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The State of Israel is gearing up for a long hot summer

January 24, 2014 at 9:14 am

This weekend saw protesters taking to the streets of Tel Aviv again to protest against the rising cost of living, austerity and what they call the “tycoon state”.

“We do not have another two years to wait,” said activist Daphni Leef. “We are dealing with an aggressive policy that leads to poverty on the one hand and brain drain on the other. This is a good enough reason to resume our protest.”

Two years ago, on July 14, Leef pitched a tent on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv after receiving an eviction notice through her door. Other activists, unions and ordinary Israelis joined her and J14 was born.

On Sunday night protesters took to the streets to mark one year since a 57-year-old man, Moshe Silman, set himself on fire at a J14 demonstration after handing out his suicide note, which read like an exasperated, melancholic Allen Ginsberg poem railing against what Israel had apparently become.

I blame the State of Israel,” it said.
..I blame Bibi Netanyahu
and [Minister of Finance] Yuval Steinitz
both scum
for the humiliation that disenfranchised citizens go through day in and day out, that take from the poor and give to the rich, and to public servants.

The pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom cut out that passage when it covered Silman’s achingly slow death in a Tel Aviv hospital. He died six days later.

These protests serve as a reminder of that sometimes distant memory that Israel started life as a quasi-socialist state (albeit one predicated on Zionism and the ethnic expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians). J14 does not place itself explicitly within that history. No media report I’ve seen has mentioned 1948, the collectivised kibbutzim or early Israeli society’s motley interpretation of leftism. Nonetheless, Israelis are demanding a fairer society, challenging neo-liberal orthodoxy and attacks on social welfare, as many are the world over.

And yet over the weekend Haaretz reported one chant in particular that could be heard: “Bibi [Netanyahu] and [deposed Egyptian President Mohammed] Morsi are the same revolution.”

The same revolution? Maybe not, but elsewhere Israeli media reported that the comparison was more than nominal. The now-familiar minutiae of Egypt’s “second revolution” have spread to Israel, as the Jerusalem Post hinted on Saturday.

As in the early days of the “J14” protests, which drew some inspiration from the Arab Spring, Netanyahu’s name appeared on a handful of protest banners next to an Arab strongman – this time recently ousted Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi. A few people in the crowd used the green laser pointers popular in the recent protests against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Yes, the colour of the laser pens is the same. Either this is a deliberately referential addition to the protests or the guys making a financial killing in Egypt have gone on and made a right old killing in Israel too. If so, well done; a real entrepreneurial coup.

Paradoxically, within the narrative of Israel as somehow racially and morally separate from the Arab Middle East, some sections of Israeli society hope to follow Egypt’s lead.

Charlie Biton, former leader of Israel’s Angela Davis-inspired mizrahi ‘”Black Panthers”, made a speech in which he claimed Israelis could learn from the Egyptians “what a people who rise up can achieve”. Morsi’s overthrow seems like a strange inspiration, suggesting that J14 might now be lodged in an uncomfortable position somewhere between the European anti-austerity campaign and the Arab Spring revolutions. But J14 will clarify its self-image if protests continue in a meaningful way: indeed its organisers have called this weekend an “opening for a new season of protests”.

Biton’s wording meanwhile sums up the predominantly middle-class nature of J14. You achieve good grades and reform packages, not revolution. And that’s exactly what the social protests will do.

However, another simultaneous wave of political action in Israel stands to achieve more. Today marks the beginning of the Anger Strike, a general strike announced by the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel to challenge the Begin-Prawer Plan as it continues its journey through the Knesset. Protests in both Israel and Palestine are joining a fight against the latest ugly manifestation of the Nakba.

Israel’s “Prawer Plan”, passed by just three votes in its first reading in the Knesset on June 24, threatens to displace tens of thousands of Bedouins from the Negev, where communities live in a combination of impoverished townships and villages unrecognised by the Israeli government. While the dispute is framed by authorities as a dispute between modernising Israel and backward Bedouins – and the Prawer Plan doggedly refuses to take into account Bedouin culture – numerous attempts by Negev communities to seek recognition since the 1960s have been beaten down by the courts and Israel’s agricultural, military and development priorities.

Now, government agencies and non-governmental organisations aim to develop the Negev further, creating new settlements, employment opportunities and infrastructure in an area considered poorer and more provincial than urbane central Israel. The green-fingered Jewish National Fund wants to build parks and plant trees, a tell-tale sign that the government wants to make the desert bloom all over again. The Negev is Zionism’s final outpost in historic Palestine.

In 2012 activist and scholar Elisha Baskin highlighted the three official plans for development in the Negev which form the backbone of the Prawer Plan:

Negev 2012, Beersheba 2020 and Blueprint Negev attest the desires of Israel to develop the Negev and to close the social gaps that currently exist in the southern region. The inhabitants of the Negev will benefit greatly from better jobs, education and social services. However, it is noticeable that the Bedouins are not addressed in these plans, other than as a demographic problem. As these plans seem on the surface to be geographical based development (Negev), they are in fact population based development (Jewish).

The idea that the Prawer Plan is purely developmental is further undermined by recommendations from the European Parliament and United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which have called for the plan to be cancelled on the grounds that it discriminates and would “legalise the ongoing policy of home demolitions and forced displacement of the indigenous Bedouin communities”.

The common thread between J14 and Prawer is Israel’s economy. The free market makes life difficult for ordinary citizens in Israel while it drives the occupation, displacement and colonialism faced by its non-Jewish inhabitants. The invisible hand always comes down harder on the Palestinians. As a result, one community is fighting for better living conditions, another is fighting for survival.

It’s a rare privilege to say that Israel’s racist policies look more susceptible to change than its domestic (economic) ones, but the Prawer Plan’s stick-thin majority in the Knesset means that with sustained resistance on the ground and the right amount of international pressure, it can be beaten.

J14 will change tax rates, not Israel. But if the Prawer Plan is defeated, it will set a crucial precedent that the Nakba must not be allowed to continue. Ultimately, that’s how Israel’s long hot summer would be remembered; as a victory for the Bedouins, a victory for Palestine.

Tom Rollins is a Cairo-based contributor to the Middle East Monitor. Follow him on Twitter: @TomWRollins

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.