Moshe Kuperman, 89, is a regular at the Saturday evening protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held at the Sderot junction, just a few kilometers east of Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.
“Netanyahu is a danger to this country,” says Kuperman, a great-grandfather from Kibbutz Erez, affectionately known among the crowd here as “Mak.” Because it is too difficult for him to stand on his feet for nearly two hours, especially in the sizzling-hot temperatures typical of late August, he brings a chair along with him.
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“I’m not sure how much these protests will help or change things, but I feel that I need to do this,” he says.
Kuperman is one of roughly 60 participants in the so-called Black Flag protest at this spot on Saturday evening. For the past two months, every Saturday evening, anti-Netanyahu demonstrators gather at nearly 300 bridges and junctions across the country, waving their black flags – and Israeli flags, as well – at vehicles passing by.
According to several of the regulars, this week’s crowd outside the entrance to Sderot on Highway 34 is larger than usual. Most of the protesters are middle-aged and even older. But there are also parents with young children. About half a dozen policemen have been dispatched to guard them.
A boom box situated in the midst of the crowd plays popular protests songs, and many of the demonstrators sing along, with some dancing as well. An energetic adolescent girl, put in charge of the megaphone, leads the protesters in anti-Netanyahu chants. “Netanyahu to Maasiyahu,” a reference to a prison in central Israel, is one of the hits this evening. When passing cars honk to show their support, the protesters wave back with enthusiasm.
Given the recent flare-up in tensions with Gaza, this might be the most dangerous outdoor gathering point in Israel at the moment. Explosive-laden balloons launched from Gaza incited 25 fires across the border region on Saturday alone, and more than 500 fires in recent weeks. Dozens of rockets have also been fired from Gaza at kibbutzim and towns along the border, sparking reprisal attacks from the Israeli military. Last weekend, a house in Sderot took a direct hit.
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Exactly one week ago, at this very junction, a Red Alert warning – signaling an incoming rocket – sounded while locals were holding their weekly protest. This close to the border, residents only have 15 seconds to run for cover once a rocket has been launched. When they heard the dreaded warning, the protesters at the junction simply threw themselves on the ground and wrapped their arms over their heads.
When asked if he is scared to risk another Red Alert this week, Kuperman chuckles. “I’ve been living in this part of the country for nearly 70 years,” he says. “You get used to these things. But if you want to know what really scares me, it’s how much Netanyahu's most fanatic supporters hate people like me. I just can’t get my head around it.”
Perhaps nowhere in Israel is the political divide Kuperman mentions more evident than at this particular junction. On one side is Sderot, a largely working-class town, known as a key stronghold of Netanyahu’s Likud party. In the last election, held on March 2, more than half the voters in Sderot cast their ballots for Likud, compared with just under 30 percent nationally.
A majority of Sderot's residents are Mizrahi Jews, whose families immigrated to Israel from Middle Eastern and North African countries. Surrounding Sderot and all along the Gaza border are more than a dozen kibbutzim, perhaps the last bastions of the Ashkenazi left in Israel.
In Kibbutz Nir Am, just across the road, the center-left parties received more than 75 percent of the vote in the last election, while Likud won only 13 percent. In nearby Kibbutz Kfar Aza, Likud had an even worse showing, pulling in only six percent of the vote.
The battle between these two Israels, so to speak, plays out here every Saturday evening, as Netanyahu devotees, passing by in their cars on their way in and out of Sderot, engage with the protestors. A little more than a month ago, it ended badly: A resident of Sderot stabbed one of the protesters in the neck at a junction about a kilometer away from here. That protestor, 40-year-old Nir Saar of Kibbutz Gevim, sustained minor injuries after he tried helping another friend who had been assaulted.
Certain rituals have developed in recent months. Netanyahu supporters passing by in their cars will slow down, roll down their windows and give the protesters the finger, while shouting: “Bibi.” The protesters will yell back: “To jail.”
Last week, and on previous Saturday evenings, the protesters have been called “stinking leftists,” “traitors,” “Nazis” and even worse.
“I’ve been called a whore and told to go back to the brothel,” says Dvora Galiani, a 70-year-old grandmother from Nir Am. Galiani, whose husband is disabled, says it is difficult for her to get away for even an hour because she is his primary caregiver. “But I make a point of coming here every week because it’s the little that I can do,” she says. “I feel that after all I’ve given to this country – all my children have served in combat units, and now my oldest grandson is about to enlist – that they’re trying to make a joke out of me.”
Galiani stops for a second and sniffs. “You smell that?” she asks. “That’s another fire breaking out. My nose can already detect them from miles away.” Asked if she isn’t afraid to be outdoors with burning balloons from Gaza floating in the air above, she responds: “The only thing I’m afraid of is for the future of this country.”
Almost all the protesters gathered at this junction are from the nearby kibbutzim. Ariella Elbaz, a 53-year-old resident of Sderot, is an exception. She comes every week with her daughter.
“I’ve always been on the left,” says Elbaz. “But despite what many people think, there are many others who think like me in Sderot. To be sure, they’re not the majority, but they definitely exist.”
Elbaz, who works at a daycare center in one of the kibbutzim in the region, is carrying a homemade sign reading “Prime Minister or Arms Dealer?”
“Netanyahu has already approved sales of submarines to Egypt and just recently approved the sale of fighter planes to Abu Dhabi,” she explains. “So I think this is a very legitimate question.”
Gil Yasur, 50, has been living in Sderot for 25 years. “I’m here [at the protest] because I don’t think a criminal should be serving as prime minister,” says Yasur, an economist by profession. “I think there are many people in Sderot who share this belief even if they have issues with the left.”
That would not include Alon Davidi, the town mayor and an outspoken supporter of Netanayahu. Speaking with a reporter from the Israeli public broadcaster on Sunday, he said that despite his reservations concerning the government handling of the conflict with Gaza, he would still vote for Netanyahu if an election were held tomorrow. "I wouldn’t say that he failed, and I support Likud because of a set of values I believe in," Davidi told Kan News.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Gonen Samid participated in a protest. But the 51-year-old makes sure to show up every week at this junction with both his black and blue-and-white flags. This time, he even got his teenage son Alon to join him.
Samid is holding a handwritten cardboard sign that says: “Furlough Bibi.”
“I hold Bibi responsible for everything that has gone wrong in this country, and that includes the security situation down here in the south,” he says. “I have a daughter who is being treated now for anxiety attacks, and I blame him for bringing us to this situation.”
It was a member of his own Kibbutz Gevim who was attacked at the nearby junction last month. Not only has this not deterred Samid from coming to the protests, he says, but it has actually given him more incentive to show up.
“I’m not going to say that I always feel safe here,” he says. “The week that Nir was stabbed, I asked a policeman to escort me back to my car. I also got knocked around a bit that day. The drivers came very close to us, they weren’t wearing masks, and I felt very threatened. But now that there are more police out guarding us, I’m feeling better about the situation.”
Next to him are Ilan and Eitan Arad, two brothers, both in their fifties, who grew up with him in Gevim. They are holding a big banner that says “Crime Minister.” It is also the name of one of the groups organizing the anti-Netanyahu protests.
An elderly man joining the protests gets a warm greeting from the Gevim contingent. “He was our high school civics teacher,” explains Ilan.
Michah Ben-Hillel, the retired teacher, retrieves a poster of the Israeli flag from his bag. “I’m an Israeli patriot fearful for the fate of our country,” he says, as he proceeds to unfold it. Someone asks him what he thinks about the “Crime Minister” banner his former students are holding. He doesn’t like it, he says. “In this country, you’re still innocent until proven guilty,” explains Ben-Hillel.
Sharon Stav, a former New Yorker, has been a member of nearby Kibbutz Dorot for nearly 50 years. She would have liked to join her children at the main Saturday night protest in Jerusalem, outside the prime minister’s residence, but she thinks it best at her age to avoid big crowds during a pandemic. “Coming out to this junction is the least I can do,” says Stav, 71. “It’s the only way for me to express what I feel about what’s going on in this country.”
Many of the signs and T-shirts on display reference local issues. Irit and Rafi Danan, a couple from Kibbutz Erez, for example, carry a sign reading “Red Alert for democracy.”
Also from Erez, Mor Katzman, 41, is wearing a printed t-shirt that reads: “Sovereignty to the Gaza border communities first.” It’s a reference to Netanyahu’s failed bid to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank settlements. (The Israeli leader agreed to hold off on annexation, at the request of the United States, in exchange for normalization of ties with the United Arab Emirates.)
Katzman, who has brought along his two sons, aged 8 and 10, is carrying a sign that says: “The Gaza border communities are also part of Israel.”
Members of this government, he says, have shown no solidarity whatsoever with residents of the south, now living under the renewed threat of rocket attacks and incendiary balloons. “They’re even afraid to come down here and meet with us,” he says.