At 11:45 A.M. on Monday, the last cable tie was disconnected. Amir Haskel, Haim Shadmi, Guy Hirschfeld and other veterans of the protest tent outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street picked up the tent stakes and threw them into the trash can they had brought.
“You need to think of this as an act of faith, removing the furniture from Balfour,” one protester said. Thus ended one of the longest protests in the country’s history – nine months of continuous residence on the sidewalk outside the residence.
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The veteran protesters for whom this tent was home for almost a year had mixed feelings. Most were highly concerned about the outcome of Tuesday’s election, and some are already talking about the possibility of needing to set up a new protest tent the following day.
Only a few dared to dream of a time after Netanyahu, in which they could return wholeheartedly to what used to occupy them.
“We instilled a new spirit, a spirit of hope,” said Haskel, who started the encampment, and whose arrest last June was a turning point in the anti-Netanyahu protests. He read from a notebook whose cover, in gold letters, read, “Something wonderful is about to happen.”
But it’s difficult to say that most of the others shared this feeling.
This election “is really fateful, because if there’s a pure right-wing government here, the state will collapse entirely. Some of us feel we’ll be going to the stadiums, like in Argentina,” said one protester, Miriam Schlesinger, referring to the sites where opponents of tArgentina’s former junta were held.
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Hirschfeld said Israelis “are a nation of slaves living in a dream world, and on Wednesday, we might wake up and discover that it’s a nightmare. But there’s still a shred of hope.”
Although many felt that the protests significantly altered the public’s consciousness and undermined Netanyahu’s grip on power, they recognized that it’s far from clear that he won’t be reelected.
“It’s enough to make you cry,” said Etti Yehieli, who was at the tent on Sunday. “Half the people follow him and believe in him. I see this and it hurts my soul. But we’re leaving here with heads held high and determined to continue. This protest effected a major change.”
Haskel described a mixture of feelings. “On one hand,” Haskel said, “we did something historic, and tomorrow, we’re holding elections. On the other hand, a group of people from all over the country formed here, and saying goodbye to them is difficult.
“Today is a milestone in the process,” he added. “We have to see what the [election] results are. If it’s necessary, in the first stage, I’ll resume demonstrating in the city square in Yavneh, and if necessary, we’ll come back here, too. There’s no reason why we should give up when the country is led by a prime minister who doesn’t care about his citizens, but only about himself.”
Michael Turkenitz, another protester, said that “these two gazebos have been a second home for many of us. They succeeded in altering people’s consciousness. When people say ‘Balfour’ today, they mean these two tents, not the prime minister’s residence. ‘Balfour’ has become a symbol.”
Many protesters admitted that they never imagined taking down their tents when the polls were predicting another Netanyahu victory. “But despair isn’t a plan of action,” Turkenitz said.
Sami Alkalay, who was protesting against Netanyahu in Jerusalem’s Paris Square years before Haskel arrived, said he will continue protesting if Netanyahu wins again. “I’ll return to the square with a sign, but I don’t know what it will say yet,” he said.
While the protesters were picking up and sweeping the sidewalk, a taxi driver drove past and yelled, “You’re all homos here.” On the other side of the road, two religious teens were handing out leaflets in support of the far-right Religious Zionism party, while two others unfurled a large poster of the party’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich.
A protester with a saxophone started playing Sasha Argov’s song “Shir Siyum” – “End Song” – which includes the line, “The hour is late, but the circle hasn’t been closed.” Then around 20 veteran protesters gathered for a group photo and started singing Naomi Shemer’s song “The Party’s Over,” with its apt refrain: “Get up tomorrow morning with a new song in your heart; sing it out strongly, sing it with pain.”