Israeli protests fight injustice - as long as it's convenient
Last weekend, more than 300,000 Israelis protested for economic reform throughout the country. In Tel Aviv, the epicentre of the housing protests, 250,000 Israelis marched to the defence ministry chanting the slogan "the people want social justice". The demonstrations were some of the largest in Israel's history and have pumped new life into the corpse of Israel's leftist political movement.
But the one issue glaringly missing from these demonstrations demanding "social justice" is the most urgent social justice issue in the region: the equality of everyone under Israeli rule, including Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The demonstrations sweeping Israel started on July 14 as a group of young Israelis set up a number of tents on Rothschild Boulevard, one of the more affluent streets in Tel Aviv. The chief aim was rent relief. Protesters held signs complaining about rents for two-bedroom apartments in the centre of Tel Aviv, which average about 3,700 Israeli shekels (Dh3,840) per month while the average salary in Israel is 6,000 shekels.
Within days, thousands of Tel Aviv residents joined the protests, erecting a tent city that stretched over one kilometre. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt to dismiss "radical leftists and anarchists" who displayed "disloyalty to the state and its army" apparently did not work.
The tent protests tap into the general exhaustion felt by many in Israel's middle class. Despite a strong economy that was largely shielded from the economic crisis (Israel's GDP grew a whopping 4.7 per cent last year), neoliberal policies and high taxes for security and the maintenance of Israel's 44-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has forced an extremely high cost of living. Everything from housing costs to the price of cottage cheese is comparable to London or New York, while salaries tend to be 50 per cent lower than in those cities.
On top of the high cost of living inside the 1967 borders, the Israeli middle class has seen successive Israeli governments devote resources to settlements in the occupied West Bank rather than to Israeli urban centres.
Despite the connection between economic hardship and the settlements, Israeli protesters have been careful not to connect their struggle with Palestinian solidarity or an end to occupation.
This is partly tactical. In the climate of radical politics, Israeli public opinion meets any discussion of the occupation with a negative reaction. Protest organisers say economic reform would not receive the 87 per cent public approval rating that it enjoys if the early demonstrations had been overtly anti-occupation. However, after a month of increasing protests, questions about "social justice" can hardly ignore the occupation or unequal conditions for non-Jews.
The timing will also press the issue of occupation. The army plans to call up reservists ahead of the United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood in September. The core of the tent protest movement is young men and woman with reserve duty obligations.
Come September, will reservist protesters put their demands on hold, don olive-green uniforms and subdue Palestinians in the West Bank, who are struggling for their own social justice? If there was any widespread challenge to Israel's paramount institution, the military, the occupation would suffer.
In an attempt to capitalise on the media attention, settlers from the West Bank are joining tent protests. Under banners declaring that the solution to the housing crisis is settlement of the West Bank, dozens of radical settlers have been shouting hate-filled slogans against African refugees, Arabs and homosexuals during protests. And organisers have defended the rights of settlers to protest, arguing that Palestinian solidarity activists are also present at the demonstrations.
Organisers are desperate to show that the demonstrations include all Israelis. As the protests have gained momentum, Arab-Israelis, among the most disenfranchised people in the country, have slowly joined. But displays of Zionist politics have been overwhelming.
It has become increasingly clear that Mr Netanyahu will have a difficult time weathering protests - and may lose his job.
But fundamental questions remain. How can a protest in Israel, borrowing the revolutionary energy of the Arab Spring, ignore Israel's military control of the Palestinians? Israel may be seeing a challenge to its security-led ideology, or this could be a "social justice" protest in name only, which will continue to ignore the occupation. The only way to know is if the protests continue and develop a coherent underlying strategy.
If these protests, some of the largest in Israel's history, dissolve without addressing Israel's fundamental crisis, it will be difficult to convince anyone that the occupation will end without worldwide external pressure.
Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Tel Aviv and Ramallah
Updated: August 12, 2011 04:00 AM