Political novices drawn to rally against Netanyahu

Protesters gather with Israeli flags during a demonstration against the Israeli government near the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem. (AFP)
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Updated 13 August 2020

Political novices drawn to rally against Netanyahu

  • The boisterous rallies have brought out a new breed of first-time protesters — young, middle-class Israelis

JERUSALEM: In a summer of protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the accusations of corruption and calls for him to resign could be accompanied by another familiar refrain: “I’ve never done this before.”

The boisterous rallies have brought out a new breed of first-time protesters — young, middle-class Israelis who have little history of political activity but feel that Netanyahu’s scandal-plagued rule and his handling of the coronavirus crisis have robbed them of their futures. It is a phenomenon that could have deep implications for the country’s leaders.

“It’s not only about the COVID-19 and the government’s handling of the situation,” said Shachar Oren, a 25-year-old protester. “It’s also about the people that cannot afford to eat and cannot afford to live. I am one of those people.”

Oren is among the thousands of people who gather outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem several times a week, calling on the longtime leader to resign. The young demonstrators have delivered a boost of momentum to a movement of older, more established protesters who have been saying Netanyahu should step down when he is on trial for corruption charges.

The loose-knit movements have joined forces to portray Netanyahu as an out-of-touch leader, with the country’s most bloated government in history and seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax benefits for himself at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is raging and unemployment has soared to over 20 percent.

Many of the young protesters have lost their jobs or seen their career prospects jeopardized. They have given the protests a carnival-like atmosphere, pounding on drums and dancing in the streets in colorful costumes while chanting vitriolic slogans against the prime minister.

Netanyahu has tried to dismiss the protesters as “leftists” or “anarchists.” Erel Segal, a commentator close to the prime minister, has called the gatherings “a Woodstock of hatred.”

Despite such claims, there are no signs that any opposition parties are organizing the gatherings. Politicians have been noticeably absent from most of the protests.

Israel has a long tradition of political protest, be it peace activists, West Bank settlers or ultra-Orthodox Jews. The new wave of protesters seems to be characterized by a broader, mainstream appeal.

“The partisan issue is totally missing, and the party organizations are not present,” said Tamar Hermann, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank and expert on protest movements.

Hermann said the protesters resemble many other protest movements around the world. “They are mostly middle class,” she said. “And they were kicked out of work.”

Oren, for instance, said he used to survive on a modest salary as a software analyst thanks to training he received in an Israeli military high-tech unit. Then he moved into tutoring — offering lessons in English, computers and chess to schoolchildren.

He said things were not easy, but he was “too busy surviving” to think about political activity. That changed when the coronavirus crisis began in March.

Oren’s business crashed.

With unemployment soaring, Netanyahu and his rival, Benny Gantz, formed a coalition with 34 Cabinet ministers, the largest government in Israel’s history. Beyond the generous salaries, these ministers, many with vague titles, enjoy perks like drivers, security guards and office space, and can hand out jobs to cronies.

A Netanyahu ally dismissed reports that people were having trouble feeding their families as “BS.”

Oren said he became “furious,” and about two months ago, he went to his first protest against the nation’s leaders. “They are there because we gave them the power and want them to help us. And they’re not doing anything,” he explained.

Oren now treks to Jerusalem from his home in the city of Kfar Saba in central Israel, about an hour away, three times a week. He is easily recognizable with his poster that says “House of Corruption,” depicting Netanyahu in a pose similar to Kevin Spacey’s nefarious “House of Cards” character, Frank Underwood.

Oren says he does not belong to any political party or any of the movements organizing the rallies, but that the diverse group of activists all want similar things. “No to the corruption, the poverty, the detachment. We’re just saying enough,” he said.

University student Stav Piltz went through a similar evolution. Living in downtown Jerusalem near Netanyahu’s residence, she quickly noticed the demonstrations in her neighborhood when they began several months ago. She talked to protesters as well as local residents at the cafe where she waitressed before she was laid off.

She said she noticed a common theme. “They feel that something is very critical now in the political climate and no one is listening to the citizens and the pain we are experiencing,” she said.

But Piltz said the spark that drew her to protest was a national strike last month by the country’s social workers.

Piltz, herself a social work student, said she has a history of social activism but has never been involved with party politics. The collection of women, coming from different religious, political, ethnic and racial backgrounds, was a powerful sight. “This is where I saw how much power we have when we are together,” she said.

The demonstrations, which have gained strength in recent weeks, are the largest sustained wave of public protests since hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in 2011 to draw attention to the country’s high cost of living. While those protests ultimately fizzled, two of their leaders entered parliament, and one, Itzik Shmuli, is now the country’s welfare minister.

Both Piltz and Oren said they are determined to keep up their activities in the long term.

“People have nothing to lose. So it’s very easy to go demonstrate these days, especially if you’re young and you see no future here,” Piltz said.

Hermann, the political analyst, said too many Israeli youths have been “politically ignorant” and that it is a “very good sign” for the country’s democracy that people are becoming involved.

The leaders, however, may not be so pleased to face a politically aware young generation.

“They are much more difficult to be controlled while they gain political views and confidence,” she said.


Iraqis gather in Baghdad to mark anti-government protests anniversary

Updated 42 min 58 sec ago

Iraqis gather in Baghdad to mark anti-government protests anniversary

  • Protesters waved the Iraqi flag and chanted “free revolutionaries"

BAGHDAD: A few hundred Iraqis gathered in Baghdad’s central Tahrir square on Thursday to mark the anniversary of anti-government unrest that erupted last year and to put pressure on the authorities to meet their demands.
Protesters waved the Iraqi flag and chanted “free revolutionaries, we will continue the path.”
Some sang patriotic songs while clapping.
“We are here to start the revolution again...We haven’t forgotten about the blood of the martyrs,” said Abbas Younis, 25, wearing an Iraqi flag as a cape and a surgical mask.
More than 560 people, mostly unarmed demonstrators but also some members of the security forces, have been killed since a spate of popular unrest began on Oct. 1, 2019, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead.
London-based Amnesty International called on the Iraqi government on Thursday to do more to “deliver justice to the hundreds killed in the course of exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
“Find the missing, deliver justice for lives lost,” it said.
Protesters, most of them young, are demanding an overhaul of a political system they see as profoundly corrupt and keeping most Iraqis in poverty.
The protests have shaken the country out of two years of relative calm following the defeat of Islamic State insurgents.
Infighting between political parties clinging to power has fueled the crisis and threatens to kindle more unrest.
Last year’s protests caused the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was replaced in May by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who pledged to investigate the deaths and incarceration of hundreds of protesters.
Demonstrators on Thursday gave the government until Oct. 25 to meet their demands by Oct. 25 or face a general strike.
“Our demands are simple and legitimate...We demand the killers of the protesters be prosecuted,” said Mustafa Makki.
Dressed in combat trousers and wearing a shirt with an image of a slain protester and a necklace made out of an empty tear gas canister, the 24-year-old said he had four bullet wounds, and one of them had cost him his vision in his left eye.
Later on Thursday, dozens took to the streets in the southern cities of Diwaniyah and Najaf, waving the Iraqi flag and carrying photographs of demonstrators killed last year.
Kadhimi in July called an early general election for June 6, 2021, roughly a year ahead of when it would normally be held, a central demand of the protesters. But Iraqi’s parliament must still ratify the election date and amend the election law.
Kadhimi and President Barham Salih pledged to meet the demands of the protesters. “We affirm our loyalty to our people and to the roadmap imposed by the blood and scarifies of its youth,” Kadhimi said in a statement.