The protest movement against Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has changed in form and content. Until October 7, the day of Hamas’s attack, it was about democracy in the country. Since then, it has been about Netanyahu’s role in the war.
When war comes, the people are one. “At this moment,” the Prime Minister spoke to his representatives, “I feel justified in calling on everyone’s help when I say: come, let’s move forward together with united strength.”
No, that was not on October 7, 2023 and it was not Benjamin Netanyahu. It was Winston Churchill, on May 13, 1940. The whole of Great Britain, especially the Labor Party, stood behind the Conservative politician when push came to shove.
How different is that in Israel.
Tuesday evening in Jerusalem. As in many places in the country, people are reflecting on the fact that exactly a month ago Hamas terrorists broke through the fence around Gaza. The demonstration at the Knesset, the parliament, is attended exclusively by opponents of the Netanyahu government.
Such as Rachel Fine and Angela Strum, gym teacher and physiotherapist. Civilized women. Both have sons at the front in Gaza. What do they think of the Prime Minister?
Strum: “A psychopath.”
Fine: “A child murderer.”
Strum: “A thief, a corrupt liar.”
Fine: “A traitor.”
Strum: “A Hamas henchman.”
Fine: “A modern dictator.”
Strum: “A criminal.”
Fine: “He sacrifices his people out of pure self-interest. That’s all he thinks about.”
Strum: “He has brought into the government insane, fanatical, criminal fundamentalist Jews who are filling the country with weapons.”
Son of the devil
The two women are not radical exceptions. The protests that began hesitantly on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street near the army headquarters a few days after October 7 and have since grown in size have one person as their main target: “Bibi” Netanyahu. The “son of the devil,” in the words of Strum and Fine. On posters a bloody hand covers his face.
The prime minister has failed to protect the kibbutzim around Gaza, according to one of the accusations. He has neglected the security of the country while busy with his own shady dealings; three corruption investigations are underway against him. The overarching accusation, however, concerns the open wound in Israeli society: the 242 hostages, according to the Israeli army, in the hands of Hamas. “Bring them home” is the central slogan of all the protests in recent weeks.
The anti-Bibi movement has thus taken a remarkable turn. For forty weeks, weekly demonstrations took place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street against the Netanyahu government’s plan to limit the power of the Supreme Court. The demonstrators, usually numbering hundreds of thousands, feared the end of democracy.
After the Hamas attack, organizers stopped the demonstrations. But soon demonstrators could be seen again at their usual spot in Kaplanstraat. Much smaller in number and with (partly) different slogans than before. Now it is primarily about the war and in particular the fate of the hostages. The family members and their sympathizers believe that their safe return should be paramount in the strategy for Gaza.
The demonstrators before and after October 7 do not coincide one-on-one, but the large overlap is unmistakable. Progressive and secular still set the tone. The fate of the hostages also gives the demonstrators, many of whom are relatives of the victims, a kind of sacred inviolability.
A demonstration on Saturday in Jerusalem therefore just did not end in violence. About two thousand noisy demonstrators pushed aside a police cordon and marched to Netanyahu’s official residence. The water cannon and horse brigade were ready, but in the end it all fizzled out. Apparently the police did not consider it desirable to use the baton against parents and even grandparents of young Israelis kidnapped or murdered by Hamas. Gadi Kedem, for example, lost six close relatives, including three grandchildren, and was at the forefront of the police cordon.
At the commemoration on Tuesday in Jerusalem, Yaacov Godo, whose 52-year-old son Tom was murdered in Kibbutz Kissufim, will speak. Godo was a left-wing peace activist, and after October 7 he still is. “The blood of all the murders and the blood of Tom are on the hands of a man called the Prime Minister of Israel,” he says. “Above Tom’s grave, I swore that I would wage all-out war against this man and all that his lawless government represents.”
Slogans about the undemocratic ‘coup’ against the Supreme Court are absent from the new wave of protests. Now is not the time for that, many demonstrators believe; that remains under the pause button.
Another element that is completely missing from the protest is the human catastrophe in the Gaza Strip, the suffering of the civilian population there. Israel agrees in unison that Hamas must be destroyed and the general idea is that this is simply not possible in humanitarian beauty.
Through all the fear and mourning, Chaja Polak and Hella Rottenberg wrote in on Wednesday de Volkskrant, many Israelis “no longer have emotional space for compassion for Gazans.” That sums it up nicely. It also applies to the progressive, peace-minded Israelis who dominate the protest.
The question of whether Netanyahu is operating too rashly in Gaza is answered with a bow by Fine and Strum. He’s not doing enough to get the hostages back, they say. And he has done too little to solve the Palestinian issue. “He only thought about his right-wing voters in the West Bank,” says Strum. “That man has to go.”
A demonstrator Saturday holds a protest sign with the names ‘Chamberlain’ and ‘Churchill’. Why don’t the Israelis do what the British did in 1940, replace a weak prime minister with a wartime leader?