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Tent protests panic Netanyahu (and just might shake foundations of occupation)

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The Globes financial daily, which tends to lean towards free-market libertarianism, puts the word Panic in big, bold letters right over the picture of Netanyahu. (picture thanks to Didi Remez)

Netanyahu does, in fact, have something to panic about. 150,000 Israeli citizens were out in the streets, demonstrating on Saturday evening, up from 30,000 the previous Saturday. Tent encampments are popping up all over Israel, everywhere from the poshest center of Tel Aviv to the most disadvantaged cities in what they like to call “the periphery” – the hastily-built towns outside of the center, which served as place-holders to keep Palestinians from reclaiming their land after 1948, populated by state decree by the Jews brought in from Europe’s Displaced Persons camps and by the Arab Jews brought in with little say about their fate, in collusions by despotic leaders from Muslim countries and the nnw Jewish state, soon after 1948. The first encampment started on Rothschild Avenue, where a disgruntled renter, Daphne Leef, pitched her tent. Leef, a filmmaker unable to make ends meet, declared on her Facebook page that she was moving into the boulevard until economic conditions were livable. A few others joined her, angry about the skyrocketing rents inside Tel Aviv – and the impossibility of transportation outside it with Israel’s rickety and increasingly unreliable mass transit disorganization.

This protest – at the heart of Tel Aviv’s most affluent area, by people who had played by the rules, done the required military service, studied at universities – and couldn’t make end meets even after doing all of that – struck a chord with Israelis everywhere. I counted thirty encamplents on the map here: each pin on the map signifies an encampment, with dozens of tents and slogans demanding one thing: “social justice”.

They weren’t the first group to protest this year in Israel. The doctors and medical residents have been striking for nearly half a year, demanding fair wages and livable working conditions. Dairy farmers have done so as well. University students joined in (protesting fee hikes), as did some 44 of the parliamentary assistants working with Knesset members (reported here on Wednesday) and parents, who pushed strollers in a march of despair, complaining about the high cost of childcare and demanding free education in gov’t supervised creches and preschools. Also in with the protesters were the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights, several political parties, and Rabbis for Human Rights. These names may seem familiar to readers who have followed the protests against the occupation, but it is far from being a protest about the occupation. The reverse may be true: protesters have repeatedly said that they are “not political” – all they want is some Israeli version of the New Deal (yup. Roosevelt’s New Deal) – and they don’t want to restrict it to what has been traditionally called “the left”, which has been thoroughly rejected by Israelis. The paradigm of talking about justice and what is right to do has collapsed – to the great dismay of the few thousand Jewish Israelis who still see the world through the lens of universal justice. Out of the ashes of humanistic justice, though, one sees a new consensus arise – and one that could help bring justice to Palestine & Israel, for the first time since 1948. 

Netanyahu is, as I said, panicking. Chants at the protests made sure to mention the police (notoriously low-paid, and legally prohibited from unionizing) among the sectors that needed a new deal. This so worried Netanyahu that he announced a 40% pay hike for them [ – via & @NitayPeretz on Twitter]. Unheard-of steps are being taken to return excess funds by the Israel Water Association, which appears to have overcharged for its services. Silvan Shalom (whose current titles is Minister for Development of the Negev and Galillee and Regional Cooperation) and Coalition Chief Zeev Elkin tried to recruit the Livni Kadima party into the government from the opposition, accusing Kadima of populism. Sunday morning, Netanyahu’s Chief of Treasury (not minister of finance – the general manager of the treasury, a position with (much) more power) quit, due to professional disagreements between himself and Treasury Minister Steinitz. Sunday afternoon, Netanyahu sent his spokesman Roni Sofer to the press, to insist that the protest is “excessive” and that “the society has stopped setting boundaries for itself.” Protest organizers laughed heartily and said that the government doesn’t know what it’s talking about – and called for a nationwide strike Monday.

There is good reason for their assertion. Netanyahu is on film commenting on the Arab Spring revolutions. He says that the entire Middle East is shaking – except for one country, where (according to him) there is a full democracy and equal rights for everyone under the law. Here’s a remix of that clip, with scenes from the demonstrations interspersed, put together by Noy Alushe:   So things are lively in Israel. All over Israel. There are tent encampments in Jaffa and in the Levinski Park, with activists from the posher (and more Jewish) areas joining in solidarity. In Qiryat Shmona and in Baqa, in Jerusalem and in Ashdod. Blogger Kikar Hamyoashim (a pseudonym) told me that he has seen more courtesy and consideration in Tel Aviv during the protests than at other times: cars stopped for him when he came to a crosswalk four times on a single afternoon, and people said things like “please” and “thank you” and generally acted like people were not the enemy but rather, members of the same society.

The demonstrations are tweeted with the #j14 hashtag; some of the organization is being done via Facebook, some via twitter, some via telephone and by existing personal contacts. Writer Roni Gelbfish called in some writer-friends, to read to the kids living in the tent encampments. Musicians have joined in. Musicians show up, ask for a guitar (Barry Sacharoff was handed three guitars when he asked for one) and perform either impromptu or scheduled shows. Sanitary facilities spring up, and organization begins to take place, in a mode which described by City Tree activist Assaf Shuhami as a Scale-free network

What the activists want is nothing less than an entirely new social contract. They want to roll back the Shock Doctrine privatization, and regain a security network for what used to be the middle class, before Netanyahu and the neo-liberals sold off the assets – which had originally been taken over from the Palestinians, between the end of WWI and the 1948.

They don’t just want the government to fall; they want the system to change, from the ground up. They want to see a system which they describe as “fair” – a system where life is a playable game. 

What will this mean for Palestine, though? What will it mean for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and for the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, or in exile? When the Israeli government falls, and the New Deal protesters are asking for is worked out in detail, Israel will be at a turning point. It can either continue as an apartheid state – or step back and reorganize as the kind of entity Azmi Bishara described as “a state for all its citizens”. The timing, so close to September and the declaration of statehood in the Bantustans of the West Bank, is fortuitous: it would be fairly easy to preempt that, and declare a single state, with a sharing of resources and power among all its citizens – which would allow the resources to be diverted from military adventurism to the sort of state that the protesters are demanding. It is a possible path from here to there, and the very first such possible path I’ve seen. There are, however, other possibilities: Netanyahu could pull out the war card, to galvanize people behind fear of a perceived enemy; or the Israelis might decide that they actually like living in an apartheid environment, and upon rethinking it, decide to maintain that structure.

The protests are radically different from anything I’ve seen in Israel, ever. I am cautiously hopeful that they could lead to one state, with equal rights for all, regardless of ethnicity, and an ingathering of Palestinian exiles. Inshallah.

Dena Shunra

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