The last few weeks has seen the most powerful protest movement in Israel’s history on issues not relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict. On 30 July, a series of huge demonstrations took place across the country, involving 150,000 people (Israel’s population is slightly over one tenth of the UK’s). The movement has been so powerful that it has won words of support from centrist Kadima party, and even prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has conceded some ground. Kadima, like all liberals, love to "vote with the wind." They jump on the band wagon when they see a movement has public support. The fact that such heartless opportunists are supporting the protests is proof of their power.
It started when a small group set up tents to protest the poor housing situation in Tel Aviv, on the highly expensive Rothschild Boulevard. The media, which in Israel tends to be a little less anti-protest than the British media, quickly reported on these events, and other direct action protests mushroomed dramatically. Many people who are active in other struggles joined in setting up tents at Rothschild Boulevard, to the point where the protest dominated this major street in central Tel Aviv.
Some in the media claimed that the protesters were all middle class, called them cry babies, spoilt kids etc. Some may be the children of middle-class parents, but privilege has not necessarily trickled down. In reality these protesters, many of whom work for the minimum wage or just above, are very much working class.
The focus at this point was on housing. Tel Aviv residents suffer similar problems to those in London, and Netanyahu is a disciple of Thatcherism. As the movement has grown, the focus has broadened to take in other demands around education, healthcare and other social services. Activist Daphni Leef said: "We do not want to replace the government, we want much more than that - to change the rules of the game and say loud and clear: Social services are rights, not commodities."
After the first few days of these direct actions, a demonstration was called in Tel Aviv for 24 June, attracting 20-30,000 people. On that day the protest movement replaced the Israeli-Palestinian war as the main focus of the news. The trade unions publicly came out in support of the movement and helped to organise a new series of protests. Most people expected a similar turn out to 24 July, but this time 150,000 came out – the equivalent of a million demonstrators in Britain. The movement has seen protests of 8,000 in Haifa and 10,000 in Jerusalem. In cities like Nazareth, protests have involved both Jews and Arabs.
The exact political opinions of those who began the movement are unclear, but at this stage there is not an immediately apparent overlap with activists in the anti-occupation movement. However, some members of the Anarchists Against the Wall group have taken part in the tent city protests.
In the big demonstrations, a number of Israeli revolutionary socialists have come out of the woodwork. A far-left exists in Israel (the Committee for a Workers' International, led by the Socialist Party, has a section there, named Ma'avak, and other groups also operate) but left groups tend to be focused on the Palestinian issue. It is mainly due to the role of Hadash, Israel’s largest left-wing organisation (at the centre of which is the ex-Stalinist Communist Party), that red flags and other socialist imagery have been seen on the demos. Some of the chants have been revolutionary, and a headline in the newspaper Yedidot Akhronot used the word "revolution" to describe the movement.
The Meretz party, (essentially liberal social democrats), were also present. But the average protester seems to have been the young Israeli who is at best semi-political, not a member of any group and shaky on the Palestinian issue. Whenever the country is attacked by a bomb or missile, they tend to get scared and retreat into their right-wing tortoise shell, and give at least passive support to the government against the Palestinians. But when the situation is calmer, this mass of the secular Jewish population leans left on this question too. How the Palestine issue and the current movement will inter-relate remains to be seen.