The Danger of Dismantling Israel’s Protest Tent Cities
Posted by David Harris-Gershon
Originally published on Tikkun Daily
On Wednesday in Holon – a city situated just south of Tel Aviv – municipality inspectors arrived at a protest tent encampment in the Jesse Cohen neighborhood. There, they informed protesters that a demolition order had been issued, and that residents had 24 hours to break down the camp and vacate the premises.
The response? Enraged, many protesters refused the order, with some taking out their intense frustration by burning tires and furniture in the street and blocking traffic.
Protesters burn tires in Holon. Photo by Moti Milrod for Haaretz.
See, many of the protesters in Holon’s tent city are homeless, a fact that no doubt contributed to their anger. (Some threatened to simply sleep in front of police headquarters if the camp was destroyed, having nowhere else to go.) The episode is disturbing enough when viewed on ethical grounds alone. Consider: the authorities engaged some of Holon’s homeless, who are protesting specifically for (among other things) affordable housing, by evicting them from their tents.
Demolishing tent encampments set up by some of Israel’s weakest, most vulnerable citizens should be condemned on humanitarian grounds. When homeless protesters band together and add their voices to the cacophony of calls demanding that the government care for them as they have the multinational corporations holding much of Israel’s wealth, such protesters must be afforded the freedom to gather. They must also be afforded the same dignity being given to those currently crowding the enormous tent city along Rothschild Boulevard’s swank strip.
But beyond the ethical, the episode in Holon should serve as a practical warning to municipal leaders throughout Israel who are considering similar demolitions. For such provocative acts could not only hurt the individuals involved, they could transform what have been amazingly peaceful protests into something entirely different.
Holon is not the only place in which tents belonging to the poor have been slated for demolition. In Tel Aviv, municipal inspectors, at the behest of City Hall, have begun stepping up efforts to dismantle tent camps outside of the central encampment on Rothschild in some of the city’s more neglected areas. On Tuesday, the municipality began confiscating tents at such locations, a move that angered protest organizers:
“There is a change in the policy of the Tel Aviv municipality and a decision to dismantle the tent encampments,” the protest organizers said in a statement. “Please increase your presence and arm yourselves with cameras.”
In its defense, the Tel Aviv municipality put out a statement claiming that it had no intention of evacuating tent cities, and stated its support for the protests. However, on Tuesday, the main protest organizer for an Ethiopian tent compound that has been routinely threatened with demolition, Uri Beriyon, was bogusly detained over “crossing a street illegally” and attacking a police officer. (He was later released.)
The Ethiopian-Israeli tent city, in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, was established on July 24 to trumpet the needs of one of Israel’s least-represented populations, and has been rebuilt several times after city officials tore it down on successive occasions. Regarding its establishment by Beriyon, Haaretz reports:
Beriyon said that he organized a group of Ethiopian-Israelis to support the Levinsky protest camp because it represents the weakest sectors of Israeli society. “If we citizens don’t stand up and take responsibility for the future, for the weaker people, the ones the system abandoned long ago — if we don’t do it, it’ll come back to us in the end,” he said.
“None of us is immune to it. If we don’t demonstrate mutual aid and realize that without me, you are nothing — and the opposite — we’ll never do well. Never,” continued Beriyon. “We must remember this: That if the weak one is in pain, then it’s up to the strong one to get up and help him up.”
The demolitions of protest encampments in Israel have largely occurred to this point in communities housing some of Israel’s poorer populations – populations in which the economic frustrations driving the social justice protests have long bubbled beneath the surface. These are populations which have the most at stake concerning whether or not the current protests succeed in bringing about those economic reforms needed to bridge the growing gaps between the rich and the poor. These are the populations which must be allowed to express their grievances and participate in the social movement sweeping Israel.
As the already-massive social justice protests continue to expand in Israel beyond the middle class, they will continue to move into countless under-represented communities in Israel. As this happens, as more and more tent cities pop up, as is happening on a daily basis, municipal leaders must not only be vocally castigated for trying to dismantle such tent communities. They must also be warned of the risks involved in slating for demolition any protest camp, especially those constructed by some of Israel’s weakest societal members – particularly as the large encampment in central Tel Aviv continues to pulse and thrive.
These protests, expansive in scope and spanning almost all segments of Israeli society, have so far been remarkably non-violent, a factor that has contributed to their overwhelming support from the Israeli public. One of the worst things that could happen to this movement, as it attempts to effect economic changes that could benefit all citizens, is for it to be needlessly provoked, either by municipality leaders or by the authorities.
As we’ve seen in other parts of the world, things can change quickly. Sparks are always smoldering under the surface. Which is why, with a situation as fluid as Israel’s protest movement, it is essential that Israel’s leaders – from city council members to Netanyahu’s cabinet – be reminded from all quarters supporting the protests, both in Israel and without, that the only acceptable form of engagement is direct dialogue. Not unilateral destruction.
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