Sunday 14 August 2011

Is This The Israeli Spring?

Some newspapers, particularly those in the Arab world, have started to write about the current social protests in Israel as the "Israeli Spring". This brings the Israeli demonstrations into a direct comparison with the "Arab Spring", the series of uprisings that have been sweeping the Arab world. But how relevant is this comparison? Is it accurate to depict the Israeli protests as part of a "Middle Eastern Spring"?

For me, the Arab Spring and the Israeli protests are two separate and unrelated issues that happen to have occurred at the same time. The Arab uprisings have come in the place of a due democratic process for replacing rulers and governments in these countries. The Arab Spring has been all about regime change, and protestors have not been prepared to rest until the government has fallen and the leadership replaced. This is what we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen so far. The situations in Libya and Syria also reflect this objective, and the protestors have been prepared to continue their protests for months on end until they see Ghadafi and Assad relinquish power. The Arab Spring uprisings have also been met with a firm hand of authority by the relevant ruling powers. Thousands have been killed in the course of governments trying to quell popular uprisings against autocratic leaders.

Although the protests in Israel also reflect dissatisfaction on the part of everyday citizens, the situation could not be more different. Perhaps the most important fact concerning the Israeli protests is that they have not called for regime change. Many protestors have expressed great disappointment and dissatisfaction with the performance of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government. None of them have, however, sought his replacement. For that, we have another mechanism - a general election. The next general election will need to take place by February 2013 at the latest, and provides the opportunity for Israelis to replace Netanyahu if they are sufficiently dissatisfied with him. This means that the current protests have no need or desire to call for the government to be replaced.

The protests in Israel have been heartfelt and have attracted the support and participation of large numbers of Israelis. All of these people have the same objective, which is to bring to the government's attention the economic hardships that they are all suffering. These are mostly people with homes and with jobs, and who are just not managing to make their income stretch far enough to cover all their expenses in order to survive in a modest manner. They are calling for tax breaks and cheaper housing options to make their money go further to allow them to feed, clothe and educate their children without being forced into overdraft every month. The way that they are making their frustrations felt is by setting up tent cities in public areas in Israel's major cities.

Instead of clamping down on these protestors, the municipalities have cooperated to allow them to exercise their democratic right to protest. Municipalities have put up netting above the tents to provide shade from the summer heat. They have provided water tanks at the tent cities to ensure that protestors can maintain basic hygiene. Signs have been erected alongside the tent cities proclaiming that municipal workers support their cause and the protestors' efforts. Shopkeepers in the area have befriended the protestors and provided them with basic foodstuffs that they may require, often without charge. Lounge furniture has been delivered and set up next to the areas of the tent cities where protestors and their supporters can gather for social meetings and heated debates. Guitar music and singing can be heard in the vicinity of the protest tents, where people have come together to support each other and enjoy a little light entertainment. Police have been deployed around these areas only to protect the belongings of the protestors, and to ensure that social order is maintained in the tent cities. Many policemen and women have befriended the protestors, and have got to know them on a first name basis. The local newspapers are full of stories about romances that have blossomed in the protest tents on the streets of Israeli towns and cities. At the large demonstrations, some of which have attracted up to 250,000, some of Israel's biggest singers have been on hand to keep the crowds entertained, many offering their services without cost. When considering all of the above, how can one honestly link this to the protests and the government reactions that have been seen in Arab countries in recent months?

I have been horrified to see the violence which has taken hold of the streets of England over the past week or two. The sights of businesses and residences of innocent people being torched by gangs of thugs, while police watch helplessly, has been a tragic and terrifying image. I feel sure that many youths and young people in Israel have the same feeling of disenfranchisement as their British counterparts. I am convinced that there are many Israelis who would also welcome the opportunity to lay their hands on a new pair of trainers or new plasma TV set. These are the people who are voicing their frustrations in the tent cities across Israel. In Tel Aviv, it is not coincidental that the tent city has sprung up on Rothschild Boulevard. Besides the fact that the street carries the name of one the wealthiest families and also has a wide middle island which has been adapted to accommodate thousands of tents, it is also the address for the headquarters of many of Israel's largest banks. The protest alongside the wealthy bankers of Israel has been located deliberately for the upper echelons of society to see from their office windows. And despite feelings running high that many of these people are downtrodden and have been poorly treated by Israeli society, there is no sign of looting or any social unrest at all. Their point, however, has been clearly made and noted.

In the Arab countries, the rulers have abused their authority by denying citizens any rights to freedom of expression and due democratic process. They have clamped down on their citizens in the most horrific way by setting the army on innocent civilians, and killing people in their thousands. In England, youths on the streets have abused their democratic rights by looting shops, setting fire to properties and even killing innocent people. I can't help feeling that Israelis, who also have the same strong feelings, have managed to get things just right. People are protesting about the issues which are most hurtful to them, but doing it in a way in which each side respects the other's rights. It is not for nothing that we have been called the only democratic country in the Middle East. This is clearly visible on the streets of Israel at this time.

Long live democracy in the Holy Land !

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