Israeli social activist Ori Beriyon
Israeli social activist Ori Beriyon in Lewinsky Park, Tel Aviv on August 9, 2011 Photo by David Sheen
Text size

Hundreds of Israelis and African asylum-seekers gathered together Tuesday night to hold an outdoor concert in a South Tel Aviv park, to demonstrate solidarity with a social protest leader who had been arrested earlier in the day on suspicion of assaulting a police officer.

The organizer of a contingent of Ethiopian-Israelis camping in the park in protest of the high cost of living in Israel told the hastily-convened crowd of supporters of the circumstances surrounding his arrest. Later, live musicians performed traditional Abyssinian songs and rap music in English and Tigrigna for the assembled crowd.

Dozens of municipal parks and other public spaces across the country have been hosting protest camps since July 14, when a group of Tel Aviv activists pitched tents on the grassy median on Rothschild Boulevard, a thoroughfare in the city center with high pedestrian traffic, to decry the high cost of housing.

Within a week and a half, another protest camp was established in Levinsky Park, where many homeless African asylum-seekers sleep outside on the grass.
The Levinsky camp has attracted residents of the city's impoverished southern neighborhoods, and more radical activists, who are demanding housing for all, regardless of citizenship.

Ori Beriyon, 28, denies the charge of assaulting a police officer. "A few hours ago, I was arrested by the police for jay-walking. They handcuffed me, treated me brutally," Beriyon told Haaretz late Tuesday. "No one can break me, no one can take away my spirit. I told them that. You can take away my body, but I will always be down for the struggle."

Beriyon said that he organized a group of Ethiopian-Israelis to support the Levinsky protest camp because it represents the weakest sectors of Israeli society. "If we citizens don't stand up and take responsibility for the future, for the weaker people, the ones the system abandoned long ago -- if we don't do it, it'll come back to us in the end," he said.

"None of us is immune to it. If we don't demonstrate mutual aid and realize that without me, you are nothing -- and the opposite -- we'll never do well. Never," continued Beriyon. "We must remember this: That if the weak one is in pain, then it's up to the strong one to get up and help him up."

The Levinsky camp has had repeated confrontations with the police since it was established on July 24. City officials evicted groups of activists and confiscated their tents on two consecutive occasions, but relented after the camp was re-established for the third time. The camp has since grown from about ten tents to several dozen in total, with an outdoor communal kitchen.

Activists at other Tel Aviv protest camps claim that their tents were confiscated by city officials earlier Tuesday. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai publicly confirmed Sunday that the activists have the right to protest in the public space, but hinted that they cannot expect to continue to squat on public property indefinitely.

Veronique Bibi, 48, a political asylum-seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo living in Israel for the last four years sleeps in the park and supports the Levinsky activists. "We have seen the people coming with the tents," said Bibi. "We welcome them, because they have indicated the same problem of housing."

"We hope that we will get our part," she said.

As she spoke, another dozen activists from the Rothschild Boulevard protest camp, informed of the protest party through their social media networks, marched into the park, chanting slogans of solidarity for the Levinsky camp.

Almost since its inception, the Levinsky camp has hosted a steady stream of curious young African children, but Tuesday night's impromptu concert of East African music seemed to break the spell of fear for the African adults, drawing in about two hundred party-goers. The lively music continued into the early hours of the morning.

"We've been here for over a week. We give it our all, so that things will change, so that we can really live in a better world," said Beriyon. "So that the children to be born will look at us and say, Thank you for this world you have brought us into!"

"That is the most lofty goal," he said.