The wave of protests that has swept through central Jerusalem in recent weeks has several characteristics that ought to worry Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters.
First, look at the signs. Saturday night’s demonstration included hundreds of different types of homemade signs, handwritten in Hebrew, Arabic, English and emojis.
Some are almost inflammatory, like “Mussolini, Ceausescu and Gadhafi also refused to resign.” Some are childish, like “Bibi-zibi” (“zibi” is Hebrew slang for “no way”). Some are clever, like “Voldemort would be better.” And some are political: “There has never been democracy here.”
There were also signs at the small counterdemonstration nearby, but they were all printed at a print shop. If handwritten signs are a measure of authenticity, then the anti-Netanyahu protest is extremely authentic; it has emerged from the grass roots.
Second, there’s the sheer number of protesters and their willingness to be arrested. In the two weeks since the demonstrations began, the number of protesters in Paris Square has swelled from around 1,000 to the roughly 10,000 who were there on Saturday night.
But even more important is the number of people arrested, or the number who arrived knowing there would be a risk of being arrested. At 1 A.M. Sunday morning, hundreds of young people sat in the street as police started dragging them away and arresting them. All had apparently taken the possibility of arrest into account and accepted it with equanimity, even with joy.
Though only 15 people were arrested Saturday night, down from the 55 arrested on Thursday, the decline wasn’t because people were less willing to be arrested. Rather, it was because the police apparently realized finally that arrests only fan the protests’ flames. “Each person arrested brings 20 friends with him to the next demonstration,” one protest organizer said.
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Third, there’s the protesters’ stamina. The demonstrations outside the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street go on for hours, yet the volume of the bicycle horns never diminishes for a moment. Anyone who has been there and seen and spoken with the demonstrators knows they are genuinely angry and deeply frustrated. After hours of demonstrating and shouting, there are still hundreds of people willing to face the police’s water cannons or to be shoved by mounted police officers.
The hard core of the protesters consists of people in their 30s with no families. A large portion of them are unemployed, which makes them much more determined than the average Israeli demonstrator.
Fourth, there’s the weakness on the right. Clearly, Netanyahu still enjoys broad popular support; that’s evident in every poll. But for some reason, his supporters prefer to stay home.
On Thursday, his Likud party called for a total mobilization under the slogan: “You’ll never walk alone, Benjamin Netanyahu.” This effort produced a mere 200 people, maybe a bit more. Most were older people, diehard activists from Likud’s Jerusalem branch. And they were facing off against 5,000 people.
On Saturday night, protest leaders pointed out demonstrators who don’t fit the mold of the standard left-wing protester. People wearing skullcaps could be seen here and there, and even a few ultra-Orthodox men came to show their solidarity. Only time will tell whether these are exceptions that prove the rule or the first harbingers of change.
Fifth, there’s the location. On the margins of both demonstrations, activists from the racist La Familia, an insulated group of radical Beitar Jerusalem fans, were running around looking for easy victims among people leaving the protest. They attacked them, cursed them and lightly wounded several.
However, anyone paying attention would have heard how frustrated they were that large demonstrations against Netanyahu were taking place in Jerusalem, of all places. “Get out of our city,” they yelled (on top of the numerous curses meant to humiliate female protesters). “Go back to Tel Aviv.”
The fact that these protests are taking place in Jerusalem’s Paris Square rather than in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square is significant. It not only requires greater effort on the demonstrators’ part, but also severely disrupts life in the prime minister’s neighborhood.
Moreover, the protests have also spread to Caesarea, where Netanyahu’s private home is located, as well as dozens of other locales nationwide. The fact that there seem to be people willing to demonstrate against him almost everywhere is yet another development that ought to worry him.
Despite all the above, the protesters’ success isn’t guaranteed. Nobody has yet managed to explain how these displays of strength in the streets could be translated into political maneuvers that would oust Netanyahu from the prime minister’s residence.
Years of cynicism, fake news and incitement against the left have left their mark. The political system is clearly disconnected from what’s happening in the streets of Jerusalem, and Netanyahu himself doesn’t seem too impressed by what is going on outside his window.
Still, the protesters haven’t stopped banging their heads against the wall, even if it so far refuses to crack.