Middle East Eye / June 17, 2023
Protest leaders are stopping discussion of the occupation and Palestinian issues to make the demonstrations more ‘mainstream’.
Over 23 weeks of anti-government protests, Israel has been cast into a period of introspection, with Israelis grappling over what kind of country their home is becoming.
Jewish Israelis, that is. Conspicuously absent are Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as any mention of the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
Left-wing Israelis often refer to the 55-year-long occupation as “the elephant in the room”, due to people’s unwillingness to address an issue that asks awkward questions of Israel.
Perhaps at no time has this been more prevalent than the protest movement, which arose out of opposition to the Israeli government’s controversial judicial reforms.
Further alienating Palestinian citizens from the protests is the lack of reference to the wave of murders in their communities.
Between January and June 2023, 102 Palestinian citizens were murdered in several locations across Israel, including women and small children, and the police are unable to put an end to it, or – as many accuse – are not motivated enough to.
Meanwhile, as protest leaders seek to present the demonstrations as representative of mainstream Israeli society, Palestinian citizens are not invited to address the protesters, or even worse, are allowed to talk only if they agree not to mention the occupation.
Two weeks ago, we saw this peak when the protest organizers decided to mark what is known in Israel as “the liberation of Jerusalem and the unification of the city” – the occupation of the city’s eastern neighbourhoods in 1967.
Protesters were invited to attend a ceremony at the Western Wall plaza in East Jerusalem, located below Al-Aqsa Mosque, with the participation of graduates and the reservists of the paratrooper units that conquered the Old City 55 years ago.
Despite all this, protest leaders have publicly rebuked Palestinian citizens for not participating in the demonstrations every Saturday night, either as individuals or as organized groups. It’s a refrain that has also been picked up rapidly by the media.
‘Anchored in Zionist ideology’
Dany Danieli is the owner of a consulting firm and a resident of Jerusalem and has been actively protesting for five years – first over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption charges and now the judicial reforms.
Danieli also is known for being among a number of Israeli activists who stand by the side of Palestinian shepherds every week in the Jordan Valley, trying to protect them from the violence of Jewish settlers that want to remove them from their grazing lands.
Every Saturday evening, Danieli shows up at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, where the protests start, and marches along Kaplan Street with a group of people that can be identified by the banner they carry reading: “look the occupation in the eyes.”
The reason protests are swamped with Israeli flags but Palestinian ones not permitted to be flown lies in the organizers’ wish to appear “mainstream” and reach as wide an audience as possible, Danieli believes.
Generally, he says, the Israeli public doesn’t want to hear about Palestinians, the occupation, and everything related to them.
“This is a protest very much anchored in the Zionist ideology, and there is no place to refer to the occupation issue since the major aim is to attract even soft right-wing people, for whom the presence of Israelis in the West Bank is not even considered as an occupation,” he tells Middle East Eye.
Though a small number of Palestinian citizens have published opinion pieces in the Israeli media – especially in Haaretz – trying to explain their position, it has made minimal impact.
Orli Noy, a writer, and member of the Balad party that represents Palestinian citizens, does not see the protest movement as something that can bring an answer to the difficulties faced by Palestinians and Israelis.
She says that after the absence of Palestinian citizens was noted, plans started to be made for protests in Palestinian-majority areas of Israel. But then last Saturday, reality bit.
According to Noy, when a group of Jewish anti-occupation Israelis attempted to bring Palestinians to Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street to march, the protest leaders refused to allow it.
They did it anyway.
“We simply marched with Palestinian flags and slogans in both Arabic and Hebrew and no one stopped us,” she recalls.
For Noy, the leaders of the protest simply ignore the occupation and apartheid.
“Yet this is not only morally wrong, but it’s also strategically stupid because maybe on a tactical level, they present themselves as great patriots and reject the Arabs [Palestinians], and with all the Israeli flags it might bring larger audiences to the protest.”
“But in the end, on a strategic level, there is no way to democratize Israel without the participation of the Arab [Palestinian] population and without talking about apartheid in the territories and within Israel,” she says.
Suhil Diab, former deputy mayor of the Palestinian-majority city of Nazareth, says that while he is troubled and frustrated by the protest leaders ignoring the occupation, he is able to understand the motive.
“I feel that even though we, the Israeli Palestinians, are excluded from the discourse of the protest, the protestors themselves have come a long way in the right direction, compared to the protest movements of the previous years, and this is nevertheless important,” he tells MEE.
Diab, who is a member of the left-wing Palestinian-Jewish party Hadash, says previous protests in Israel have been focused on a single issue.
“It was about the layers of poverty, the cost of living, the peace now movement, and so on.
“This time, this protest is very broad – in fact, I hear that there is an understanding that it is not just one thing that we are protesting against, but a protest that seeks to change many things here from a civil point of view,” he says.
“It’s important in my eyes, and although I’m frustrated by the lack of the Palestinian voices, I see it as something that inspires hope for the future.”
Noy however, feels that unless the protests address the issue of Palestinians and the occupation, Israel will never be reformed for the better.
Israel’s issues stem not from the judicial plans of its far-right ministers, she says. Rather, the messianic right wing wants Israel to be a Jewish, and not democratic, state, leaving no room for Palestinian citizens to participate in the protests or civic life in general.
Diab, meanwhile, wants to see if the protests really do change Israel for the better before casting judgment.
“When the protests end, with one achievement or another, will we go back to what was before? I very much hope not,” he says.
“The attitude towards us Palestinian citizens of Israel must change. I believe that many things will change for the better after the protest – but this must include our status and the attitude toward us.”
Peggy Cidor was born in Tunisia, settled in Israel in 1962 and grew up in Ashdod