The authorities say Ethiopian Israelis’ protest camp near the Prime Minister’s Residence is disturbing the neighbors. Funny, they never said that about other demonstrations.
For nearly two years now the sidewalk outside attorney David Hagoel’s home in Jerusalem has been blocked. As someone who lives on the corner of Ramban Street opposite the Prime Minister’s Residence, Hagoel is used to protesters pitching their tents nearby. It doesn’t bother him anymore.
“The protest vigil doesn’t infringe on my right and my family’s right to privacy,” Hagoel wrote last week. “I am in contact with neighbors who also understand the public need for a protest vigil.”
He sent this message to the current protesters, members of the Ethiopian community, who call their encampment Habash – an acronym for egalitarian society and the biblical name for Ethiopia. Hagoel was writing about the municipality’s intention to evict them; one reason is that the vigil allegedly disturbs the neighbors.
The tent camp went up at the beginning of February to protest discrimination against Israelis of Ethiopian origin. It followed the protest march that began after Kiryat Malakhi residents refused to rent apartments to Ethiopian Israelis. In the march, a young man, Mulet Araro, walked from his hometown Kiryat Gat to Jerusalem; there thousands of people took part in rallies, most of them Israelis of Ethiopian origin.
The tent camp activists say the municipality’s demand to evict them contradicts its treatment of other movements that have protested there. They note that on this stretch of sidewalk, at the corner of Gaza Road and Balfour Street, the Shalit-family protest movement set up its tent about two years ago.
The municipality says the Shalit issue was unique (and Noam Shalit recently showed up to express his support ). But the sidewalk near the Prime Minister’s Residence had been a protest site long before Gilad Shalit was abducted to Gaza. For example, in the late ’90s and in 2007, students protested university tuition fees there.
Single mothers and their leader Vicky Knafo went there a decade ago until they moved to the Supreme Court’s Rose Garden. Last summer the medical residents settled in to protest their working conditions; after them came the Israelis protesting the high cost of living.
Each day the Habash tent people face the municipality’s attempts to evict them. At the beginning of last week the Supreme Court discussed the matter: Justice Zvi Zylbertal gave the sides a week and a half to reach a solution, by this Tuesday. If no solution is found, the tent camp will be dismantled and the activists will have the right to appeal.
The activists fear that the struggle that began only two months ago with great fanfare might end on Tuesday. Most of their recent statements have been moderate.
“If they evict the tent camp we won’t be lawbreakers and we won’t go wild,” said 30-year-old Almito Parda of Ashkelon, a key figure in the camp. “But this will stir a renewed awakening throughout the country. I don’t know if it will come in the form of demonstrations, but something will happen.”
After the Supreme Court’s decision last week, these statements have become harsher. “If they evict us we won’t give up,” said 30-year-old Yayo Avraham of Jerusalem, a leader of the protest. “People will come to Jerusalem from every corner of the country. What you saw in February was nothing compared to what will happen.”
He was joined by MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima ), who showed up at the site. “The earth will shake here,” he said. “The scenes of two months ago are minor compared to what will happen in the future.”
At the encampment last week they made clear that business was not as usual. Since the court’s decision, the activists have been trying to figure out what to do next; they’re also contacting the media and appealing to the public. Sure enough, they say more people visited the encampment in the evenings last week.
The real test will be at the Supreme Court. “If [the justices] understand the essence of our protest, I’ll be optimistic,” says Parda. “If not, it doesn’t look like we’ll succeed. We’re trying to be optimistic.”