The organizers of Israel’s J14 movement demand social justice. Outraged by the increasing concentration of wealth and the soaring cost of living, many Israelis have stood up and called for cheaper housing, food, education, and taxes, among other things.
Last summer, eight consecutive weeks of social justice demonstrations brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets of every major city. Demonstrators occupied city centers across the country, and tent cities popped up in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Akko, Eilat, and elsewhere.
In what turned out to be the climax of the movement, nearly half a million people marched through Tel Aviv. “The people demand social justice,” announced Daphne Leef, the woman who triggered the movement last year by setting up a tent on Tel Aviv’s chic Rothschild Boulevard after being evicted from her apartment.
The J14 movement has drawn a diverse crowd most demographics of the political and social spectrum. Its leaders insist that their cries for social justice are on behalf of everyone—Arabs as well as Jews, in other words. Their demands, they say, are social and not political, and their methods are strictly peaceful.
Yet the state has responded to this year’s protests with police violence. Last week, Daphne Leef was aggressively arrested by police officers after trying to pitch a tent in downtown Tel Aviv again. She and 11 other activists, observers say, were dragged on the concrete and thrown around before being stuffed into police cars and hauled off.
Last Saturday, thousands of J14 protesters marched through Tel Aviv and blocked off the Ayalon, a major freeway that connects the city to every highway in the country. Police were quickly deployed and broke up the demonstration by force.
However, many 1948 Palestinians—those who have Israeli citizenship—feel excluded by the limited scope of the J14 movement.
“Arab conditions are not the same here. Due to class differences, our problems are much different than the Jewish population,” Abu Toameh, a communist student activist, told me.
“We have trouble expanding our villages or buying commercial land. The price of apartments in Tel Aviv, which has an extremely low Arab population, doesn’t address our immediate concerns.”
Israel’s Channel 10 reported that Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino issued orders to police intelligence to carefully document the “involvement of the Arab community in the protests.”
Unable to appeal to a significant percentage of Palestinians inside Israel, it goes without saying that they have failed to garner the sympathy of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Two weeks ago, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) issued demolition orders to Susiya, a small West Bank village in the South Hebron Hills. Over 50 buildings, the IDF said, were illegally erected without permits.
The buildings, in fact, are tents hastily constructed with cinderblocks and rain tarps. They will be destroyed—displacing some 300 villagers, 120 of which are children—in order to make space for the expansion of the neighboring Jewish settlement.
The police violence in Tel Aviv pales in comparison to the IDF’s response to a demonstration in Susiya last week.
“Once the march started, the soldiers began to shoot tear gas and noisy bombs. We were peaceful, but they blocked the road and threatened to spray us with high-pressure water hoses and began to spray more tear gas,” said Roberto, an Italian activist who went to Susiya to show solidarity.
As government-sanctioned settlements continue to expand throughout the West Bank, it’s hard to imagine that the thousands of Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories feel much solidarity with protesters who demand cheaper housing in the middle class neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.
Under the constant threat of the Israeli Air Force’s bombs, how does it look to the youth of Gaza to see images of Israeli liberals banging on drums in city squares and demanding cheaper cottage cheese?
The J14 movement has a chance to assume revolutionary dimensions. The concept of social justice, however, is hollow unless activists are willing to link their struggle to that of Palestinians against the occupation. If they fail to do so, social justice will remain a broad concept without a meaningful realization.
While their intentions are good, J14 must widen the scope of its demands. Otherwise, achievements will be limited and unimpressive. The much greater injustices cannot be ignored: the violent reality of the 45-year occupation of the West Bank and the daily bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance writer living and traveling on both sides of the Green Line in Israel and the Palestinian territories. He is a weekly Israel-Palestine correspondent for Bikya Masr and writes regular dispatches on his blog, www.patrickostrickland.com. He is a graduate student of Middle Eastern Studies.