The latest of the Saturday night demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposite his official residence in Jerusalem was the largest so far.
According to organizers, 39,000 people filled Paris Square, near the residence. An official police source estimated the crowd at 12,000, while the true number appears to lie somewhere in between. This reporter estimated that, at its height, Saturday’s protest attracted a crowd of roughly 20,000, based on the size of the square and the density of the crowd.
The police expanded the area designated for the protest and removed several crowd-control barriers. At the height of the protest, people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder and there were hundreds more outside the officially designated area of 7,500 square meters (81,000 square feet). If every square meter contained an average of two and a half people, that would be a crowd of nearly 20,000.
The decision to expand the designated protest area is just one indication of the greater flexibility and more lenient approach that the police took on Saturday compared to a week earlier. The police activity during the protest was overseen by Jerusalem District commander Doron Yadid, who chose to minimize possible friction with the protesters.
This choice, police sources said, was made prior to a protest in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening, meaning that it was not made as a result of the relative lenience of police during that demonstration . In any case, the police removed crowd-control barriers, waited until 12:30 A.M. for the crowd to disperse and arrested relatively few protesters.
Officers also appeared to have been instructed to show sensitivity. This reporter had never been called “sir” so many times in a single evening as on Saturday, as police sought to move me from one location to another.
Nevertheless, the police failed in three attempts to stop, or at least steer, about 2,000 demonstrators who marched from the bridge at Jerusalem’s western entrance to Paris Square. It was the second time in two weeks that the so-called March of Hope had been organized in the city. The week before, it was marked by clashes with the police, which used force to end it, and Chief Superintendent Niso Guetta of the Jerusalem District Police was filmed hitting several demonstrators.
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When the anti-Netanyahu marchers arrived in Paris Square this Saturday, they encountered a new group of demonstrators – members of the Bratslav Hasidic branch protesting the fact that they were being barred from flying for the traditional Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Uman, the Ukrainian town where the founder of Bratslav Hasidism, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, is buried.
There isn’t much that these right-wing and left-wing demonstrators have in common, with one group protesting for the right to travel to the rebbe’s grave and the other against the prime minister’s alleged corruption. The ultra-Orthodox Bratslav protesters were greeted with applause by the anti-corruption demonstrators, but within a short time, there was also arguing. Later a small group of Hasidim blocked off Jerusalem’s main Jaffa Road thoroughfare and was dispersed with major force by the police.
Holidays on the horizon
The current wave of anti-Netanyahu protests began with one on July 14 in Jerusalem, followed by seven more large Saturday night protests, in addition to countless smaller ones around the country. The social justice protests of 2011 began in Tel Aviv, also on July 14. Less than two months later, on September 3, 2011, they peaked at hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, before then beginning to fizzle out.
So far, this summer’s protests have continued to grow from week to week, with more demonstrators, along with additional protests on highway overpasses and a larger media presence. At this point, the participants have stood by their slogan not to give up until the prime minister resigns.
This protest movement is focused, spontaneous and young, relying on thousands of people who have been paying 25 shekels ($7.40) for transportation to Paris Square, where many of them hold signs written with a marker on pieces of cardboard attached to broomsticks. The anger is authentic, the energy high. But starting next week, protesters will face a new challenge.
The school year begins on Tuesday, meaning a return, more or less, to routine. And the autumn Jewish holidays begin in mid-September. Even if most of the demonstrators in Jerusalem aren’t of an age at which they would be sending children to school, they will still be forced to face a sense among the public that the country is resuming a normal routine, and therefore may have less time and energy for protesting.
Up to now, Israel’s cynical political system has shown an impressive capacity to withstand popular protests. There is nothing that appears to threaten the disconnect between the country’s leadership and the demonstrators, or that indicates that the protests are leading to any kind of political shift. If the protests survive the challenge of the September holidays, the October challenge will be one that the politicians will have to face, and will require more effort on their part to continue to ignore what is happening under their windows.