At around midnight on Tuesday, I went up to the roof of a commercial building overlooking Jerusalem’s Paris Square, near the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. My cellphone had stopped working after it was sprayed by police water cannons, which meant that I was free to observe the protest instead of taking pictures or updating the Haaretz newsroom.
Paris Square is currently being refurbished, and two Palestinian laborers were still paving the sidewalk when the protest began. The demonstrators gave them protest stickers and tried to get them to participate in the protest, but they were busy removing their equipment.
By midnight, the square looked like a war zone. A recycling bin was on fire in the middle of the street. All the adjacent streets were blocked off by overturned trash cans. The demonstrators used the paving stones that had not yet been laid to block the road near Kings Hotel. The sand underneath the paving stones was exposed, and for a moment it recalled the slogan from the 1968 student rebellion in France – sous les pavés, la plage – Under paving stones, the beach.
The police water cannon was shifting back and forth, clearing the hundreds of demonstrators from the streets with its powerful spray. Most of them took shelter behind cars or in courtyards, while others stood defiantly to bear the brunt of the water. Several people were injured and some threw water bottles back at the cannons, but I did not see any stones thrown.
Three mounted policemen repeatedly charged at groups in the crowd and in the center of it all, members of the Yasam Special Patrol Unit began carrying out mass arrests. Ironically, the detainees were loaded onto a bus with signage showing that it belonged to a regional council of West Bank settlements.
On the roof, one demonstrator tried to set fire to an Israeli flag – the same person who two hours earlier had tried to grab a microphone from Channel 13 News reporter Avishay Ben Haim. The flag just wouldn’t ignite and the man left and then came back with two cigarette lighters, but was spotted by another protester. “You’re causing harm,” the other demonstrator yelled, “It’s your country too.”
“My country is finished, scorched,” he responded. Other protesters gathered around and tried to convince him to stop.
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“I’m fighting over my country because I care about it. If it was finished, I wouldn’t be here,” one woman implored.
At one point, the situation nearly deteriorated into violence. “It will be the picture of the protest. That’s exactly what they want. You’re helping our enemies.” The man put out the small flame that had begun to burn on the flag and the woman took it away from the scene. The furious man was forced to relent and came down from the roof.
Longtime reporters in Jerusalem don’t recall another demonstration likes this, at least not in West Jerusalem. In 2011, during the wave of social protests in Israel, there was a larger protest near the Prime Minister’s Residence, but it dispersed quietly. In 2015, there was a turbulent demonstration by young Ethiopians, but they were smaller in number and it was also less violent.
Tuesday’s demonstration was a turning point in the evolution of protests against Netanyahu. The protests had been sustained up until now by older demonstrators, most of whom are relatively well off – retirees from the center of the country who are furious over what they see as the prime minister’s betrayal of their values, and have a hard time reconciling with the fact that someone under indictment is prime minister.
On Tuesday, however, the protest baton was passed on to the younger generation, whose anger is of an entirely different kind. Jerusalem District police commander Doron Yedid called them “leftists” and “anarchists,” but it’s more complicated than that.
On the fringes of the protests there were in fact been a few young people who might barely be considered anarchists. But in the course of the entire evening on Tuesday, I saw just one individual who was masked (other than for pandemic reasons), and he appeared to be a friend of the man who tried to burn the flag.
Most of the protesters had other things on their minds. It wasn’t just rage over corruption and frustration over the political situation. It was also, and perhaps even mostly, economic frustration. The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a critical blow to the finances of university students and other young people. Many of them have been forced to return to live with their parents, to change their lifestyles and to forgo many of their dreams.
“There’s a feeling that redlines and the limits of shame have been crossed,” said Arnon of Gedera, “when everything is collapsing all around, and a man who is worth 50 million shekels, whose level of miserliness should be illegal, asked for a tax exemption and Miki Zohar says he can’t make it through the month.”
He was referring to coalition whip Zohar, who recently justified a one million shekels tax exemption for the prime minster by saying that he shouldn’t have to worry about making it through the month financially.
“As you can see, we are young and no longer willing to shut up and be nice,” said Sahar Vardi of Jerusalem, who was arrested during the course of the protest. The police violence, she claimed, is making protesters understand “the extent to which the current regime is doing whatever it wants.”
At around 1:30 A.M., the police finally managed to clear the square. The young people broke up into smaller groups. Several of them tried to get around the barricades at the Prime Minister’s Residence but it seemed that they weren’t from Jerusalem and didn’t know the neighborhood. A few others got into shouting matches with Rehavia residents who had poked out of their windows to complain about the noise.
The last group of protesters gathered opposite the Great Synagogue on King George Street. Mounted police stormed into the group and dispersed them as well. One of the demonstrators shouted before leaving: “We’re meeting again in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence on Thursday. Come.”