Israeli politics underwent a dark shift in the summer of 2014, putting an end to three years of popular agitation for social equality and heralding a new chapter in which openly fascist groups play a growing role, while Leftists can no longer operate freely even in the liberal bastion of Tel Aviv. I was on the front lines of the struggle between the Israeli Right and Left in that summer, and this is a brief account of what I experienced and observed.
On the night of Thursday, 12 June 2014, three Jewish Israeli teenagers, students at two illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, were kidnapped and murdered while hitchhiking home. Until their bodies were found 18 days later, they were only publicly known to have been kidnapped.
Israel immediately levered this event for a massive military operation across the West Bank. The entire occupied territory was put under lockdown (for Palestinians) and masses of soldiers swept its towns and cities, refugee camps and villages, searching for the killer but also acting to dismantle Palestinian resistance organization and infrastructure. This naturally led to many clashes, and five Palestinians were killed during this operation, hundreds arrested – including members of Parliament – and dozens more injured.
The public mood in Israel during the operation was increasingly tense and vindictive, with a noticeable rise in far-right agitation online and on the streets. In the Leftist circles I was part of in Tel Aviv at the time, we were increasingly worried about where this was headed, and some of us began talking about how to organize to push back or at least defend ourselves and our Palestinian comrades, allies, and neighbors.
On July 2, the morning after the funeral for the three youths, a group of Jewish fascist terrorists, led by a 29-year-old settler, kidnapped and murdered a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, citing revenge. Hostilities between Israeli military and Palestinian resistance organizations continued to escalate. The Israeli public was palpably hungry for more violence.
Escalation to war
On July 8, Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge,” 1 now focusing its attacks on the Gaza Strip rather than the West Bank.
At the time, I was a member of Da’am Workers’ Party, a small extra-parliamentary splinter party which had gained a brief burst of newfound popularity and membership following the social protests of 2011. As soon as the operation began, we started organizing demonstrations against it. In Tel Aviv, we were one of just two organizations (alongside the Coalition of Women for Peace) regularly organizing demonstrations against what was rapidly becoming a war. 2
The volatility of Israeli public mood continued to escalate, and standing against the hostilities was an exercise in isolation. The so-called “Zionist left” didn’t dare question the justifications for the massive violence being doled out on the Gaza Strip – the world’s most densely-populated territory, its infrastructure still crumbling from the previous rounds of aerial bombardment and the closure of its borders by Israel and Egypt since 2007 – while rockets were being fired out of the Strip against Israeli military and civilian targets.
With the organizations of the supposed “peace camp” nowhere to be seen, many Tel Avivis nonetheless came out to the demonstrations organized by our marginal radical organizations, including prominent members of the Zionist-left Meretz party, without their leadership’s blessing.
But violence was thick in the air, and I recall standing with a small group holding handmade signs at the side of the road, with drivers often stopping to yell abuses at us and some even coming out, red-faced and nearly frothing with rage, to physically threaten us or rip signs out of our hands.
The bubble begins to burst
My comrades and I continued to figure out how to handle the increasing threat of right-wing street violence, and the escalation continued. Tel Aviv felt different than before. Once a seemingly impermeable “bubble” in which open opposition to the occupation and its eternal wars was a non-issue (unlike almost anywhere else in the country), and in which armed Palestinian resistance was rarely ever felt, we were now subject to the sirens and tense waiting of rocket warnings. 3
The anti-war demos continued, at first every few days, then settling into a weekly time slot on Saturday evening. I remember ending every weekend with the cathartic togetherness of the demo and beginning each new week with a throat soar from shouting and a head echoing last night’s rhythmic chants.
Not more than two weeks into the war, we experienced something new. A failed rapper cum online far-right influencer organized a group of thugs to “counter-demonstrate.” When they first showed up in mid-July, Police seemed not to have any idea how to handle the situation, allowing them to stand right next to our demonstration, waving Israeli flags and threatening us with the flagpoles, excitedly chanting the classic Israeli fascist slogan of “death to Arabs” along with the more immediately threatening “death to Leftists.”
And then a rocket siren went off, and chaos broke out.
Before the demonstration began, we had been instructed to make for a nearby underground parking lot in case of a rocket alarm. But once the siren really came, people were immediately reporting that fascists were guarding the entrance and threatening those of us who came close. Almost all of the police present had suddenly evaporated. Many of the demonstrators did too. The rest of us huddled next to the imposing stone façade of the newly-renovated national theater, Habima, while our bravest comrades formed a human chain protecting us from the flag-waving thugs who remained above ground, surging forwards and trying to come at us. We heard a boom above and saw the golden trails of Iron Dome missiles and a small poof of the explosion.
It was one of the most surreal scenes I have ever experienced, and perhaps my most fearful memory to date.
Soon, police came creeping out of wherever they had been hiding. Many of us wanted to leave, but simply going off one by one was dangerous to do within sight of the thugs. Police tried to separate the two groups and allow us to leave as a group and disperse separately, and off we marched. But on foot and on motorcycles, the fascists followed us, ultimately routing us and causing us to scatter off in all directions in small groups.
Comrades of mine ended up barricaded in a nearby café, in which the fascists assaulted them and left one friend and comrade of mine with stitches in his scalp.
Routine under fire
The war went on for more than a month after that, and my memory becomes somewhat less clear and vivid regarding the weeks that followed. The tension, fatigue, daily weed smoking, and increasing trauma were a deeply disorienting combination. I would often sit in the one café near my home I could count on being a Zionism-free space so as not to be alone, trying to work, failing, nursing a perpetually sore throat.
The weekly demonstrations continued, as did fascist and anti-fascist organizing. The Police seemed to get its act together, and began to keep the two sides well-separated in clearly fenced off areas, and to instruct officers to do their job even during rocket warnings. But the police was by no means friendly to the anti-war demonstrations.
The first time I was ever arrested was on August 2. We were going to demonstrate in the same place, Habima Square. When we began to arrive, the square was still full of families, with a bouncy castle or some such activity set up by City Hall. But the square was fenced off from all sides by police, entrances guarded by paramilitary policemen armed with submachine guns. This was a startling sight, but I don’t recall feeling physically in danger, only distinctly oppressed.
When we began to arrive, as the families were still leaving, those of us wearing political shirts or bearing signs or megaphones were told we were not allowed to enter the square, and that the demonstration was being called off because it was too dangerous for people to gather there due to the rockets. (Apparently families with small children are less at-risk for rocket fire than Leftists. Who knew!)
We changed shirts, put away our signs, and trickled into the square nonetheless. Incredibly, there were hundreds of us there, likely over a thousand. When the police figured out what was going on and started asking us to leave, we all sat down and started calls of “Democracy!” against the blatant repression. But slowly and surely, the paramilitary policemen herded us out of the square, mostly by physically pushing us out, illegally declaring our demonstration illegal.
At some point, when we had been herded to a side street behind the theater, a police thug decided I wasn’t moving fast enough (or perhaps recognized me from holding the megaphone at the previous demos) and announced I was arrested, twisting my arm unnecessarily and painfully and whispering “son of a whore” (ben zona) again and again in my ear as he dragged me into the police car.
The arrests were legally unwarranted, and also outright stupid – one arrestee was the legal correspondent for a major news website – and 12 of the 14 arrestees were released after a few rather entertaining hours at the police station. (The other two were released in the morning when the police failed to convince the court to extend their arrest.) The police took the opportunity to force us to agree to stay away from the two main demonstration sites for two weeks, and at this point I frankly welcomed the break.
The arrests, rather than shutting down the demonstration, turned it into a powerful march that loudly toured central Tel Aviv.
The “Peace camp” reemerges as the war draws to a close
At this point, we in Da’am were involved in organizing a bigger rally against the continued war, with the uneasy support of Meretz and Peace Now (the foremost parliamentary and civil society representatives of the “peace camp,” respectively.) Two such rallies were held, with many thousands of participants, but as I recall I missed the first of them (which I was deeply involved in organizing) because it was in one of the two squares the police wanted me away from.
The tension and the rise of Israeli fascism continued. At some point during August, a comrade of mine was almost beaten off of his bike in the hip, bohemian, uber-liberal Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin simply for wearing a shirt with some Arabic on it (as I recall, it wasn’t even a political shirt.) It took me at least three years after that to wear a political shirt in public in Tel Aviv again, and doing so again was a very big deal for me.
After one of the war’s later demos, possibly the second big rally, we had to disperse in groups to keep safe from the roaming gangs of fascists. I remember having to actually hide and run through alleys and a construction site adjacent to the Tel Aviv Cinematheque while a car with a massive Israeli flag mounted on its roof patrolled a nearby street, together with a handful of other demonstrators who for the most part I had never met before. That night is still one of the first associations in my mind when I unexpectedly see an Israeli flag (a terribly often occurrence in Leipzig, Germany, where I now live.)
The war ended after 51 days, on August 26. It left over two thousand Palestinians dead, the majority non-combatants even by the Israeli military’s own accounts. The dead included almost 500 children. As has long been the norm in major conflagrations in Palestine, the Israeli casualty counts were miniscule in comparison: 73 dead, only 6 of them civilians. 4
The fascist groups which surfaced or grew during the war did not go away. Neither, at first, did the anti-fascist structures we had set up before and during the violence. In September, the American-funded, settler-led anti-miscegenation gang Lehava tried to come for a tour of Tel Aviv, and me and another comrade managed within hours to organize dozens of antifascists to block them. We successfully prevented them from even disembarking from their bus. It took them another two years to try it again. (Which leads to the story of my less glorious and more traumatic second arrest, a story for another time.)
However, within weeks, the groups we had set up before and during the war disintegrated due to personal drama between two central organizers, on the backdrop of overwhelming burnout and unprocessed trauma.
To my mind, and in the understanding of many of my comrades in Israel, the summer of 2014 was a watershed moment. The Tel Avivi bubble had been popped. There was no longer a safe space to be publicly Leftist in Israel.
I have lost touch with almost every single comrade I fought alongside in that summer. Some have retreated to rural communities or to a less political life. Many have emigrated, myself included. The experience of 2014 and the change it has brought about is one of the main reasons.
Israeli fascism ascendant
Our opponents’ fortunes have been different. That failed rapper who organized the thugs who first attacked us in July 2014 went on to become a public figure, with almost half a million followers on Facebook and recurrent television appearances. The centrist, center-right, and far-right parties involved in the government that oversaw the carnage now utterly dominate the political stage. The “peace camp” has essentially been wiped out of existence.
Worst of all, the fascist Kahanist settler organizers and politicians, in 2014 still at the margins of Israeli politics, have since become active players in national politics. PM Netanyahu has repeatedly struck deals with them to ensure their shared base’s votes don’t get lost to their (growing) marginal party, even illegally promising them a seat at the expense of his own party in one of the elections in 2019 to cement their electoral merger with the less openly genocidal far-right/settler bloc.
I have tried here to capture some of what happened in that pivotal year, and some of how it felt on the front lines of the internal Israeli clashes in Tel Aviv. My memory is admittedly blotchy now, almost six years later, and my account is by no means a comprehensive review of the political and military events of that summer, let alone a political analysis thereof. Many details have been kept vague to avoid getting anyone in trouble. The English-language Wikipedia seems to have a very thorough article covering the war, its buildup, and how it unfolded.
I hope this account will be able to shed some light on what happened to the radical Left in Tel Aviv, and how Israeli politics in general have shifted in these past years.
- The English name is hardly related to its Israeli counterpart, tsuk eytan, which translates as something like “Steadfast Cliff”.
- To the best of my knowledge, the only reason Israel never officially titled the operation a war was to avoid paying the legally mandated war compensation to the many businesses which suffered damage during the hostilities, especially in the southern periphery around the Gaza Strip.
- We were not, however, in much immediate danger: Israel had at this point deployed its Iron Dome system, handily capable of intercepting the mostly primitive Palestinian rockets; due to Tel Aviv’s financial and cultural importance, it was covered extra well, with two interception missiles visible for every rocket alarm; Due to its distance from the Gaza Strip down south, the system had plenty of time to effectively protect the urban center, unlike the southern periphery.
- Notice how Israeli violence overwhelmingly harms civilians and Palestinian violence harms soldiers almost exclusively – in contrast with the Israeli narrative by which Israel surgically “neutralizes” so-called “terrorists” while the latter are hell-bent on harming civilians above all.