Last Week in Israel

The extreme police violence during protests outside the new US embassy on Monday turned out to be a prelude to the Israeli police’s response to protests on Friday in the mixed city of Haifa. In what can only be described as a police riot, heavily armed border police officers and Special Forces troops charged a peaceful crowd of predominantly Palestinian demonstrators, punching and throttling and kicking chairs at them and throwing them to the ground. By the end of the night, Israeli police had arrested twenty-one people, at least four of whom were hospitalized for serious injuries.

A violent crackdown on protest and dissent

Palestinians run for cover from tear gas, near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Jabalia, May 14, 2018

On the same day Israeli soldiers killed at least sixty Palestinian protesters and wounded more than 2,700 others in Gaza, tens of thousands of Israelis flooded Rabin Square in the center of Tel Aviv. They were there to celebrate. Israeli singer Netta Barzilai had won the Eurovision Song Contest two days before with “Toy,” hailed by the New York Times as “a pop anthem about female independence,” and she was giving a victory performance. Across the street, a small group of mostly women staged a silent protest, holding signs that read Free Gaza and Stop the Killing. Revelers and passersby stopped to curse and scream at them. “You’re all filth,” a balding man shouted. “Whores, go to Gaza,” a woman yelled. “Traitors, you’re just doing this for the attention.”

Just hours earlier, Ivanka Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had unveiled the US seal on the new American embassy in Jerusalem. Miriam Adelson, Sheldon Adelson’s Israeli wife, captured the national mood when she told Israeli journalist Noa Landau inside the embassy opening ceremony, “I am euphoric, I am high—but not from drugs,” as Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” pulsed in the background.

For many Israelis, and particularly for Prime Minister Netanyahu, the week was one of triumphal intoxication: Donald Trump scrapped the Iran nuclear deal on Netanyahu’s advice; Israel successfully destroyed much of Iran’s military presence in Syria without a serious Iranian response; Trump delivered on his promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem; and Israel won the Eurovision, a mark of global acceptance for a country that cares a great deal about the world’s opinion. It was, as Haaretz commentator Yossi Verter put it, “the week Israelis felt invincible.”

And while the split-screen horror-show of the embassy opening broadcast simultaneously alongside the mass killing in Gaza was, the IDF’s top spokesperson conceded, a “knockout” PR win for the Palestinians, Israel won the larger battle, viciously crushing the Great Return March protests in Gaza with overwhelming force. After forty-five days and over one hundred Palestinians killed by Israeli forces—and with just one Israeli soldier wounded lightly—the weekly mass protests along the Gaza-Israel separation fence ended. The Hamas leadership, reportedly under pressure from Egypt, agreed to forgo an armed response.

As American and Israeli officials, right-wing billionaires, and antisemitic pastors sang “Hallelujah” inside Monday’s embassy opening ceremony, Israeli police also brutally beat Palestinian protesters who had gathered outside. Israeli police punched, choked, and thrashed the demonstrators, threw Arab members of the Knesset to the ground, and ripped Palestinian flags and any sign with a Palestinian flag out of protesters’ hands.

Since President Trump’s Jerusalem announcement late last year, Israeli police have reportedly been given the authority to remove Palestinian flags “in any case in which there is a high probability that flying the flags will lead to the disturbance of public peace”—a return to a practice common during the First Intifada but largely abandoned during the Oslo era, following a High Court ruling that flying the Palestinian flag was not a criminal offense.

On Tuesday, the day after the massacre in Gaza and the embassy opening, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in cities and universities across Israel. The protests were not large, but they were propelled by a determination to make the massive loss of life in Gaza even the least bit perceptible inside Israel. Roughly 300 Israelis and Palestinians demonstrated in Tel Aviv and proceeded to shut down King George Street, one of the city’s busiest boulevards. In Jerusalem, around 100 Israelis demonstrated in front of the prime minister’s residence, then blocked a major street leading to the old city as they marched to the old US consulate building. They chanted, among other slogans, lines tinged with anti-imperialism: “we won’t slay and we won’t die in service of the USA.”

Tuesday’s protests were organized almost entirely by the extra-parliamentary left—the left-populist group Standing Together, anti-occupation NGOs, small activist collectives, and remnants of the peace movement—plus Hadash, the joint Arab-Jewish socialist party, and the Israeli Communist Party. Israel’s parliamentary opposition leaders were nowhere to be found.

The extreme police violence during protests outside the new US embassy on Monday turned out to be a prelude to the Israeli police’s response to protests on Friday in the mixed city of Haifa. In what can only be described as a police riot, heavily armed border police officers and Special Forces troops charged a peaceful crowd of predominantly Palestinian demonstrators, punching and throttling and kicking chairs at them and throwing them to the ground. By the end of the night, Israeli police had arrested twenty-one people, at least four of whom were hospitalized for serious injuries.

Among those arrested and beaten was Jafar Farah, an Arab civil society leader and director of the Mossawa Center, an NGO that advocates for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Video of Farah’s arrest shows him physically unharmed. Hours after his arrest, he was rushed to the emergency room where, still in custody and handcuffed to his hospital bed, he was treated for a broken knee and severe blunt trauma injuries to his chest and abdomen. Because Farah and the other protesters were arrested on the evening of the Sabbath, which was followed by the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, they were detained for over forty-eight hours before they saw a judge. They were not released until Monday at around 5:30 AM. 

Violence was not Israel’s only technique of repressing the protests against the killing in Gaza. In the lead-up to the Haifa protest on Friday, Israeli police arrested and interrogated Arab and Jewish left-wing organizers and political leaders, including Raja Zaatry, general secretary of the Haifa chapter of Hadash. Earlier that week, Israeli police arrived at Zaatry’s home and arrested him in the middle of the night. He was then taken to the police station, where he was accused of organizing an illegal demonstration and warned that he would be arrested immediately if he participated in further protests. When Israeli police arrived at the home of Yoav Bar, an activist involved with the Abnaa al-Balad movement, they threatened to tase him if he refused to open the door. Bar was placed under house arrest, then arrested again and warned against participating in the upcoming protests before he was finally released.

The events of the past week confirmed what Netanyahu and others on the Israeli right have long claimed: that while that elusive concept known as the international community may balk at Israel’s actions, it will do nothing to stop them. The mass shooting of unarmed protesters during the Gaza Return March demonstrations made the ruthlessness of Israeli policy piercingly obvious. And yet Israel emerged from the forty-five days of weekly protests along the Gaza–Israel separation barrier with a new US embassy in Jerusalem and the embassies of several other countries, mainly customers of Israel’s military technology industry, on the way. The resulting sense of invincibility explains, in part, the intensified repression of left-wing and Palestinian activists inside Israel. But the violence wielded against protesters in Jerusalem and Haifa last week also served two strategic purposes for Israel: to crush expressions of solidarity between Palestinians living inside Israel and those living in the occupied territories, and to make the price of dissent so high that organized opposition—whatever small amount that remains—disappears from the public sphere altogether.

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