Sleepy Israeli City Becomes a War Zone Over Netanyahu’s Corruption Cases

People in Petah Tikva aren't necessarily for Benjamin Netanyahu or against the Ethiopian Israeli community. It's the noise of the protests they can't stand

Ethiopian Israeli protesters in Petah Tikva's Kfar Ganim neighborhood, August 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

One section of Petah Tikva’s Goren Square is the domain of protesters against government corruption. A few dozen meters away, on both sides of the street and on a traffic island, are Ethiopian Israeli protesters.

Opposite them, or nearby, is a new set of demonstrators: People who live right there in the Kfar Ganim neighborhood and are sick of the ruckus outside. On top of all that are the police, sometimes municipal inspectors too, trying to impose order, even if briefly.

This is the surreal situation in a Tel Aviv suburb where little of note happened until a few years ago. But Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit lives there too, and the protests outside his home have changed his neighbors’ lives.

The neighbors probably yearn for the days when only on Saturday evenings did they hear chants that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be indicted in the corruption cases against him. The protesters used to arrive early enough, “but the guys now come at seven in the evening and stay until 11,” says a man who gave his name as Hagai. His apartment provides a perfect view of the demonstrations.

He worries that one day, some neighbor will lose it, some moron will get violent, and then it will be war.

The protests in Kfar Ganim began two years ago; later the High Court of Justice ruled that they could continue, with constraints on timing and the number of participants. In June, the Ethiopian Israelis arrived; they’ve now moved their protest from Tel Aviv’s Habima Square.

They now come every Friday afternoon and stake out the path that Mendelblit takes from his home to synagogue. They said they wanted to be able to look him in the eye, but even though they’ve been ordered to keep back, they’re still coming.

Protesters, and a local resident, in Petah Tikva's Kfar Ganim neighborhood, August 13, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Ethiopian Israelis’ protest began after the death of Solomon Teka, an Ethiopian Israeli teenager killed by an off-duty police officer in June. These demonstrators stand around 100 meters (338 feet) from Mendelblit’s home. They come every day, not once a week, they shout through megaphones, and they stay longer than the others, until a few minutes before 11 P.M., when the police show up.

“You can’t live this way,” says Ido, who lives nearby on Ben-Gurion Street. “It isn’t about the subject of the protests. Parents just want to get home, put the kids to bed and go to sleep.” As Ido puts it, if the protesters demonstrated less often, the neighbors would have more sympathy with their cause.

Because the protests have shown no sign of dissipating, the neighbors are organizing. They've set up a WhatsApp group and have even considered mounting a counterprotest outside the Tel Aviv home of High Court President Esther Hayut. This past Sunday, 15 of them did indeed protest, on their own street, accompanied by Petah Tikva Deputy Mayor Tzadok Ben Moshe.

“What about my children? They can’t sleep,” one protester shouted.

“What about my children? They’re being killed,” an Ethiopian Israeli protester shouted back.

Petah Tikva Mayor Rami Greenberg had already sent over city inspectors, who fined demonstrators for causing a nuisance. But the police’s legal counsel, Aliza Arbel, wrote Greenberg that the protests were allowed, so fining people for a permitted activity is “problematic.”

The protesters are trying to get the fines canceled, and the city is getting residents to sign a petition against the demonstrations. Greenberg has pledged to take the case to the High Court. “I won’t let the people of Petah Tikva become hostage to political wars,” he says.

On Monday, Greenberg joined the residents’ protest. “We have no position on the content of the demonstrations,” he says. “We don’t care who’s demonstrating about what. We believe in freedom of expression, but this has gone beyond freedom of expression and has begun to badly impair the basic rights of the neighborhood’s residents.”

Ben Moshe, the deputy mayor, takes an even harder line. “Anybody with a beef is coming here to the neighborhood and bothering the neighbors, not the attorney general,” he says. “I don’t get it. This is an extraordinary nuisance. It’s become protest central for the whole country.”

Legally, the issue is complex. Demonstrations are allowed, but there are limits. For example, one or two people may protest 70 meters from the attorney general’s home; five have to be 120 meters away.

But those guidelines were set down before things got intense, when protests were weekly, not constantly, says Adam Shinar, an expert on constitutional law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. If the numbers have changed, the balance between the right to protest and the rights of local people must change too, he says.

Meanwhile, the counterprotest has led to a call on social media by Ethiopian Israelis to beef up forces in Petah Tikva. If on Sunday there were 10 protesters, by Tuesday there were many dozens; the Ethiopian Israelis apparently abandoned other protest sites to come to Kfar Ganim.

Brinash, a teacher from Kadima-Zoran north of Tel Aviv, says the protesters don’t want to bother the neighbors, they simply want Israelis to wake up. She adds that the residents’ reaction has been worse than she expected: Some shout racist curses.

And where there is a ruckus, there are police. For now they’re following the guidelines set by the court, which they themselves asked for – a ruling that balances the rights of protesters and local people. So the city and residents may plead, but the police refuse to move the protesters.

Still, the demonstrators can’t just do as they please. For example, protesters were summoned when they handed out signs saying “what do you need a synagogue for if you have no God?”

Mendelblit, meanwhile, has finally complained to the police, and it was agreed that protesters could wait for him along the route, but not on Fridays.

On Tuesday night, the police announced new limits to the protests. Demonstrations near the attorney general’s home are capped at five people; otherwise the protest site must be Goren Square.

The protests near Mendelblit’s home may take place Sunday to Thursday for two hours and end by 11 P.M. Midweek protests may be held at the square for three hours and only on Tuesdays, ending by 10 P.M. Any deviations must be coordinated with the police.