Friday, September 9, 2011

"You cannot be a free people if you can’t back freedom for another people.”

Itai Bachar
Protest of 300,000 in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 3, against declining living standards.

Some 450,000 people demonstrated in Israel September 3 against the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing. It was the largest action in six weeks of protest. About 300,000 gathered in Tel Aviv, 40,000 in Haifa, and 25,000 in Jerusalem, along with thousands in more than 20 other towns and cities.

"We refuse to continue walking with our eyes closed toward the abyss," said Daphni Leef, who helped initiate the protests, at the Tel Aviv action. Leef, threatened with eviction because she could not pay her rent, set up a tent in downtown Tel Aviv July 14 and was soon joined by thousands across the country.

Itzik Shmuli, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students, also spoke in Tel Aviv.

Protest organizers have called on the government to act to lower housing costs and increase funding for education and health care. "Everyone wants a good life, it doesn't matter if you are from the left or the right, secular or religious, Arab or Jewish," said Lilach Meir, a spokesperson for the student union, in a phone interview.

Taxi drivers demanding higher pay, workers fighting a factory closing, and dairy farmers seeking a change in government policy were among those joining the protesters or seeking their support.

Protest leaders in Tel Aviv decided against taking up what they call "political" issues, such as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel. But many of those fighting for democratic freedoms and Palestinian rights saw the actions as an opportunity to win new allies.

"When I saw the tents, I said, 'How can they ask for social justice and not think of the 20 percent who are Arabs and native to this land?'" Rozeen Bisharat, an Arab citizen of Israel, told the Militant. "There are some Palestinians who say they don't want to live with Jews. But I say it's not fair that I am living in my own land and don't have a say. So I told my roommate, who is an Arab Jew, OK, let's have our own tent there."

Bisharat, a 25-year-old filmmaker, set up Tent 1948, named for the year Israel was founded through the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands. "We told people if they want more housing, education, a better life, the occupation must end. You cannot be a free people if you can't back freedom for another people."

The tent was controversial. At one point, she said, "150 people were screaming at us that we don't have a right to be here. Some said go to the West Bank, go to Gaza." Other tent city protesters welcomed their presence, Bisharat said, or at least were willing to discuss the issues. The tent stayed up.

While significant numbers of Palestinians joined the September 3 protests in Haifa and Tel Aviv and earlier demonstrations in Beersheba, others opposed participating. Few Palestinians joined the actions in Jerusalem.

"It's a middle class movement," Wehbe Badarne, of the Arab Workers Union in Israel, based in Nazareth, said in an interview. "It doesn't help the Arab people in any way or even poor Jews. They confiscate our land and then protest the high price of housing."

Thabat Abu Ras, a lecturer at Ben Gurion University and a leader of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, participated in several of the protests. "Half of my family is in Gaza," Abu Ras told the Militant. "The other half, like myself, lives in Israel."

"I think the social protest movement is great for the Arab minority," he said. "If the movement succeeds it will benefit us, because we are on the lowest rung of social economic status."

There is another side to the protests, Abu Ras said. "It helps get rid of the siege mentality. There should be discussion about social conditions of Arabs as well as Jews. It's time to be equal citizens."  

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