Gideon Levy writes in Middle East Eye:
The centre-left in Israel has come back to life after years of indifference, filling city streets – notably in Tel Aviv – with crowds of protesters. For the last three weekends in a row, multitudes have taken to the streets in increasing numbers, with more than 100,000 demonstrating in Tel Aviv alone this past Saturday.
The new government in Israel, the most far-right and ultra-religious in the country’s history, has managed in just a few days to terrify supporters of the opposition – and many Israelis have shown up in person to prove it.
Theoretically, this is very good news. Among the more serious maladies affecting Israeli society in recent years has been the public’s indifference to nearly anything not strictly a private matter, alongside mass denial, repression and self-deception.
Thus, the city square in Tel Aviv became crowded again – the same streets that in 1982 overflowed with an estimated 400,000 Israelis protesting against the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon’s Sabra neighbourhood and Shatila refugee camp – a massacre on Israel’s watch. Afterwards, the streets were quiet again for decades.
After the 1982 protest, which at the time was the largest in Israel’s history, the country seemed to go into hibernation. It woke up again in 2011 for a few weeks, with the eruption of social protests against the cost of living – but that eruption rapidly subsided, leaving almost no traces.
In subsequent years, Israel’s repeated attacks on Gaza, costing the lives of thousands of residents, including hundreds of children; the ongoing occupation; and even the spiralling cost of living have failed to provoke any real protests. Israelis have mostly seemed to ignore the elephants in the room, chief among them the occupation elephant – as if ignoring them could make them disappear.
All that changed the day after the latest national election, when it became clear that Benjamin Netanyahu was not only returning as prime minister, but would head a radical government in which he would be the left-liberal marker.
Figures from the extreme rightist settler camp, marginal just a day earlier, were named to key ministerial posts, while some of the ruling Likud players appointed as ministers came from their party’s radical right wing. This terrifying new reality, accompanied by a media campaign of intimidation, fell like a thunderclap on the previously indifferent centre-left camp, which was finally aroused to civic action.
The recent mass demonstrations are the first chapter in the resulting protest movement, and organisers are threatening escalation into broader civil unrest, including strikes. Yet, it is not the dimensions of the protests, nor their character, that should worry every lover of democracy in Israel and abroad, but rather their content.