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How Israel’s violent protests risk going beyond Covid-19 unrest

Tensions between anti-government protesters and their opponents are increasing.  

By Alona Ferber

On Saturday 1 August, around 10,000 people rallied outside the Jerusalem residence of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in protest at his government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. Across the country, hundreds more also took to the streets against the premier, who is still on trial for corruption.

Building on more than a month of unrest, the scale and intensity of these demonstrations is greater than anything Israel has seen since Arab Spring-inspired social protests swept the nation nearly a decade ago. But unlike in 2011, it faces the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic and an ensuing economic downturn. And in recent weeks, events have taken a dark turn.

At a protest against police brutality in Tel Aviv on Tuesday 28 July, youths dressed in black attacked demonstrators with bottles, bats, stones and pepper spray. Footage from that evening of a bleeding protester shocked the nation, spurring responses from the president and the prime minister. Over the weekend, further tensions were reported: 12 protesters were arrested in Jerusalem, and five people were detained for harassing demonstrators. A week earlier, demonstrators reported being assaulted by members of La Familia, a far-right group of fans of the Beitar Jerusalem football team, wearing their familiar black.

Netanyahu’s response has done little to ease the tensions. At his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, he said there was no place for violence from any side, but also called the protests “an attempt to trample democracy”, said they risked transmitting the virus, and blamed the media for fanning the unrest. He has denounced the protests as “anarchist” and “left wing” on social media. And on Sunday he accused protesters of “breaking new records daily of violence and incitement of murder against the prime minister”.

Today’s anti-Netanyahu movement is the strongest cry yet of popular dissatisfaction with his leadership. The demonstrations, which have no outright leader, are led by a younger generation who have grown up with Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. The police have been heavy-handed, using water cannons to disperse protesters and arresting dozens.

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Israel has known violence in its politics. After Tuesday, President Reuven Rivlin tweeted that “the murder of a demonstrator who goes to protest in the State of Israel, or the murder of an Israeli prime minister, are not imaginary scenarios”. He was referring to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an extreme right-winger, and the 1983 killing of peace activist Emile Grunzweig at a Jerusalem protest.

See also: Why Israel is stuck with Benjamin Netanyahu

Virulent disagreement within Israeli society over the country’s future pre-dates Netanyahu, but it has festered over the years that he has been prime minister. After Tuesday, opposition leader Yair Lapid warned where this could lead. “The violence and blood spilled yesterday in Tel Aviv is on the hands of Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname] and his emissaries,” he tweeted in Hebrew. “Whoever sows incitement will receive blood. Calling protesters disease spreaders, and inciting against civilians protesting against him, is leading Israel into a civil war.”

And now Israel is becoming a case study for what happens when the unprecedented challenges of a pandemic expose problems that have long plagued a nation.

When coronavirus arrived earlier this year, Israelis were already suffering from a year of political stalemate. The country went to the polls three times in 11 months. But a coalition deal for an emergency national unity government, ostensibly to deal with Covid-19, was agreed after elections in March, and at first Israel was lauded for its efficient response. In May, as the initial round of restrictions eased, the prime minister told Israelis to go for a coffee or a beer, and to “enjoy yourselves”.

Yet now the picture is very different. Last week, Israel overtook the US in the number of Covid-19 cases per capita, according to researchers at Oxford University, and remains on a “red list” in many countries, meaning its citizens face serious travel restrictions.

The unemployment rate, meanwhile, soared to 24 per cent in April, up from around 4 per cent when the crisis began, and is now around 21 per cent. Support for those suffering economically has been slow to arrive. In what looked to some like a populist move to appease an angry public, on 15 July Netanyahu announced that the government would distribute at least 750 shekels (about £170) to every Israeli citizen. The plan was met with criticism from the opposition and members of the government.

Netanyahu must also face the the criminal proceedings against him. In January, witnesses will begin testifying at his trial. Concern about his personal affairs has been evident elsewhere, too. Many Israelis were angered when, in June, the Knesset Finance Committee approved a hefty tax rebate for the prime minister.

A sculpture that went on display at Tel Aviv’s central Rabin Square last week captures the mood of the protests. “The Last Supper” shows Netanyahu alone at the centre of a lavish banquet, feasting on a cake bearing an Israeli flag. It represents “the last supper of Israeli democracy,” said artist Itay Zalait. (Not one to take kindly to criticism, Netanyahu denounced the installation as akin to a death threat.)

The protests are clearly causing the prime minister problems. Last month, a poll had his Likud party down two seats to 34. Forty-one per cent of Likud voters also said his government had failed in dealing with Covid-19, while among voters in general that figure went up to 68 per cent. 

According to another poll that month, 45 per cent said the government should appoint Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina Party, who is now in the opposition, to manage the crisis. Bennett is rising in the polls, predicted to go from his current five seats to 14. Analysts say Netanyahu is aiming to go to elections again in November. His coalition with Benny Gantz, with whom he doesn’t agree on much, is also unravelling. Disagreement over the budget could see parliament dissolved at the end of August.

Yet despite the power and frequency of these demonstrations, they do not yet translate to a sufficiently large cross-section of society to create a coalition government that excludes a Netanyahu-led Likud. The protests are broadly secular, with Arab citizens and the ultra-Orthodox notably absent so far. Netanyahu and his allies have denounced the protesters as violent, anarchist or left wing, making it harder for dissatisfied right-wing voters to join them.

Israel’s violent political past is a reminder that, beyond anger at the current leadership, and beyond the coronavirus crisis, Israelis need to heal deep wounds within society. If the words from the top exacerbate tensions, violence will continue.

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