As anti-PM protest skews younger, clash with cops raises query: Who started it?
Reporter's notebook

As anti-PM protest skews younger, clash with cops raises query: Who started it?

Demonstration included clashes, protesters blocking the light rail, police firing a water cannon — but also many ordinary Israelis frustrated with the government

A protester slips as Israeli police use water cannons during clashes at a demonstration against Prime Minister  Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
A protester slips as Israeli police use water cannons during clashes at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Jerusalem saw some of its most intense protests in decades Tuesday night, with thousands of demonstrators blocking main thoroughfares in the capital for hours on end.

The protests were organized by the Black Flag movement, whose main demand is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immediate resignation over his corruption trial as well as what they say are his actions to erode Israeli democracy. Several Black Flag protests have been held in recent weeks, but Tuesday night’s demonstration was much larger, much more violent and much younger than previous ones. Clashes between police and protesters resulted in about 50 arrests.

Since then, there has been public uproar over who was to blame. Police say that protesters disturbed the peace, vandalized, threw stones, caused “enormous” property damage and attacked police officers, one of whom was lightly injured. In a video widely circulated on social media, one protester attacked Channel 13 news reporter Avishai Ben Haim.

Retired Air Force Brigadier General Amir Haskel, a leader of the anti-Netanyahu protests, said in a video uploaded to his Twitter account that the man who attacked Ben Haim was not a protester but a “provocateur, who only moments before had attacked Yossi Hadas, one of the protest’s organizers.” Haskel condemned “all violence.”

“I’m very happy that the young people showed up [for the protest], but I call on them to act with restraint,” Haskel said.

Another organizer, Tamir Hefetz, told Kan news that if there were protesters who had responded violently, it was the police who had “begun the violence, grabbing people and beating them.”

Along with a few frightening and eccentric characters, the protesters this reporter saw and spoke to on Tuesday night seemed to include many everyday people — young hipsters rolling cigarettes, middle-aged Israelis walking along in couples, one or two men wearing kippot. Some carried Israeli flags, others blew vuvuzelas.

By the time this reporter caught up with the demonstration, the protesters had already scuffled with police and attempted to break through barricades close to the Prime Minister’s residence. After marching into the city center, hundreds of demonstrators were gathering around the light rail on Jaffa Street, chanting and beating drums.

“Bibi go home! For shame, for shame, for shame!” they chanted, waving signs against what they called an “out of touch” leadership.

Some dragged chairs from restaurants on the side of the road and threw them in front of the light rail.

As I looked down Jaffa Street, I could see demonstrators marching and chanting. When riot police charged on horseback, they scattered and regrouped on sidewalks or farther down the street until the officers retreated.

I was taken by surprise when a massive truck armed with a water cannon then began firing again across the crowded street, sending protesters scattering to the sidewalks.

Demonstrators were thrown to the ground by the blasts of water. Some pushed chairs out of the way in their rush to avoid the water. When the water cannon pulled back, they hurried to reclaim their positions on the light rail tracks.

Even as police fired torrents of water, the demonstration remained organized. Several leaders with megaphones told protesters where to march and when to back off. Where they pointed, people followed.

Coverage of Tuesday night’s demonstrations has often mentioned the water cannon and violent behavior by protesters in the same breath. Much about how events escalated remains unclear, however.

Haaretz reported that “clashes” did break out at some point on Jaffa Street. But as far as this reporter could see, the protest remained peaceful even as the water cannon returned multiple times to disperse protesters gathering disruptively but without violence on the light rail tracks.

It’s possible that demonstrators violently provoked police into responding on Jaffa Street, or that police considered blocking the light rail provocation enough. But some of the ugliest actions by protesters on Tuesday night seem to have come at least an hour after riot police first blasted some of them off their feet.

When the protesters marched back towards the Prime Minister’s Residence — slightly before midnight — things took a turn for the worse. Some pushed a recycling bin into the middle of the street before reportedly setting it alight. And some pulled chain-link fencing across the adjacent Paris Square, hanging Peace Now signs from the top with slogans opposing Israel’s planned annexation of the West Bank. Others began throwing water bottles at police.

The police water cannon began to blast streams of water up onto sidewalks and pedestrian areas around Paris Square as well as the street. Some protesters fled, taking shelter in alleyways and behind cars, as the water cannon was followed by a renewed charge by three mounted police.

The police say demonstrators also threw stones. This reporter did not see any instances of that, and neither did Haaretz’s Jerusalem correspondent Nir Hasson, who observed events from atop a nearby commercial building.

On a hill off of Keren Hayesod street, I asked one demonstrator, Elhanan Marks, why the normally peaceful protests had reached this level.

“Every morning, I read the paper and it feels like a slap in the face. It’s time for a change, but still no one’s listening,” he said.

Israeli border police officers scuffle with demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the PM’s residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2020. (Yonatan sindel/FLASH90)

Tuesday night’s events were remarkable for another reason. For the first time since the Black Flag protests began, the older activists who had distinguished the movement gave way to hundreds of younger faces. Many are said to have come from all over the country, although everyone who spoke to this reporter was a Jerusalem resident.

Jerusalem Police chief Doron Yadid told press, as the remaining protesters left or were arrested, that the anti-Netanyahu protests were “a demonstration of the left wing” and “anarchists.”

Nobody this reporter spoke with cited one particular issue which had moved them to protest. Several spoke of “all of it” or “the whole situation,” before launching into a laundry list of crises they see taking a toll on Israeli society, with Netanyahu’s corruption charges, the coronavirus pandemic, and the economy getting top billing.

It could be, as Yadid suggested, that Tuesday’s protesters were largely the unstinting, well-known opposition to Netanyahu. It could also be that the various crises, and the government’s handling of them, drove a larger number of younger, angrier Israelis than in the recent past to take to the streets of Jerusalem.

The organizers of the Black Flag protests called for renewed demonstrations on Thursday. We might see then if Tuesday was a cry of rage or the start of a significant movement.

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