Municipal government in vulnerable position as Meretz party quit, Rov Hair (Mayority of the City) party of the youth, also under pressure to resign
The Israeli “social justice” tent protests, also called J14, as July 14th was the date the movement started, swung back into action with a vengeance last week. It all began last Friday afternoon when demonstrators tried to return their tents to Tel Aviv’s famous Rothschild Boulevard as they had done the previous year. But this time the authorities were instructed to assume a policy of zero tolerance as local and border police, together with municipality “inspectors” swooped in to intercept any tents being constructed on the street. In the ensuing melee, several protestors were arrested including most notably, Daphni Leef, the face of last year’s movement and the most recognizable leader of the protests.
Then, on Saturday evening, confrontations with police and security forces escalated to new levels. Another demonstration on Rothchild, this time against homophobia quickly swelled and transformed into a general protest against the police’s heavy-handed tactics on Friday. The authorities were ill-prepared , unequipped and outnumbered as protestors marched from Rothchild all the way to the major Ayalon highway, blocking off the main road to traffic. The evening’s disorder culminated in the smashing of the windows of several banks, something unprecedented in what was once a relatively mild movement.
The question is whether the protests will now be discredited in the eyes of the public, or if the government will take the demands of the demonstrators more seriously. Will the violence return this evening (Thursday 28th June) as the Tel Aviv municipality, which many hold responsible for the police’s actions, kicks off its annual Lyla Levan (White Night), all-night citywide cultural extravaganza?
Already, the consequences of last week’s violence are being felt at the formal political level. The left-wing Meretz party quit the Mayor’s municipal government coalition on Tuesday, with strong pressure also being placed on the Rov Ha-ir party of Asaf Zamir, who I interviewed in the Jerusalem Post last fall. At the time of writing, Rov Ha-ir has resisted calls for the party to resign from Mayor Ron Huldai’s government.
“It is a very sad decision”, said Alon-Lee Green, one of the main organizers and speakers at last summer’s tent protests. But he also added that the choice to stay in the coalition was not yet final and was still hopeful that Rov Ha-ir will soon come to the conclusion that the party’s continued presence in the coalition is untenable. Such a decision would reduce the municipal government by half, thus putting greater pressure on Huldai to step down, which Green says is now the goal after the actions of the police on Saturday.
But other more moderate members of the overall protest movement such as Ofir Yehezkeli of the group, Mitpakdim, disagree saying that Rov Ha-ir should continue to influence the Mayor’s ruling faction from within. He also argues that Rov Ha-ir has achieved a great deal in various policy fields since they were first elected in 2008 and should be allowed to continue their valuable work for the city of Tel Aviv. Yehezkeli’s Mitpakdim calls on ordinary Israelis to get involved in institutional party politics by signing up for party membership and voting in internal elections. Despite numerous campaign videos on youtube involving actors and TV celebrities, and attempts at drawing attention through publicity stunts, so far Mitpakdim’s message has failed to gain serious ground.
In response to Yehezkeli’s comments, Mr. Green countered that as his compatriot in the movement does not live in Tel Aviv (according to facebook, Yehezkeli lives in Herziliya), he is not qualified to understand the current situation for Tel Aviv-Yaffo residents. Green says that in key local policy areas such as housing, education and public transportation, all are under-funded and substandard, while money pours into catering for the needs of wealthy American and French tourists who reside part of the year in luxurious apartment blocks.
In terms of what is in store for Thursday night, Green predicts that the evening’s events will go off without incident and serious violence will not return to the streets of Tel Aviv. “The police will be on their best behaviour”, says Green, “because there will be too many people present who the authorities do not want to see their harsher side”.
Several counter-events to the official White Night have been planned including a march from Ha-Bimah square from the northern tip of Rothchild Boulevard to the South of Tel Aviv, and a sleep-in at Rabin Square from 3am onwards. In addition a number of smaller art and cultural events have also been planned in some of the impoverished southern neighborhoods of the city. It remains to be seen if the self-styled “Black Night” can peacefully coexistence with the establishment’s traditional White Night, or if tempers will fray again and the police will clash violently with social justice demonstrators.