protest Tel Aviv - 4.8.11
Protesters outside the Histadrut headquaters in Tel Aviv on August 4, 2011. Photo by Tal Cohen
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Palestinian social leaders believe the social protests that have erupted throughout Israel are largely influenced by the Arab Spring, contending Israelis must realize they too are suffering due to the occupation and money spent on settlements in the West Bank.

Israelis are imitating the Arab world, and West Bank Palestinians believe this to be a good thing. According to the Ma’an news agency, 14,032 (nearly 75%) of the 18,722 readers who responded to their online survey, believe that what is happening in Israel’s streets is influenced by and imitating the “Arab Spring”.

“Israel is inadvertantly becoming a part of the Middle East,” said sociologist Honaida Ghanim, who researches Israeli society, adding that“this is the power of bottom-up activity, when the country’s ideologists aren’t consulted.”

Ghanim wasn’t surprised when the protests began. As an Israeli citizen, born in Marja and General Director of “MADAR” the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies, the sociologist is well acquainted with Israeli polarization. However, she is certain that the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia had a large impact on the Israeli protest movement.

Sufian Abu Zaida is a member of Fatah and former prisoner, who currently teaches about Israeli society in the Birzeit University and the Al-Quds Open University. He was born in Jabaliya, a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, to a family of refugees from the town Burayr (today Bror Hayil).

The Palestinian teacher promises to remind his students next year that “this might be the first thing Israelis learnt from Arabs. They have always presented themselves as the only positive ray of light in a pitch black Middle East. Suddenly there is something to learn from these retards."

Ghanim cited additional sociological factors as part of the impetus for change in Israel, saying "on the one hand, there is neo-liberalism and globalization that have resulted in an unacceptable gap between the wealth of the state and individuals and the harshness of life for the masses. On the other hand, these are similar tools – online social networks, with Facebook heading the list, which had a far-reaching effect on the media.”

Despite this, there isn’t much interest among the Palestinians in the protest occupying Israel for over three weeks. “We are a people in perpetual struggle with the government, three weeks of protest are not long enough to seriously catch our attention,” said Nariman al-Tamimi, from Nabi Salih, and Afaf Ghatasha, a feminist activist and member of the Palestinian People’s Party.

However, they are both impressed – as are other Palestinians –that the Israeli movement is geared toward improving the already high level standard of living in Israel in comparison to that of most Palestinians. Israelis are making “demands that are luxuries,” according to Ghatasha.

“I know something about the housing crisis,” said Tamimi, who was wrongfully placed under arrest for eight days a year and six months ago, for the attack of a policeman with a sharp object. She was eventually convicted of “obstructing a police officer in the performance of his duties,” during a demonstration against the appropriation of town land and a well.

Her husband Bassam was arrested four months ago and is charged with organizing the demonstrations in their town. “For us Palestinians, it isn’t a housing crisis we are facing but a housing ban. Though the Israeli government being at fault is a common denominator,” she said.

The Civil Administration issued a demolition order for her house built in Area C. The original house, built in 1963, wasn’t large enough for the entire family, and they were forced to expand their house without a permit; a permit Israel doesn’t issue.

From their home, which could be destroyed any day, the family members can see the settlement of Halamish growing. “A few days ago, my daughter saw the Israeli protests with me as I was surfing the web,” Tamimi said, when we met at the al-Bireh Popular Resistance Committees offices.

“She asked me, are they also dispersed with tear gas, are they hit? I told her they weren’t. She couldn’t understand the difference; we are also fighting for social justice, are we not?” Tamimi said.

The main element missing in the Israeli wave of protests, according to Tamimi, is the disconnect between social struggle and the Israeli occupation.

Abu Zaida is the only who seems optimistic about the protests, saying“the public will start reckoning with its government on what it is spending on the settlements and settlers. It’s about to happen. Social justice means an equal distribution of the country’s resources. Everyone knows that this isn’t the case due to political and ideological reasons.”

Ghanim, however, believes the Israeli protest movement will fail because political correctness will prevent people from seeing the natural link to the occupation, with the government continuing to make settlements the highest priority and depriving the Palestinian people of their freedom.

“The movement is headed by the middle class and many intellectuals, as a social class that generates much knowledge in the sociological sense but not in the spiritual sense, Ghanim said, adding "they will eventually make the connection to the occupation. However, strategic processes take a long time historically, while the leadership will have the short-term in mind, not treating the root of the problem. And then the movement will collapse. Netanyahu will bring the West Bank to Tel Aviv, meaning he will upgrade apartheid, and that’s all.”

Tamimi and Ghatasha believe this is an opportunity for Israelis to understand that they too are victims of the occupation. “All the tear gas grenades thrown at us in demonstrations cost money which cannot be spent on improving social conditions for Israelis,” Tamimi said. However, said she heard that one of the protest leaders spoke out against the anarchists, because they demonstrate against soldiers.

“These are the activists standing by our side in recent years,” she said, “How can you demand social justice for only one group?”

Ghatasha , who was born in the al-Fawwar refugee camp, to a family from the depopulated Palestinian town Bayt Jibrin, also found herself hard pressed to see any difference made by the protests that have swept up the country.

This May she met with Israeli leftist activists, who came to a conference for Palestinian leftist parties in Hebron. At the conference she talked about two processes hindering feminist Palestinian activities and female participation in the struggle against the occupation.

On one hand, she claimed, NGO-ation (the channeling of activities to NGOs funded by different countries), reduces the influence of women groups. On the other hand, militarization of the second intifada pushed most of the population, including women, out of the struggle’s public sphere.

“What is it that makes some Israelis get it and others not?” she mused in her party’s Hebron offices. “I’d like to understand the rationality of the Israeli people,” she added.
“On one hand there’s this selfishness, of a people living off another people’s misery, with no regret. On the other hand, it is obvious that they would be better off were they to live like a normal country, not squandering their money on upholding the occupation, Ghatasha said.

Despite their misgivings, all four agree the protest will allow the Palestinians – most of whom know Israelis only in the form of settlers and soldiers – to see that “Israeli society isn’t one-dimensional, that it is complex, that it shouldn’t be flattened, that it has struggles and oppressed classes of its own,” Ghanim said.

“The protest is shattering the Palestinians image of Israel as a perfect country, where all are full, own villas and trade in their cars every year," Abu Zaida added.