This coming Saturday night will mark the 39th consecutive week that Paris Square in the center of Jerusalem is closed to traffic and filled with thousands of demonstrators against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the height of the protests last summer, 15,000 – maybe more – came to the square to protest.
In the past few months, the crowds thinned out. The winter cold, fatigue and the pandemic kept many protesters at home. For this Saturday night, protest organizers want to recreate their success from the summer and once again see Paris Square overflowing in a last call to bring down Netanyahu.
But anti-Netanyahu activists are spilt among themselves. Some feel it is a futile demonstration, while others there is hope that after next week’s election they will hold one more mass gathering – for a victory party.
“I’m tense, anxious, taking tranquilizers. It’s scary. On one hand, these are democratic elections, and on the other hand, we know who we are dealing with. But giving up is not an option,” said Guy Hirschfeld, one of the regular residents of the encampment outside the prime minister’s official residence on Balfour Street.
“I’m worried about the results. I’m taking swimming lessons so if I have to swim west from here, I can swim,” said attorney Gonen Ben Yitzhak, one of the leaders of the Crime Minister movement. “In the end, one way or another, even if we say we are throwing Bibi out, this country has been rotting for a great many years. I see the Yesh Atid activists eating lunch with [anti-refugee activist] Sheffi Paz and I feel we have lost.”
Tali Etzion, a regular protester at Balfour, is pessimistic: “I have a strong feeling that he is going to win. I’ve already thought about the day after. If it’s another four years then I don’t have the strength anymore,” she says, hurrying to another protest against Netanyahu in Haifa. “I’m sorry to say this to myself, but the problem is us, not him. It’s sad because people really gave their soul for four years.”
At the same time, there are some anti-Netanyahu activists who still have hope for the country and the protest movement. Alec Yefremov, a teacher from Tel Aviv who joined the protest movement a year ago, is optimistic. “His government fell under the direct influence of the protest and there is a rupture inside the right-wing bloc, his bloc is beginning to fall apart, [New Hope’s Gideon] Sa’ar and [Zeev] Elkin are using our messages, so we certainly did something and there is a reasonable chance that he will not manage to get 61 [Knesset seats]. What we are doing Saturday has enormous importance, it will be a show of strength.”
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“I believe that it will be the biggest demonstration at Balfour so far,” said Daniel Ohana, one of the main activists in the protests. “We expect that everyone who was at Balfour during the past year will return for a big show of strength that will show people who are despairing and depressed that there is a chance. That reality is not the polls and Amit Segal and the Likud rallies. What happens at the rallies is that on the outside there are more protesters against Bibi than supporters inside. We know there are 6,000 dead and 100,000 closed businesses [from the coronavirus].“
Before the Saturday night protest, organizers will have to overcome a petition filed by attorney Michael Dvorin in the name of Likud, which claims the protest is illegal. “A tangled and well-oiled system of non-parliamentary organizations, whose sources of funding are unclear, wants to influence the Israeli public and the Israeli voter and bring about the removal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” wrote Dvorin in his petition. On Thursday the anti-Netanyahu movements will submit their response to the petition and the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Supreme Court Justice Uzi Vogelman, will hold a hearing on the petition. It is possible that whatever his decision is, the case will find its way to the High Court of Justice.
Another obstacle in the protest’s way is the decision of Jerusalem city hall to start comprehensive work to upgrade Paris Square this week, leaving parts of the square surrounded by fences. The protesters are convinced that this is not a coincidence. “The timing of the work raises an uncomfortable feeling of unlawful intervention by the city in the right of protest, and that is enough to postpone the work, even if only for a few days, to dispel these feelings,” wrote Ben Yitzhak to Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon.
The city rejects these claims and says the work is being conducted “according to the annual work plan without any connection to other events.”