The social-justice protest, which stretched through all of last summer without any instances of violence, took a different turn over the weekend. And the Israel Police, which was agreeable toward the demonstrators last year, also has changed its approach. The result: a weekend of violence, by both police and protesters, such as the social protest has never seen before.
The seeds of Saturday night's violence, during which protesters blocked main roads and smashed the windows of various bank branches, had been sown the day before, when both policemen and Tel Aviv municipal inspectors used excess force against protesters who had wanted to put up a few tents on Rothschild Boulevard.
The unnecessary arrests of a dozen protesters, including undue force which injured several of the protesters, led to the demonstration against police brutality on Saturday night. Again the police acted violently, but this time, so did the protesters. Neither side emerged looking particularly good.
The power of last summer's protest was its ability to attract wide public participation in huge demonstrations in which various segments of Israeli society marched side by side. If the protest enters a a violent phase, it is likely to lose a great many supporters among the middle class and elsewhere.
The Western experience over the past year shows that violent demonstrations repel many citizens, and at times even shuts down the social protest altogether. Even if the Israel Police deserves to be condemned for its handling of the protesters, it would have been far better for the latter not to have used violence in return. It does not serve their purpose.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai showed a lack of insight when he categorically forbade protesters from setting up tents on Rothschild Boulevard. Last summer's protests were an impressive showing of active and involved citizenship that drew hundreds of thousands of people. It certainly was not deserving of condemnation.
But even the mistake by Huldai, who certainly didn't consider its ramifications, does not justify violence by the demonstrators.
The Israel Police must immediately change its outlook and behavior toward legitimate acts of protest. And the protest leaders must call on their followers to eschew violence, despite the unacceptable behavior by police.
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