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Israel: Mass protest movement offers hope

300,000 protesters in Tel Aviv, August 6, 2011.

By Guy Gillor

August 8, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The 2011 global uprisings remind us how infectious the revolutionary spirit can be. In the last three weeks, a social movement within Israel has sprung to life in an almost spontaneous manner. A small housing protest that started on July 14 has swept hundreds of thousands of people into protest across the country. As in many other countries, people in Israel face rapidly increasing living costs and privatisation of public assets.

Israel once saw itself as a welfare state (though its policies have been designed to benefit mainly the Jewish population since its inception). Since the 1980s it has made a major turn towards neoliberalism. Its close alliance with the United States and the collaborationist approach of the national workers’ federation (the Histadrut) made opposition to this small and scattered. This meant that the move was rapid, and today Israel has some of the biggest gaps between rich and poor in the “developed” world, before even considering the more extreme poverty and oppression which Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live under.

Occupation

The occupation plays a special role in the development of neoliberalism in Israel: the project of the occupation and the settlements, with its military and civil components, make up Israel's largest national expense. More and more resources have been diverted from all sectors of Israeli society (except from the very rich) to fund the segregation system, the military machine and the ever-growing settlements.

Protesters in Tel Aviv, August 6, 2011 (photo: activestills). More here.

The only form of public housing available to Israelis today, for example, is in the settlements. Yet instead of being the focus of public anger, the occupation is the main way in which the Israeli state suppresses or co-opts most of Israel's social movements into the Zionist consensus. The occupation is presented to Israelis as crucial for their survival, to the extent that “security needs” has become the magic phrase for every Israeli prime minister seeking “national unity” and a distraction from social hardships.

The decision by many Palestinians to adopt non-violent resistance in recent years enables the current protests to develop in a significant way, as it will not be as easy for Israel’s government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, to use “security needs” to disperse the protests. Yet the danger of using a “security emergency” to distract from the protest always looms.

Spread like wildfire

The protests spread like wildfire across Israel, with protest tent compounds being erected in many cities, including Palestinian ones within Israel (a minority of Palestinians hold Israeli citizenship). The movement grew without a formal leadership, but as a broad coalition of organisations and individuals. Due to the eclectic nature of the movement, the demands are not yet clear. The main thrust for the first wave of protests was housing costs, yet the protests quickly became about more than that. The main demands emerging from the huge rallies which took place on the nights of July 30 and August 6 seem to be a return to welfare state principles, and the resignation of the current government.

The question of the government is one of the many possible problems with the movement. If it becomes too focused around Netanyahu, an early election may be perceived by many protesters as a victory, though no other major party offers any real alternative.

Yet there seems to be a deeper alienation from the current political and economic system at the heart of these protests: in three weeks, a protest involving some tents in a busy Tel Aviv street became rallies of more than 300,000 people on August 6, shouting for social justice. The word “revolution” has even started to be expressed during the rallies: while not yet a revolutionary movement, the revolutionary spirit is undeniable.

‘Non-political’

Another problem for the movement is the desire of some sections to keep it “non-political”. This is because in Israel the concept of being on the political left is mainly associated with a willingness to engage with the Palestinian issue. It is an attempt to keep the movement within the bounds of Jewish Israeli society. This alienates many Palestinians, who should be a natural and fundamental part of this movement, as they are some of the poorest communities with the most serious housing issues in Israel. Yet despite the attempts by some to block, or limit, the participation of Palestinians, reports from the protests tell of a slowly growing number of Palestinians joining the protests, including the erection of joint tents of local communities and left-wing activists.

The movement faces a large variety of problems and potential dangers. First and foremost, in order for it to succeed, it must challenge the “Zionist consensus”. No revolution can win in Israel without turning its rage towards the occupation as the centrepiece of social injustice in Israel. But with all of the problems, the dangers of co-optation and the lack of clarity in its demands, this groundswell offers one thing which has been sorely missing for so many years: a glimmer of hope.

[Guy Gillor is an Israeli citizen and campaigner for the rights of Palestinians. He is completing a PhD on social movements at the University of Western Sydney.]

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