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‘The occupation is the disease and Bibi is the symptom’

Ben Lynfield
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Published: 2 May 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

BEN LYNFELD meets the small but growing bloc of protesters with a simple message: Israel's democracy will wither unless it ends the occupation of Palestinian territories.

If Israel ever decides to end the occupation, historians may trace the beginning of that process back to the protesters gathered on Saturday nights in the Spring of 2023 at the intersection of Da Vinci and Kaplan streets in Tel Aviv.

These protesters are a mix of young and old, members of veteran anti-occupation groups and freelance activists, supporters of a two-state solution and those who favour one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean with equal rights for all.

Despite living in a society that holds up as its paragons high-tech millionaires who served in elite army units, these people seem to care more about values than money. And now, they are bent on injecting those values into the struggle against Benjamin Netanyahu over how democratic the state of Israel will be.

“We are trying to raise awareness about the occupation,” Doron Meinrath,63, said last Saturday night as he stood in the chill of the evening handing out stickers saying, “There can be no democracy with occupation”.

“In recent years, only meshugana (crazy) people like me have spoken about the occupation,” said Meinrath, a retired army officer who escorts Palestinian shepherds to protect them from settler violence. “Now some people are understanding that the occupation is part of the problem we have.”

In recent years, only crazy people like me have spoken about the occupation.Now some people are understanding that the occupation is part of the problem.

Doron Meinrath, 63.

Speaking as a massive crowd gathered on Kaplan Street for the 17th week in a row to stop the government’s plan to weaken the judiciary, Meinrath noted that with each passing week more people are taking the stickers from him and that the protest within the protest waged by anti-occupation activists is getting bigger.

But it is still tiny compared to the mainstream protesters, with participants saying hundreds are now turning up in the anti-occupation section, compared to a few dozen four months ago.

On Saturday evening the anti-occupation section was coalescing to the sound of drumbeats as some chanted “Freedom, Freedom Palestine” and “No democracy with Evictions and Demolitions”. No Arabic speakers seemed to be present, which participants said they regretted.

One sign highlighted the principal enemy: “the occupation is a disease and Bibi is the Symptom,” it said. Among a cluster of people holding Palestinian flags was Noam, a 17-year-old high school student who asked that his last name not be published.

“I’m trying to remind people that the Palestinians exist and that we identify with the struggle against occupation. We see people being killed and imprisoned for no reason.”

“The general protest doesn’t even talk about the fact that Palestinians are living under occupation and that there is no democracy. They never really mention it,” he said.

Nearby sat 85-year-old Miri Mass, a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University’s School of Social Work, holding a sign: “We were silent about the occupation so we got dictatorship.”

hat happened is that the occupation regime crawled into the state. People didn’t pay attention to the injustice of the occupation, so we arrived at this crisis.

Miri Mass, 85.l

Mass, a former activist in the women’s group Machsom Watch, explained: “What happened is that the occupation regime crawled into the state. People didn’t pay attention to the injustice of the occupation, so we arrived at this crisis.”

“Things don’t stop at the Green Line,” she added, referring to the armistice line that used to separate Israel from the West Bank, but since 1967 was erased from Israeli maps as the occupied territory was steadily appropriated under the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria.

Still, she and others who protested alongside her hope Israel is beginning to witness the first meaningful reemergence of anti-occupation sentiment and activism since Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. Benjamin Netanyahu later embarked on a deliberate - and largely successful - effort to remove the Palestinians from the Israeli and international agendas.

That could now come under question even as other parts of Netanyahu’s legacy unravel. In a telling sign, on the eve of last week’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, an estimated 15,000 Israelis came to see the Israeli-Palestinian ceremony of bereaved families, a record turnout.

“People are understanding better that if it’s occupation, it’s not democracy. We have a feeling that there is a piercing of the wall” said Ayala Shalev, a staffer of Combatants for Peace, who was a key organiser of the ceremony and also promotes the anti-occupation segment of the Kaplan Street protests. “Now it’s up to us to penetrate people’s consciousness.”

This will not be an easy path. Most of the Israeli media continues to ignore the lost lives of Palestinians, the theft of their land and the human rights abuses integral to Israel’s authoritarian control of the occupied territories.

And despite opposing Netanyahu, the politicians arrayed against him generally don’t see the occupation as relevant or particularly important to a discussion about democracy. Some of them, like former defence minister Moshe Yaalon, a popular speaker at the demonstrations, actually served as the overlords of the occupation.

With its narrower focus on the fate of the Supreme Court as the key to democracy and a speakers line-up heavily weighted towards consensus, the broader protest movement seeks to avoid what it views as a divisive issue whose mention might alienate centrist and centre-right constituencies.

People are understanding better that if it’s occupation, it’s not democracy. We have a feeling that there is a piercing of the wall.

Ayala Shalev, Combatants for Peace

On Kaplan Street on Saturday night, former army chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot, now a Knesset member, pointedly refused to take an anti-occupation sticker offered to him by Meinrath. “I support the state of Israel,” Eizenkot explained.

Eizenkot’s response symbolises the tensions wrapped up in the protest.  Why did he  define opposing the occupation as being against the state of Israel?

And were the anti-occupation protesters part of the overall demonstration or were they actually in their own modest way exposing its limitations?

Asher Fried, a pensioner who is a regular in the anti-occupation section, told The Jewish Independent: “We are not against this demonstration. We fit into it. We want those in the general demonstration to be interested in our cause. When we speak of democracy we are speaking of social justice, and we want people to join.” Fried held up a sign: “Democracy applies to Palestinian laborers.”

Josh Drill, a spokesman for the larger protest effort, confirmed that the anti-occupation protesters are increasing in number. “Those who want to come protest against the occupation as their way of protesting against this ultranationalist government that is trying to dismantle democracy are welcome,” he said.

Anti-occupation protesters say some of their messages, such as stressing the dangers posed by the prospect that anti-Arab extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir, the National Security Minister, will have direct command power over a new security force, have penetrated the larger protest.  

Working in favour of opponents of the occupation is the fact that “there are more Israelis in the streets, there is more political awareness. People are asking questions and if they ask questions, they need answers,” said Iris Geller, also an activist in Combatants for Peace.

Combatants for Peace, Looking the Occupation in the Eyes, Breaking the Silence and other groups are part of a new configuration against the occupation developing in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and at other protest sites across Israel, Shalev says.

The new coalition calls itself Hagush neged Hakibush (the bloc against the occupation). “More people are telling us that they agree with us and fewer people curse us. We’re in the streets, we’ve brought the occupation here, we’re organising more and we’re pooling resources,” Shalev explained as her friends packed up a stand where they had sold sweatshirts proclaiming, “There can be no democracy with occupation”.

She is optimistic the bloc can rouse other demonstrators. “We already understand what they have yet to understand,” Shalev said.


I’m Israeli. My Partner is half-Palestinian. At the protests, I feel deeply alienated (Haaretz)

I live in Tel Aviv with my beloved, who’s half-Palestinian. I join the swarms of protesters on Kaplan Street but feel like the loneliest person in the world there.

In Jenin, new graves are ready for the aftermath of the next Israeli army incursion (Haaretz)

The Jenin refugee camp has turned into a veritable fortress: steel barriers on every streetcorner, security cameras, surveillance of every outsider who dares enter, hundreds of armed men preparing for the army's next incursion. And there will be blood.

This pro-settler NGO has been shaping Israeli policy for years. Now, it’s in control (Haaretz)

After years of outside influence, Regavim is now in the halls of power. With Minister Smotrich as its leader, its supporters in the government are now setting de facto policy in the West Bank. But its ambitions don’t stop there

Israeli settlers suspected of assaulting two Palestinian men in West Bank (Haaretz)

'Suddenly a car arrived and eight settlers came out of it and started throwing stones, using pepper spray, and beat us with a bat,' 51-year-old Mahmood Sif said

Photo: Anti-occupation protesters in Tel Aviv, April 29 (Matan Golan/SIPA/USA)

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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