After demonstrating for 51 Saturdays straight, there was a different atmosphere at the weekly protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on Saturday. The anger and frustration had been replaced by smiles and hugs and a cautious, celebratory feeling. At the center of Paris Square, children turned the submarine-shaped balloons, a fixture of the demonstrations, into playthings. Jubilant songs played over the loudspeakers, including Israeli singer Yehuda Poliker’s “This is the time, this is the moment.”
Almost everyone was warned not to cheer before the goal was achieved, but it was hard to contain the optimism before the anticipated change in government on Sunday, which will unseat Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in office. “On the one hand, there’s great joy, and on the other, a lot of anxiety, stress sitting in my chest that still won’t go away,” one of the founders of the so-called Balfour protests, Etti Yehieli Harari, said.
On June 11, 2020, almost a year ago to the day, Amir Haskel, a brigadier general in the IDF reserves and a regular at the anti-Netanyahu protests, arrived at the sidewalk next to the prime minister’s residence and declared a sit-down strike until Netanyahu resigned.
During the first two weeks, this was just one of many demonstrations against Netanyahu’s stronghold on the government, which persisted despite the investigations and the indictments against him. Before Jerusalem, demonstrators would gather in front of the home of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to protest what they saw as his prevarication in Netanyahu’s cases; then, there were the protest marches in downtown Tel Aviv, and finally it was Jerusalem’s turn. To a large degree, it was Haskel’s sit-down strike in Jerusalem that catalyzed the demonstrations and turned them into one of the largest and most energetic protest movements in Israel’s history.
It began with Haskel’s arrest at one of the Friday demonstrations, on suspicion of obstructing traffic. The next day, thousands thronged Paris Square, near Balfour Street. From that day to this, the police have closed the square to traffic every Saturday night, in expectation of the protesters. In the following weeks, the protesters’ ranks swelled and their determination hardened. Thousands came to Jerusalem every week, tens of thousands in the larger demonstrations. But the numbers tell only a small part of the story. Among them were between dozens to hundreds who were willing to clash with the police. They took into account that their nights would end in custody, with bruises inflicted by the police water cannon or with assaults by pro-Netanyahu demonstrators. At the same time, thousands from the black flag movement protested at highway junctions throughout the country, in front of the courts, at the Knesset, and outside the Netanyahu residence in Caesarea.
The group of hard-core protesters consisted of hundreds of activists for whom the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations became an important part of their lives, especially over the past year. They say that they paid a heavy price for their engagement, which affected their work, family, money and mainly physical and mental health. The last protest at Balfour, twenty-four hours before the anticipated swearing in of the new government, was a concluding party of sorts for them. Most still declined to celebrate, unhappy with the new government and also uncertain what they would do with their lives on the day after and how they would keep in contact with the good friends they made during the demonstrations. At the same time, they were proud of what they had achieved and felt hope for the future.
“I’m so sure that Netanyahu will make some last-ditch attempt, so I'm stopping short [of celebrating],” said Tali Etzion, 60, among the veteran protesters. “I won’t believe it until I see the groom break the glass,” she said. In early 2017, four and a half years ago, she picked up a sign at the end of the protest with the words “Netanyahu, resign!” and since then she has been with it to hundreds of protests, and repaired the sign again and again. A year ago, she told Haaretz that her dream is to frame it and hang it on the wall of her living room.
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Amir Haskel also refused to celebrate. He recalled bitterly the events of March 26 of last year. That was the day the Kahol Lavan party was to replace the Knesset speaker and begin the move to depose Netanyahu, after the third election. Instead, Kahol Lavan split and half of it, headed by Benny Gantz, joined Netanyahu. “You can’t imagine how I felt. I remember that at 4:30 P.M. [Yesh Atid MK] Elazar Stern came out, and I asked him what was happening. ‘Very bad,’ he said. ‘Kahol Lavan split.’ I couldn’t believe my ears. I took my bag and I went silently to the car and drove home bitterly disappointed. The next day I came to the Knesset because I needed a redemptive experience.”
Guy Hirschfeld and Michael Turkenitz are regular participants in the protest in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, part of a small but determined group of activists that came to the Balfour Street demonstrations after years of protesting the occupation. “Until Sunday I’ll fight for the establishment of a new government, and beginning Monday morning I’ll fight that government,” Hirschfeld, one of the permanent residents in the protest tent near Balfour Street, said. “This is a fascist government, and the left came in and kowtowed as only the left knows how to do. In the end, the main problem is the occupation, and now we can go back to the main front.” Turkenitz added: “This is not the child we prayed for, but we have to be realists. We unclogged a major political bottleneck.”
Daniel Ohana, 33, joined the protesters exactly one year ago. Since then, he has become one of the most prominent young demonstrators. He was arrested 12 times over the past year, and has five active police complaints against him. “I’m proud of every arrest. I’m proud that I had the privilege of taking part in this protest,” he said. “I paid a heavy price, personal and economic, but I thought I couldn’t let him continue destroying the country. This year changed the course of my life. They broke my naiveté and opened my eyes, but I also saw how much power people have who stop complaining and start doing something.”
The activists are divided as to the impact of the protest on removing Netanyahu from office. Everyone agrees it had a part to play in the decision of the Kahol Lavan breakaways to bring down the government, but some said that their contribution was probably not the decisive factor. “I actually have my doubts; I’m not among those who say that it wouldn’t have happened without us,” Etzion said.
According to Haskel: “The fact that we got to this election was because of what happened in the street.” Yishai Hadas, one of the leaders of the Crime Minister movement, agrees: “We did an important thing, and we stopped the immediate dictatorial processes. The most important thing is that this slightly bizarre government is the biggest slap in the face to Netanyahu’s concept of divide and conquer. I hope good things come of it.”
When I asked Ohana, a social worker and works with at-risk youth, what he’ll do after the government is sworn in, he had an answer ready: “I’ll go back to investing in my work, playing guitar, doing yoga.” Others say that they’ll channel their activism in other directions – against the occupation, for distributive justice or for helping refugees.
Ohana and a few of the veteran protesters spent the night on the sidewalk near Balfour Street. “There’s nothing like a little schadenfreude,” Ohana said, “and we also want to pay our respects to those who kept the tent going for a year. We won, but there’s a long road ahead.” Hadas was waiting until Sunday night: “After it’s over there will be a big celebration in Tel Aviv,” he said.