night after night or your car is trapped for hours in stopped traffic, you may have second thoughts. In the case of the Balfour protest, now in its eighth month, both the protesters and residents have a case to make.
In addition, there is a war of versions between the protesters and the police. Many protesters have expressed their anger and frustration at the use of what they consider excessive force, while many residents bemoan police inaction.
What bothers me as a journalist who has covered almost everything in this city for the past 30 years? The lack of solidarity.
The police have a difficult job, but accusations of excessive use of force and even police brutality against demonstrators have been heard for years: use of tasers and foul-smelling water jets whose stench lingers for days and makes children sick, the overuse of batons, the dragging of protesters, including violence against children, not to mention force against Arab residents and settlers who sometimes seem to be treated without any mercy. All of this happened here, but protesters at Balfour never expressed any criticism or protest. 
Until it reached them – a lesson to remember.