After two months of allowing J14 protests to continue largely undisturbed, authorities moved heavily this week to dismantle the tent cities across the country. Several scores were arrested and police intends to press criminal charges against some organizers.
Over forty people were arrested on Wednesday and Thursday as protesters and municipal inspectors backed by special forces and police engaged in a furious tug-of-war over the continued operation of the J14 protest camps. In Tel Aviv, municipal inspectors have swept along the main camp of the movement on Rothschild Boulevard, ostensibly removing only “disused” tents for “sanitary reasons.” Activists say many of the tents were simply unoccupied at the precise moment of eviction but still contained valuable personal possessions, including laptops. Attempts were also made to evict the protest camp in Lewinsky Park, the base of the most underpriviliged of J14 protesters – including migrant workers, refugees and Palestinian Israelis.
Further south, in the city of Holon, special forces and police moved in to clear the Jesse Cohen camp. The camp includes several wooden shacks against which demolition orders were issued already several weeks ago, and many of the camp’s members don’t have any other homes. On Tuesday evening, some of the key organisers of the camp were arrested in their homes, before police isolated the camp and demolished the shacks. The activists vowed to continue rebuilding the encampment.
The high point of protesters’ backlash against the evictions was so far Wednesday afternoon, when several hundred blocked the street in front of the Tel Aviv municipality, before making their way in and staging a sit in. Eyewitnesses said responded in force, crashing into the crowd and arresting some forty people. Most were released later in the day or on Thursday morning, but seven were singled out an extended remand and the possible pursuit of criminal charges for unauthorised gathering and assaulting police officers. The charges are yet to be served.
The week has also served to expose rifts and organisational weaknesses within the movement. While at least two of the top national organisers of the J14 movement, Stav Shaffir and Daphni Leef have called on activists to come and help the Jesse Cohen protesters to resist the eviction attempts, the national leadership as a whole remained silent. The confusion and the lacklustre may have to do with the abrupt departure of the National Union of Students, the most financially powerful, well-organised and centrist of the organisations making up the J14 coalition.
In what other organisers said was an uncoordinated and self-serving move, the head of the NUS, Itzik Shmuli, announced on Sunday the tent strategy was exhausted and the struggle needed to go on “through other means.” The union then proceeded to fold its portion of the tents on Rothschild and pull out. The day before, at the seminal 450,000-strong rally, Shmuli vowed “to protest like there are no negotiations and to negotiate like there is no protest.” On Thursday, a Facebook page was set up accusing Shmuli of creating the momentum for the municipalities to move against the tent camps. Shmuli had previously come under criticism for rushing into talks with the government-appointed Trachtenberg Committee, which fellow organisers said was mere distraction from actual reform.
Despite the clampdown, Wednesday ended with a brief respite for the Tel Aviv protesters, after a local magistrate’s court issued an injunction order against the municipality, pending a negotiated agreement. In Holon, however, where no such court intervention took place, police moved in again on Thursday, first arresting all the males in the encampment and then demolishing the shacks again.