Take the protests in proportion - analysis

When the two news stories are juxtaposed, they put things into proportion for anyone really paying attention.

Hundreds of protesters gather in Tel Aviv to protest against police brutality and Amir Ohana, July 28. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
Hundreds of protesters gather in Tel Aviv to protest against police brutality and Amir Ohana, July 28.
The protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem and the responses to it have taken over an outsized portion of Israeli media in recent weeks.
In some ways it’s understandable: It’s a spicy, exciting story. People are taking to the streets and demanding change. It’s definitely more exciting than more numbers of people infected with COVID-19, and this doctor or that minister arguing over how to handle it.
At the same time, Israel is marking 15 years since the government evicted thousands of citizens from their legal homes in Gaza – whitewashed with the neutral term “the disengagement” – while protests and police brutality are filling the 8 o’clock news and splashed across the front pages of Israeli newspapers.
When the two news stories are juxtaposed, they put things into proportion for anyone really paying attention. And anyone who remembers the massive wave of protests in 2011 knows that it dwarfs the latest one.
Last week, right-wing journalist Itamar Fleischman brought to light a protocol from the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee in November 2005, in which former state attorney Shai Nitzan, then in charge of law enforcement in the “disengagement,” said 6,000 protesters were arrested opposing the expulsion from Gaza, including 1,000 minors.
Some of the teenage protesters at the time were left in jail for days before they were allowed to contact their parents.
Then-chief public defender Inbal Rubinstein told the Knesset that in many cases there was no evidence of violence. She quoted a Supreme Court judge as saying “a hint of a suspicion of committing a crime is enough… suspicious presence at the site of the event [of violence] is enough” to arrest 13-year-olds opposing the expulsion for a week.
In one day in May of 2005, 292 people were arrested for blocking roads and another 56 were taken in for questioning, 175 of those arrested were kept overnight, including 75 minors.
Asked on Saturday night how many protesters have been arrested outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in recent weeks, Israel Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said: “Over 70 protesters have been arrested in the area of the PM’s residence in recent disturbances that have taken place at protests.”
Instead of headlines lamenting law enforcement, the headlines ahead of the disengagement, almost across the board, condemned the protesters. The media was much more homogeneous then, and there was no social media. Instead, the voices on Channels 1, 2, 10 overwhelmingly supported them.
Sara Haetzni-Cohen, head of the My Israel Movement, quoted some of those voices in her column in Makor Rishon this weekend. “We need a second Altalena,” former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon said, referring to when the Hagana shot at fellow Jews, on an Irgun ship.
That outrage over water canons we’ve been seeing in recent weeks?
There was none of that. Haetzni-Cohen’s column ran with a screenshot of Nisso Shaham, then a police sub-commander, telling Channel 10: “Let them burn. Don’t think twice. Use the water canon.” The full quote in the article continues: “Arrests, arrests, arrests, don’t think twice. Lots of arrests. Including using force, methods. Not crowd-control methods. Batons.”
An optimist may think that we have just become more careful in the past 15 years. That the police is now less violent as a rule. But one need only to look at recent major protests of Ethiopian-Israelis against racism or haredim for myriad reasons to know that isn’t so.
And while this isn’t police, it’s a former senior military officer, Meretz MK Yair Golan made it clear that at least some of the people involved in that era don’t have regrets. Golan commanded the incredibly violent dismantlement of the Amona outpost in early 2006. He said on 103FM in June: “I”m proud that [then-MK] Aryeh Eldad was beaten. He probably deserved it.” He clarified his remarks in a Meretz faction meeting soon after: “Thousands of people chose to break the law and were violent against security forces...The police were not violent. They used force.”
If we’re already comparing demonstrations and the authorities’ response, it’s worth pointing out that six years after the disengagement there was a huge protest movement that is much more similar to what is happening now.
The months of protests in 2011 started out with “Camp Sucker,” people protesting that they are “suckers” serving in the army and reserves, while the vast majority of haredim do not. Then, a haredi man decided to boycott Tnuva because they had hiked the prices of cottage cheese too high. Then, some young Tel Aviv residents pitched tents on the grassy center of Rothschild Boulevard to protest how high rent had become. They were joined by parents in a “stroller protest” against the high cost of childcare.
These different groups all had somewhat different goals, but they all got together to protest the Netanyahu-led government in what later became known as “the social protests.” Today’s protests also feature a disparate list of organizations – anti-corruption, environmental, representing various branches of the economy hit hard by coronavirus.
The social protests captured the hearts of Israelis across the country, where smaller protests broke out and people pitched tents in parks from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat. And though they were clearly led by people who were left-wing, they managed to attract major figures from the Right – like then-Yesha Council director-general Naftali Bennett, who bused in demonstrators from Judea and Samaria.
They even had a “million-man march,” which was estimated to actually be quarter-million, in Tel Aviv one night – more than any of the latest protests by many orders of magnitude.
Their message, that everything in this country costs too damn much, spoke to just about everyone. And that brought about a committee willing to sit with Netanyahu and make changes. Some may say not enough changes, but at the very least young children have free education from age three, which is not insignificant at all. And the cottage cheese in my refrigerator says it costs NIS 5.5, and not NIS 8 like in 2011.
That brings us to what’s tragic about the Balfour protests, as the latest wave of demonstrations has come to be known, named after the street of the prime minister’s residence.
Some of the 2011 organizers are prominent participants in the latest protests, but they don’t seem to remember what made them a truly national phenomenon back then.
A lot of people can relate to the economic hardship that some of those protesters are lamenting. But turning to the overtly political message against Netanyahu – which is perceived as being against the Right – is alienating to half of the population. And beyond alienating, the idea that police behavior is brutal when it’s against some people, but totally acceptable against others, has angered many prominent members of the Right who remember 2005 well.