First Tel Aviv anti-war demonstration reveals the limits on protest in today’s Israel – Mondoweiss

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Since October 7, Israeli police have implemented full dictatorship from the river to the sea. This has included preventing any anti-war protest within the Green Line and filling the prisons with ‘freedom-of-expression’ prisoners. Today, November 18, after a month and 11 days of massive bloodshed, there was the first anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv. I joined the protest mostly because I felt obliged to support the call for immediate ceasefire and call for an “all for all” captives and prisoners’ exchange. But I also wanted to assess what this demonstration teaches us about the current policies of the repressive Israeli regime and about the protest movement.

Court ruling allows demonstration

Hadash (“The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality,” organized around the Israeli Communist Party) applied for a license to demonstrate in Tel Aviv against the war and for a prisoners’ exchange. Their initial application was refused by the police, which suggested they hold a meeting in a closed venue instead. Then Hadash, with the help of ACRI (The Association for Civil Rights in Israel), appealed to the Bagatz (Hebrew acronym for “High Court of Justice”), which finally forced the police to allow the demonstration.

As I reported before, the same Bagatz, headed by the same judge, Yitzhak Amit, opposed a previous appeal by Hadash to hold anti-war demonstrations in Sakhnin and Umm al-Fahm. In their new appeal, in order to receive the license, the applicants explained the differences between the previous demonstration that was denied and this new request: “Sakhnin and Umm al-Fahm are not the center of Tel Aviv, a demonstration against the war in Gaza is not a demonstration that calls for the return of the captives, the north and beach districts are not the Tel Aviv district, and the appeal there was rejected for its specific circumstances… the verdict in this case strengthen the duty of the police to enable the holding of the demonstration in our case, because of the distinct difference between the cases.”

On ACRI’s website you can read in Hebrew the protocol of the deliberations in the Bagatz. I must say that I was astonished by the details of the discussion and how much it reveals about the political interplay. 

Judge Amit himself asked the police, “Was there any big demonstration from this side till now?” 

The commander of Tel Aviv police, Peretz Amar, answered: “No, they have behaved well, they did not even request one.”

Then Judge Amit explained: “They claim that they have a feeling, and the police should make extra effort. This side of the political map did not yet have its day. Because we disallowed the demonstration in Sakhnin, we heard about your lack of personnel, etc. Because of that… we must give this side the feeling that it is not deprived.” 

Later in the discussion, when the organizers almost despaired from the police restrictions and suggested postponing for the next week, Judge Amit stressed his point: “It is very important that the demonstration will take place, for us to remove the cloud that we don’t allow the Arab sector to demonstrate and this side of the political map.”

In the end, under pressure from the court, the organizers and the police agreed on the location of the demonstration, in a public park between Yaffa (Jaffa) and Tel Aviv, and to limit the number of participants to seven hundred. I could not avoid thinking that compensating for the silencing of two million Arabs by allowing a muted demonstration in a corner of Tel Aviv is really emblematic of the “Jewish and Democratic” state.

Police limit protest message

When we arrived at the site of the demonstration, the designated section of the park was all closed by police railings. There was just a small opening, and each one willing to enter was checked by the police.

Banners that were refused by the police: “Massacre does not justify massacre,” “Political solution,” “Bibi should be imprisoned,” “No to Apartheid,” “Food instead of bombs,” and “Return the captives, stop the revenge.”

Local Call‘s report about the demonstration was titled “At an anti-war demonstration, the police forbade the waving of anti-war signs.” They went on to report what banners were refused by the police: “Massacre does not justify massacre,” “Political solution,” “Bibi should be imprisoned,” “No to Apartheid,” “Food instead of bombs,” and “Return the captives, stop the revenge.” They also tried to prevent people with t-shirts with the phrase “Looking at the occupation in the eyes” (a very mild expression) from entering, claiming that even using the word “occupation” constituted incitement, but after a long argument, they let them in. I must admit that the police censorship was not hermetic, and similar signs were later seen in the demonstration.

After more than a month of intense oppression, speaking the truth terrified everybody. Organizers pleaded with the participants not to raise any flags and not to use any slogans that might provoke the police. This meant the Palestinian flag was forbidden. A single demonstrator with an Israeli flag and a sign calling for a ceasefire walked on the margins of the demonstration, and nobody dared to talk with him.

Anti-war protest in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2023
Anti-war protest in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2023

Speakers call for ceasefire, prisoner exchange

If we could demonstrate safely in Palestinian towns and villages and Arab neighborhoods in mixed cities, you would see tens of thousands coming out in solidarity with Gaza’s people. However, the police are terrorizing the Arab population, and many people believed that this demonstration in Tel Aviv would be attacked even though it was permitted. Besides, there is a real danger of lynch mobs in the Jewish areas, especially as the Ben-Gvir police distributed tens of thousands of weapons to local militias. The militia in Tel Aviv is headed by a right-wing rapper called “The Shade,” well known for organizing attacks against peace demonstrations during previous wars.

There were about five hundred brave demonstrators who dared to gather in the park. Haaretz, by the way, always under-reporting leftist protest, headlined their report “Tens demonstrated in Tel Aviv.” About 80% of the demonstrators were Jews. It was all held in Hebrew, and the content was adjusted to challenge but not break with the current awful mood in the Israeli Jewish society.

The main demands of the demonstration were immediate ceasefire and the return of all captives, POWS, and prisoners through a comprehensive exchange deal, “all for all.” These are the most essential demands in the current situation, and they made this demonstration important.

There were different positions among the speakers, but none of them confronted the current situation of daily genocide as it is. Most speakers tried to create some artificial “balancing” and parallelism between the occupation and the occupied, stressing the suffering on both sides and calling to keep civilians out of harm’s way. I do not blame them. In today’s Israel, any position hinting that the struggle against the occupation is legitimate may land you in jail.

On the positive side, there is a continuous shift in the political discourse. Many speakers, Arabs and Jews, talked about the fact that there are millions of Arabs and Jews living between the river and the sea and that the only solution is to have full human rights and equality for all. 

For many decades, the Israeli “peace camp” thought that its role was to be a pressure group within the “Israeli side” to promote a “peace process” with the Palestinian side. Now, almost everybody is aware that there is no peace process and that there should be a united struggle against the single Apartheid system.

Even though the demonstration was organized by Hadash, Sami Abu Shehadeh, the leader of the National Democratic Alliance, came to take part. The organizers spontaneously added him to the list of speakers, giving a boost to the most needed unity in these hard times, overcoming painful divisions that resulted from the splits in the last Knesset elections. 

Abu Shehadeh mentioned at the beginning of his speech that the location of our demonstration was on the land of the destroyed village of Manshiya; many of its descendants are now refugees in Gaza and bombed by the Israeli army. 

The last speaker was Mohammad Barakeh, The head of the Follow Up Committee, the united leadership of the 1948 Palestinian public. He started his words by mentioning that his family was expelled from Saffuriya, and most of them are now refugees outside Palestine. While lamenting suffering on both sides of the conflict, he mentioned that more than a hundred thousand Palestinians lost their lives before October 7. As the illusion of a state-level political solution is fading, the narrative is returning to the basics of human existence.

The fascists in the government and in the streets

Being an irredeemable optimist, and as there are not many encouraging facts on the ground just now, I try to raise morale by reminding myself how many things were even worse not so long time ago. 

In 2014, while Israel was massacring people in Gaza at an unprecedented rate (vastly surpassed in the current “round”), Hadash tried to organize an Arab-Jewish anti-war demonstration in Carmel Center, in a Jewish area in Haifa. There was a nationwide fascist mobilization to prevent them, and the brave peace demonstrators were chased all around. It was sheer luck that nobody died. Some of the activists who participated in today’s protest were still terrified by that experience. At the time, I published an eyewitness testimony in my blog.

Now, the fascist mob is in the government and the media, but they did not attack us with the same numbers and the same ferocity. There were, maybe, between one to two hundred fascists demonstrating around us, and they were kept, mostly, at some distance by the police. When we finally dispersed and were supposed to go through a safe passage northward, the police disappeared and allowed the fascists, many of whom were armed, to harass and curse the demonstrators. They especially concentrated on Mohammad Barakeh and blocked his car to prevent him from driving away. But, finally, the police intervened and let him go.

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