The scenes of tens of thousands of Israelis pouring out to the streets Sunday night were impressive. This massive protest movement is unprecedented in Israel’s history, as was its success; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to put his judicial overhaul on ice in light of the mass mobilization and a general labor strike.
The weekly protests ignited a nation-wide debate over the true purpose of the state of Israel, its government, and military, forcing Israelis to ask themselves what it means to have civil liberties and guaranteed rights, and how it feels to stand on the brink of losing some of them.
But watching the protests as a Palestinian was bittersweet. It was a pro-democracy Israeli movement that erased the millions living on the same land under Israeli control but systematically deprived of those liberties Israelis were protesting to defend. Most of us have never experienced the rights and liberties that Israelis are fighting tooth and nail to preserve for themselves, and to us Palestinians, this tension between what Israelis were willing to risk for their own rights, and how little they seem to care about ours, was a painful juxtaposition.
1 Activists daring to raise the Palestinian flag at the #Israeli pro-democracy demonstrations tonight were at risk of assault by both the police & fellow protesters who think that “democracy to all” is too controversial & outrageous.pic.twitter.com/BTPCBYxYn9
— Muhammad Shehada (@muhammadshehad2) January 14, 2023
Our cause was very consciously excluded from the mass protests, at least at first. In the early weeks of the demonstrations, those who raised the Palestinian flag and call for a democracy for all were assaulted by fellow protesters. And the small, anti-occupation corner of the demonstrations was never visited by any of the leaders of the main opposition parties—not even the leftist labor party.
To some extent, this was a tactical decision: Demonstrators were afraid that the sight of a Palestinian flag in their midst or the mention of the occupation would be exploited by the ruling coalition to delegitimize them or would fragment their ranks.
But it only goes to show the extent to which we have been demonized in the Israeli mainstream. Yet the situation improved as the protests went on. The anti-occupation bloc grew substantially, with people raising the call that “a nation that occupies another will never be free.” It became more energetic and harder to ignore, and there were no renewed attacks on demonstrators holding the Palestinian flag. And opposition leader Yair Lapid used the demonstrations’ momentum to call for drafting an Israeli constitution that enshrines human rights and equality between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.
“There is no democracy with occupation,” @Ha_Matar reports: “Probably the largest anti-occupation bloc so far, & the most energetic. Gone are the days when the rest of the demonstrators attack the bloc. More & more join the calls and messages… equal rights for all communities.” pic.twitter.com/NoqhLFdLZl
— Muhammad Shehada (@muhammadshehad2) March 26, 2023
It gave me hope.
It might still be a long way to go for the Israeli mainstream to call for ending the conflict and giving both peoples the rights, freedom, and dignity they deserve, but it’s possible to build a joint struggle on the momentum of this movement. It requires bold leadership—specifically, telling the crowds that addressing the occupation is an unavoidable and integral part of the discussion on democracy.
Yet the demonstrations have shown that Israelis have the capacity to rise and fight toward a common goal, despite ideological, political, religious, and class differences. That unity in the face of a perceived imminent danger brought Israelis from all walks of life together.
The question is what happens the day after this protest succeeds. Do Israelis go home and return to their lives? Or will they harness this momentum for something major and great?
Israeli and Palestinian leaders along with the Biden administration have a golden opportunity to turn this moment into something transformative. Unity toward a shared goal of true liberation for both of our peoples can be a strong weapon to transcend differences and create a new “we”—fighting to end the endless pain and suffering this conflict has created.
Ending the occupation of Palestinians and ensuring equal rights to everyone in Israel would be liberating for Israelis just as it would for Palestinians. Otherwise, the occupation will continue to corrupt the souls of the occupier as much as it ruins the lives of the occupied. And it will continue to fuel the very far-right groups these demonstrations are fighting, because their ascendence to power has been contingent on hate, fear, divisiveness, chaos, and blood.
That is the real lesson of the protests: Our liberation is mutual. Now if only Israelis cared to learn it.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of development studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. He is a columnist at the Forward.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.
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