The organizers of Tuesday night’s “Siege on Balfour” protest, outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, never expected the latest demonstration against Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption to turn into full-blown clashes with the police that would last into the early hours of the morning. It is hard to imagine that anyone thought 50 people would be arrested.
After all, protests by Israel’s Jewish left over the past few decades have typically been relatively calm — no burning trash cans or water cannons dousing demonstrators. But on “Bastille Day in Balfour,” all that changed.
Every person I spoke to during the protest agreed on one thing: what began in Tel Aviv following Saturday night’s protest against government inaction in the face of the economic crisis — in which hundreds blocked roads and 20 people were arrested — continued on Tuesday night. A number of young protesters said that this was only the beginning. “People are understanding that there is no choice but to go out and protest, even aggressively, and they do not need to apologize for their [political] positions,” said another demonstrator.
The beginning of Tuesday night’s rally looked indistinguishable from any other protest. Fairly quickly, however, it became apparent that while the organizers of the protest have been reticent regarding tying the recent anti-Netanyahu protests to other struggles in Israel-Palestine, the demonstrators were far more open to more radical messaging, including about resisting the occupation and police brutality.
The demonstration began gathering steam at 9 p.m. Hundreds of the protesters attempted and almost managed to break through the police barriers and march toward the Prime Minister’s Residence. The fewer than 20 police officers on the scene looked almost surprised by the protest, not to mention the eggs and bottles that were being thrown at them.
An hour later, the crowd changed direction and marched toward Jerusalem’s downtown. In addition to the nebulous and oft-heard chants demanding “democracy,” Tuesday night’s demonstrators also chanted the name of Iyad al-Hallaq, a Palestinian with mental disabilities who was chased and shot dead by Border Police officers in late May. The protesters, many of whom were younger than the average age at anti-Bibi rallies, turned out to be far more radical than the organizers. As opposed to previous anti-Netanyahu protests, the organizers did not try to stop the demonstration from taking a more aggressive approach. As the demonstrators marched in the city center and blocked the Jerusalem light rail, mainstream media outlets were quick to label them “anarchists” who came to incite and “riot.”
I didn’t see any more than a few activists who could be labeled “anarchists.” Most of those who took to the streets were radical activists, “ultras” belonging to the Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem soccer club, regulars at the anti-corruption protests that have taken place over the past few years across the country, and young people who have grown tired of Netanyahu’s rule. For many, it was their first time taking part in such a turbulent protest.
At around 11 p.m., as the demonstrators arrived at Zion Square in central Jerusalem, the police rushed in with officers on horseback and a water cannon that sprayed a blue liquid. Protesters said that had the police allowed them to march back to Balfour Street, the event would have ended quietly.
But in a move not typical of the Jewish left, the protesters began to confront the police. A small number threw bottles, chairs, and boxes at the mounted officers. An undercover officer who was in the middle of detaining a protester was attacked and fled to a nearby ambulance where he was treated for his wounds.
The demonstrators eventually made their way back to Paris Square, near the Prime Minister’s Residence, where they blocked the road with trash cans, cement blocks, and fences. One of the trash cans was set on fire. It took the police, who had already called in reinforcements, over an hour to clear the protesters — who continued to sit on the ground facing the horses and water tank — and open the street to traffic.
Among the 50 people arrested were veteran activists as well as first-timers. The arrestees were put on a bus owned by a company that provides transportation services to the residents of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the occupied West Bank. The police released 45 of them in the early hours of the morning, and asked to bring the remaining five before a judge.
Toward the end of the clashes at around 1 a.m., I spoke with a group of older protesters who tried to convince the officers to allow them to return to the protest tent they had established outside Netanyahu’s official residence, and which had been cleared by police earlier this week.
“We came because we saw there was chaos,” said Kuki Yona Hanisher, one of the veteran activists. “The way the police treated us was horrible. My daughter and I have attended all the protests. We are trying to save the country and now we have to deal with soldiers and officers.”
Yona Hanisher said it felt “wonderful” that many of the protesters on Tuesday night did not shy away from politicizing the rally. “We have a corrupt prime minister and we don’t want him. They tried to silence us on Saturday [during the economic protest] because we chanted ‘Bibi, go home.’”
“This is a turning point,” said Avi Asias, one of the veteran protestors who has attended nearly every anti-corruption rally in the last years. “There hasn’t been as successful a protest in maybe 30 years, we were able to wake up the young people in the thousands.” Asias said that this process began a few years ago with small protests in front of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s home [to pressure him to take legal action against Netanyahu over corruption allegations] with hardly any young people. “Over the past month we’ve seen a change. People are waking up. Don’t forget that there are a million unemployed. Young people are out of work.”
“This protest also included right wingers,” Asias continued. “The corrupt thief [Netanyahu] heard, saw, and smelled the rage. Unfortunately, the police, with orders from above, most likely from Balfour, treated our young protesters violently. They jumped on them and hit them with horses and water. This is the fascistic behavior of a dictator.”
After the protest dispersed, I met Uri Nahman, a Likud party member since 1991 who has regularly taken part in the anti-Netanyahu protests. She sobbed as she sat on the ground next to the police officers who blocked protesters from the Prime Minister’s Residence and told me: “We are citizens who want to yell, this is supposed to be a democratic country, but it is becoming a dictatorship from day to day. How long will people be blind? This is no longer a war between right and left. How did we get to a situation in which the riot police are going against citizens?”
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.