At 6:30 P.M. on Thursday, the Mediatheque cultural and educational complex in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon had already been divided in half with police tape, although the presence of law enforcement on the scene was sparse. A crowd of young families and older people had begun to gather. Irit Abir, who grew up in Holon, said she was coming to the protest for the first time – with her daughter and grandson.
“I live just opposite and have been hearing the shouting every week. This time, I came down,” she explained. “They were looking to boost the protest in response to violent people, so I felt the need to provide backing for the people protesting.” Unlike prior demonstrations, this time the police were also present, she said.
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“I hope they’re here to prevent it,” she remarked referring to the prospect of more violence. Forty minutes later, her hopes were dispelled when about 30 young people dressed in black appeared, calling the protesters “left-wing traitors.”
What unfolded later was a sign that sleepy Holon has turned into a battleground. In recent weeks, city residents demonstrating against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have suffered abuse and tear gas in addition to having eggs and other objects thrown at them.
During all these attacks, the police presence has been almost nonexistent, and in most cases, the assailants have not been caught. Attacks on protesters have become almost as common in Holon as the demonstrations themselves, but on Thursday, the violence stepped up a notch. A group of thugs from La Familia, the Betar Jerusalem soccer fan club known for its far-right, anti-Arab ideology, shifted between the two main protest sites in Holon in a manner that appeared to have been planned in advance.
At Holon’s Kugel Square, they sprayed tear gas at demonstrators, while in the plaza outside the Mediatheque, they hit one protest activist, Sadi Ben-Shitrit, in front of his 8-year-old son and assaulted Haaretz photographer Tomer Appelbaum. If Appelbaum had not tried to separate the assailants and Ben Shitrit, the incident may have ended with much more serious consequences.
Earlier, a speech by Orly Lev, an activist who supports Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party, was a portent of things to come. “The people need to understand that we cannot remain silent, that these folks need to be expelled from the streets and from the country, to be thrown over the border,” she told a crowd of about 100 pro-Netanyahu demonstrators through a loudspeaker.
Lev is a known agitator, suspected of incitement against Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who filed the criminal corruption charges against Netanyahu. The main prosecutor handling the prime minister’s case, Liat Ben-Ari, has also filed a harassment complaint against Lev.
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About 30 Netanyahu supporters stood at Lev’s side Thursday and cheered her on. One man grabbed her microphone and began chanting, “Good evening, good evening, left-wing traitors, left-wing traitors.” He added: “To all the left-wing traitors, good evening, Jew haters, non-Jews, supporters of terrorism, may their names be blotted out forever.”
He then implored the crowd to say “amen.” Supporters of the prime minister responded “amen,” while the Hebrew song “I was born for peace” played in the background.
One regular anti-Netanyahu protester, Yotam, told Haaretz early on at Thursday evening’s demonstration that he was afraid of being attacked. “We always disperse after the protests as a group, because there have already been incidents in which they looked for people who were alone,” he said. He alleged that live social media broadcasts and efforts by another female right-wing activist have attracted people whom he described as looking for a conflict. “It feels like a soccer match without a soccer ball.”
A short time later at Kugel Square, his fears were realized. One of the demonstrators, Miriam Isakov, was choking after inhaling pepper spray. “I ran right to a policeman. There was a cruiser behind us that was guarding us for the entire protest,” she recounted. “After I returned to the protest, I saw that all of La Familia, all of this organization of Bibi [Netanyahu] supporters, were storming our protest.”
“Everyone started coughing and we ran after them a little,” recounted another protester, who said that the counter—demonstrators had threatened violence even against an older man with a cane who had asked them to move away. “After they finished cursing and ripping our signs, we heard them say they were going to be late for their ride. A short time later, they showed up at the Mediatheque.”
Following the demonstration, protester Mor Spiegel wrote on Facebook, “We had hoped that the drowsy police officer would come to save the situation, and he did in fact come closer, but he stopped 20 meters (65 feet) from the demonstrators and yelled to them that he would do what they wanted, [but] that he was here alone.” Two young people were later detained for questioning on suspicion of spraying tear gas.
Around 7 P.M., another group appeared at the Mediatheque, shouting, “Do not fear, Israel, do not fear.” A police officer at the scene was heard radioing his colleague, saying, “La Familia has arrived. There are going to be arrests.” Reinforcements arrived some time later. The thugs began shouting that the demonstrators should go to Gaza and “have their village burned down,” among other things. Tension suddenly gripped the anti-Netanyahu protest. The shouting and singing stopped. The drums fell silent. And within minutes, it was announced that the demonstration was ending early. The protesters gathered to sing the national anthem, “Hatikva,” and dispersed.
The police officers at the scene must have breathed a sigh of relief, but the thugs apparently were not yet satisfied.
Sadi Ben-Shitrit, who is affiliated with the anti-Netanyahu Crime Minister organization, was walking with his son to a parking lot with a megaphone on his back. He was grabbed by the arm and hit. Haaretz photographer Tomer Appelbaum filmed the incident and took a few blows in the process. The flash from Appelbaum’s camera and shouts among the thugs that they were being filmed apparently deterred them from harming Ben-Shitrit further.
Referring to Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who has overall responsibility for the police, Ben-Shitrit later told Haaretz, “The demonstrators’ blood is on the hands and back of Ohana and Netanyahu.”
The thugs retreated, but they didn’t rush to leave the scene. They cursed at a reporter for the Ynet news website and at the Haaretz staff. A policeman asked the news people to leave. Then an officer with the rank of chief superintendent arrived and asked to speak to Appelbaum to take his account of what happened.
“I saw the footage on Twitter. It didn’t look like blows,” the officer told the photographer, and then complained that Appelbaum had not pointed out the assailants five minutes sooner, saying that they would have been taken to the police station. (One might have argued that the officer should ask himself why his staff hadn’t come five minutes sooner).
The most frightening aspect of Thursday night’s scene in Holon, more than the cursing and the failure of the police to show a stronger presence, was that the incident came and went without much of a fuss, like most of the assaults committed against demonstrators over the past two to three weeks. The incidents have not gotten major media attention. They have not been condemned by President Reuven Rivlin and it seems that even Knesset members from the left-wing Meretz party have grown tired of responding.
The silence with which the attack on a prominent protest activist and a media staffer has been met is poisonous and contagious. If a demonstrator is murdered here, it should be remembered that it was not only the inciters and the police who were blinded to the prospect, but also left-wingers, who said nothing.