Eleven days have passed since the first big protest near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, when the first demonstrators were arrested and police used water cannon trucks to disperse the crowd. In those 11 days, at least eight major demonstrations were held on or near Balfour Street, each of them bigger than the last.
On Saturday night at about 9:30 P.M., nearby Paris Square was swarmed with at least 10,000 protesters. The number of people arrested also swiftly went up in recent days, with 55 people detained on Thursday. On Saturday night, at least 12 more people were arrested.
This protest movement owes a debt of gratitude to the police and the Jerusalem Municipality, particularly to Deputy Mayor Arieh King. These protests were born from a small cluster of tents near Balfour Street, the so-called “chair protest” launched by retired general Amir Haskel two months ago, and was fairly calm until, one Friday, Haskel was arrested. The commander who ordered his arrest did so on a confused charge: Haskel, who was standing on the sidewalk, was apparently blocking traffic.
Haskel’s refusal to sign a document saying he would stay away from Netanyahu’s official residence in exchange for his release, and his continued detention over the weekend, sparked the ire of thousands of people, bringing them to the square the following Saturday. They were still an older crowd, graduates of smaller, simmering anti-corruption protests in Tel Aviv and the central Israeli city of Petah Tikva, near the home of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Then came Arieh King, who urged the Jerusalem municipality to raid the tents and confiscate equipment – twice. For many of the young protesters, this was one too many humiliations.
This is what the protest movement needed, and it came at exactly the right time, with Israel feeling the brunt of the second wave of the coronavirus, the rising economic distress and the frustration over the treachery of centrist politicians. Netanyahu’s management of the crisis, and the disparaging remark by Minister Tzachi Hanegbi who called the distress “nonsense” only reinforced the anger.
Protesters in Jerusalem would also mention the killing of 32-year-old autistic man Eyad Hallaq by Border Police officers as a factor, while in Tel Aviv, they would talk more of the coronavirus-induced destruction of the culture industry. Either way, ever greater groups of people in Israel are suddenly feeling that this protest touches them. As opposed to the general euphoria of the 2011 social justice protests, these demonstrations have a very clear goal: Removing Netanyahu from office. Meanwhile, as they grow, new forces are appearing on the square – artists, the self-employed, gay people, communist youth, the Hashomer Hatzair socialist-zionist youth movement, activists of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, and others.
With time, the protests have picked up steam. They begin with a crowded gathering near the reinforced roadblocks near Balfour Street. After the first demonstration, police deployed metal barriers that can’t be moved by the crowd in order to block the roads. Their disadvantage, at least for the police and the residents of the prime minister’s house, is that the slightest kick makes a loud noise. So the first part of the demonstration is a concert of metallic kicks and the deafening sound of plastic horns, as close as possible to the residence.
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As the street leading to the roadblocks fills up, the protest enters a second stage, with people streaming into Paris Square. At first, the police tried to keep the square clear and struggled to keep the protesters on the sidewalk. But one or two demonstrations were enough for the police to give up. Officers now block the entire square ahead of time.
The main roads to the city center in Jerusalem are blocked three to four times a week, and the square fills quickly with people coming from Tel Aviv. That’s also the phase where the protests gather energy. Sometimes groups gather for speeches, sometimes for other activities – singing circles or meditation, presentations and dancing. Someone lights incense, another gives a fire performance. In recent demonstrations, some women protested by taking their clothes off.
Many tend to belittle these elements, as this was some kind of non-political and harmless festival. But after 11 P.M. – when noise restriction regulations apply – the real nature of the protests comes out. It’s then that the first clashes with police begin.
In recent protests, the police confiscated the plastic horns, sometimes forcibly, to silence the demonstration. Nevertheless, they usually showed tolerance and allowed the protesters to continue holding the square. Later, around midnight, the dispersal phase begins.
First, the police use megaphones to declare the protest illegal, and threaten arrests and use of force. When that doesn’t help – and it never does – the water cannons go into action to clear the square, splitting the protesters into the smallest possible groups.
The police have also tried finding and arresting the demonstration’s leaders but clearly, most of those arrested were caught randomly. The dispersal phase takes a long time and includes all the surrounding streets. The power of the protest is in its size, and when it splits into small groups, the energy dissipates and many people leave. Until the next round. Meanwhile, from day to day, the power of the protests grows, and it’s bad news for the prime minister.