Tent protest
Tent protest: "Food, public housing, education. Stop poverty!" Photo by Haaretz
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Earlier this week, two men in grayish-olive uniforms - one from the city's inspections department, the other from the beautification department - were patrolling on Rothschild Boulevard between Balfour Street and Sheinkin in Tel Aviv. They conversed pleasantly with some tent-dwellers. They had only one polite request: "Please take down the hammock tied to a tree." Their job, they explained, was to prevent damage to trees. They had no intention of expelling the squatters on the boulevard - and no orders to do so.

The mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai - who received his own personal landscape-beautification training on Kibbutz Hulda and in the air force - is a person who, until now, has spared the Israel Police a great deal of consternation. The mayor's silence is a blessing for Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino. If Huldai decides to complain to the police about trespassing or "temporary construction in a public place," the police will have to act.

Then, by virtue of the vision Danino and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch share on the matter of urban policing, a mixed force of municipal inspectors and police will be organized. The inspectors will be dispatched to evacuate the tents, while the police stand by to protect them and be prepared for friction, skirmishes and arrests. Not that this is expected to be especially effective: The protest will only swell. Danino is very much hoping Huldai will remain silent, likewise his mayoral colleagues around the country.

To all appearances, the tent city that is spreading by leaps and bounds is a no-man's-land. The reality is more complex, however. Among the people in the tents and the strolling tourists and residents, there are detectives wearing light civilian clothing that is more comfortable than their heavy uniforms (which Danino is considering replacing in response to complaints from the police ). They might even have pitched tents for themselves.

A recently retired senior officer in the Tel Aviv police who was strolling along the boulevard repeatedly encountered winked greetings from old friends, his former subordinates. They are collecting intelligence about the organizers' intentions: The fear is that the transition from "brothers dwelling together" to violent and volatile tribe is liable to be swift. Until orders change, they are looking the other way when it comes to what is happening in and among the tents. This could change, and not only if a drug problem or flagrant criminal activity raises its head.

A doctor who lives along the boulevard warned - in a letter to Huldai this week - that the sanitation problems in the hot, concentrated mass of humanity are creating an all-but-certain infrastructure for an epidemic.

This may be the first big test for Danino, who became commissioner on May 1. Only two months have gone by and sweltering July has arrived, dripping with the sweat of protest. On July 14, Bastille Day, the first "immigration" settled at the northern end of Rothschild.

"The tent protest - justified and worthy," wrote Huldai in his blog that day. "The government of Israel, consciously and as an ideology, is abandoning social issues to 'market forces.' There is no planning, there is no long-term vision, and all the decisions are improvisations. The Israel Lands Administration is behaving like the lowest of the private entrepreneurs. The government is good at quick tricks. [Housing initiatives by the municipality] encounter, inevitably, difficulties on the part of the state."

The municipality versus the cabinet, the local authority against the central government, citizens against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - and in the middle, the police. What is to be done? To ignore the hazards and the minor infractions, at least ostensibly? To announce that justice shall be preserved at all costs on the boulevard? To enforce the law or to choose a side? Danino's choice, thus far, does not bode well for Netanyahu and his top political partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the boss of Aharonovitch's party, Yisrael Beiteinu.

Legitimate protest

The Israel Police refuses to serve as the truncheon in the government's hand. Indeed, it is a branch of the national institutions as they are broadly conceived - the State Prosecutor's Office, the attorney general, the courts. If a page of talking points were to be produced at police headquarters, for internal use by the command level, it would look more or less like this:

• The public protest is legitimate. Its aim is legal and the means taken to advance that aim do not, all in all, deviate from the limits of the permissible.

• The potential initiative to change the situation and its definition is in the mayors' hands. As long as mayors are not filing complaints, the police will not intervene.

• The police will not allow the blocking of roads. Deviations from what has been agreed upon with the organizers of demonstrations and processions will encounter a resolute response, including arrests, but the basic idea is to cool the heated emotions.

One of Danino's declared aims, in his speeches and his bulletins to the force, is to bring the police closer to the citizenry and to improve the image of the policeman - in his own eyes and in the eyes of the citizen. The key concept is "respect" - respect for the individual, respect for the profession, self-respect and respectful dignity. Therefore, Danino is aiming to improve the salary and service conditions of the police.

There is a degree of internal contradiction inherent in this. The police are dwelling in the midst of their people and are sharing with them the troubles of earning a living and of housing. However, if Danino obtains an increased budget for them, this will necessarily - if marginally - come at the expense of supporting one of the social issues raised by the protesters.

In July 1949, a decade before Danino was born, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met with the first police commissioner, Yehezkel Sahar. "What is the explanation for the increase in crimes? The transition from war to peace - and the increase in immigrants, especially Moroccans, demobilized soldiers who haven't organized themselves," Ben-Gurion jotted in his journal, summarizing Sahar's report.

"Most of the criminals who were given pardons have been apprehended again. Most of the pickpockets are Ashkenazis. The police are uncovering crimes but they are not preventing them ... for lack of manpower. In Tel Aviv, 800 policemen are needed - there are only 350. In Jaffa, there are 32 police - and the entire underworld is there. There isn't any bribery - but the salary is low and there is a danger." A beginning policeman's salary was 34 liras, "and this is not enough. The necessary minimum is more than 40 Israeli pounds."

In those days, and for at least two decades thereafter, the police commissioner (like the chief of staff, the head of the Shin Bet security service and other high officials ) was a trusted person close to the ruling party and its leaders. Today, when personnel and political party changes within the regime are more rapid and frequent, the politicians who appoint the heads of the enforcement organizations can have expectations of them, but these are not always fulfilled - especially when the "dark sides" of prime ministers and cabinet ministers are well known to the police investigators.

Everything is still liable to change if the protest gets out of hand. However, when - on the spectrum between Huldai and Netanyahu - Danino is closer to the side of understanding and restraint, the government cannot delude itself that the police will do the black and blue dirty work for it.