Israelis are angry. A second wave of coronavirus infections is hitting the country hard. Nearly a quarter of the population is unemployed. And the public is still reeling from the March election, the latest of three contests in quick succession, which resulted in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consolidating leadership of the largest government in Israeli history, even as he remains on trial for three separate counts of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
In response, over the last few weeks, thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets across the country and specifically in front of Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, demanding the leader’s resignation with the slogan “Bibi Habayta” (“Bibi, go home”). Nearly four years ago, a group of Israelis, mostly middle-aged and older, started a protest movement calling on the attorney general to indict Netanyahu for corruption. Now many young Israelis, hit hard by job losses, have joined that effort, transforming it into a wave of broader anti-government protest. The movement currently has no clear leadership, and groups representing a wide range of ideologies and causes are involved, but everyone seems to agree that Bibi must go.
Two months ago, some protesters began camping outside Netanyahu’s residence on Balfour Street, trying to obstruct the prime minister’s coming and going. After police violently broke up the encampment early on the morning of June 27th and arrested a former brigadier general, 66-year-old Amir Haskel, mainstream Israeli media began paying more attention. Since then, protests have grown and become a near-daily affair, with thousands demonstrating at intersections across the country and at least 10,000 filling Jerusalem’s Paris Square Saturday night. Police have dispersed protesters with water cannons and arrested dozens; footage went viral that showed a policeman placing his knee on the neck of a protester. On at least one occasion, protesters have reported being attacked by right-wing extremists.
The protests are notable not only for their intensity but for their location. Historically, large Israeli demonstrations by the “peace movement” and the left have been concentrated in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, home to the country’s cultural elite. The current agitation, centered in Jerusalem, has moved closer to the Israel’s halls of power as well as to the occupation. While these protests are not focused on the occupation or Palestinian rights, there are chants of “Justice for Iyad”—a reference to the murder of Iyad al-Halak, a Palestinian man with autism killed by Israeli police in the Old City of Jerusalem in late May. (His death followed George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis by a few days.) There have also been signs and chants calling for an end to the occupation, and several Palestinians have delivered speeches. But despite this pro-democracy messaging, Palestinian citizens have largely been absent from these protests, and many are skeptical of whoever might come after Netanyahu as well. For now, Palestinian writer Yaser Abu Areesha wrote in +972 Magazine, “This is a struggle for change that does not include us.”
Last Wednesday, a few dozen protesters chained themselves together and blocked the entrance to the Knesset until they were forcibly removed by police. Among them was Sadi Ben Shitrit, a 56-year-old forklift operator from Kibbutz Gat, in the country’s south. A vocal figure in the protests, Ben Shitrit has received attention because his cousin is Amir Ohana, a staunch Netanyahu ally currently serving as Israel’s public security minister—effectively, Ohana is in charge of the police. Ben Shitrit is a member of Crime Minister, a small group focused on combating government corruption through litigation and protests. I spoke with him about his involvement in the protests and his vision for the movement’s future.
This interview was conducted in Hebrew and has been translated and edited for length and clarity.
Mairav Zonszein: When did you start protesting?
Sadi Ben Shitrit: Two years ago. My mother had died and I started to think about what kind of place I am going to leave for my son, who was then six years old. Something in me exploded without warning. It just happened, and I started going out to protest by myself at the Plugot Junction [on a highway between Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva]. It wasn’t enough, so I joined the Crime Minister group.
MZ: How many times have you been arrested since protesting?
SBS: Four or five times. There’s going to be a major protest tonight [July 23rd] but I can’t be there because I was arrested Wednesday and handed a court order barring me from Jerusalem for nine days. But today and tomorrow and Saturday night there will be big protests, and it’s just going to get bigger. It won’t stop till Bibi goes home, goes to jail, leaves Balfour, whatever.
MZ: What happened in recent days and weeks that accounts for this wave of protests? It seems like people only started to notice after Amir Haskel was arrested.
SBS: They made a fatal mistake [when they made those arrests]. We were looking for media coverage—we weren’t, and still aren’t, getting enough media. Yesterday, for example, we blocked the entrance to the Knesset from three different points. We chained ourselves and no one could enter the Knesset by car for two hours. They had to enter on foot. Everyone knew, but [the press] didn’t cover it. We did a similar action two months ago in front of the Foreign Ministry and the media didn’t cover it. The ministers had to get out of the cars and walk past us and hear our condemnations. The prime minister had to back up. The cops didn’t arrest us because they didn’t want media coverage. And [the media] has been censoring me.
SBS: There was a big feature about me slated to come out this weekend in Yedioth Ahronoth’s weekend supplement. They came and photographed me, the whole thing. On Wednesday, the reporter called me, practically in tears, saying the piece was killed. She said she fought with the editors, who got an order from above.
I did an interview with Avi Ratzon, a right-wing Netanyahu supporter [on Galei Israel, a radio show in the occupied West Bank]. I ended it by telling him and his listeners to fuck off. I speak wherever they are willing to talk to me. We need to make our protest heard. I’ve been getting calls every day from the media.
MZ: So now you are getting more media inquiries?
SBS: The media started seeing me as a celeb because my cousin is Amir Ohana. That’s why the media has taken an interest. After he goes to jail, I’ll make sure to thank him.
MZ: How do you see Bibi falling?
SBS: The minute 100,000 people are out in the streets, the Likud will tell Bibi to go. I’m sure it’s just a matter of numbers. Only a mass of people on the street will take Bibi out of Balfour. There are already voices in the Likud, infighting. Bibi is weak, he’s worried. He’s starting to crumble. Every day that he is there it causes insane damage to the country. I’ve been saying this a lot, people are still wary of making the comparison to Germany of the 1930s. But we are living it. It’s happening. It’s a structured approach. It’s not happening by chance. He learned Mein Kampf by heart. He knows what he’s doing. He weakened the media, the police, the courts, he makes up laws. The law that passed yesterday [giving the cabinet emergency powers to act before getting Knesset approval] means we are in a dictatorship. But luckily, we are Jews, we are stubborn, we are believers—I don’t mean in God; I mean in the justice of our path.
My vision is that 100,000 people will come and sit in front of Balfour and remain quiet. Not scream or do anything. That’s it. It’s more powerful than any protest. We are on our way to that.
MZ: What makes you believe things are changing?
SBS: I work in a factory, which is filled with Bibistim [devoted Netanyahu supporters], where I am the only so-called leftist there. I manage to communicate with them because I’m not scared of them and because I come from within them. I grew up in a development town, and I have a brother who sees Netanyahu as a god. But people here are starting to say, we won’t vote for Bibi. People understand that Bibi is a liar.
In another two to three weeks, Bibistim will start joining us in the streets. We already see some of them out there. We do a weekly Kabbalat Shabbat, and thousands show up. We let them express themselves. Someone came this week who said that in the last three elections he voted for Bibi, but not anymore. It’s over. Bibi is done. He won’t finish 2020 as a public figure. That’s what I say.
MZ: The protests are getting bigger and there seem to be a lot of different messages and no clear leadership or demands. I’ve seen a bit about the occupation, but it doesn’t seem like that is a major message. Do you feel like the connection is being made to the occupation and other issues of social justice?
SBS: When I speak, I speak about it all. I talk about Iyad al-Halak and everything that is immoral in this country. The most immoral thing in this country is the occupation. It is the mother of all corruption, it is where the whole mess starts. Where does the immorality really originate? From the fact that they kill Palestinians as if they are cockroaches. It spills over to us. Ethiopians have been killed [by police] and not a single cop has had to pay a price. Iyad al-Halak was murdered with at least ten cameras around him. And people like Ohana claim there is no footage of the incident.
MZ: But most going out to the streets are not coming out because they oppose occupation.
SBS: Every person who is coming out to the street is sick of Bibi. People ask me, “What is your solution?” I don’t have one, I don’t know. First, I want him out. We won’t be able to fix anything if he and his gang of dogs don’t leave. It doesn’t matter, as far as I’m concerned, Ahmad Tibi [member of the Arab-led Joint List coalition in the Knesset] can be prime minister. I have no problem with it. I didn’t vote for the Joint List but he’s a human being. Bibi is not a human being. He’s a psychopath. I’ve been saying this.
MZ: But isn’t the problem the entire system, not just Netanyahu?
SBS: There’s a good analogy on this point. What is the difference between Bibi’s corruption and the corruption of Mapai [the “Workers’ Party” that dominated early Israeli politics until it later became part of the Labor Party]? Israel is an orchard. Every year there is a harvest. Under Mapai, you were entitled to ten oranges, but because you were Moroccan, you were Black, you got only three. And they gave the rest to their friends, the kibbutzim, whatever. Next year, at the harvest, again, you got less, but you still got some. What did Bibi do? He sold the orchard. There is nothing to pick!
MZ: Will there need to be more organization and guidance as this grows?
SBS: It’s too big now. There are so many players, so much ego. Everyone thinks they know what’s best. As long as they are coming to protest against the corrupt man from Balfour, that’s good. As Crime Minister, we do what we do. I don’t see one person who can lead this.
It does drive me nuts that Knesset members from the opposition don’t call on citizens to go out to the streets to protest. I’ve been telling politicians, you have no power in the Knesset. You have power to get people who believe in you out into the streets; That is what they should be doing. I say this to everyone. To [retired IDF major general and MK of left-leaning Meretz] Yair Golan and [centrist Yesh Atid Party leader] Yaid Lapid and [Joint List head] Ayman Odeh. It is only in the street that we can bring salvation.
MZ: Do you have any political aspirations?
SBS: Not at all. I refuse to think about it. I promised myself that after Bibi is gone I will go back to my anonymity and to my quiet life. For me, the only objective is to get him out of there. Bibi is causing more damage to the country than any war ever did. Our grandchildren will pay the price for this.
Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American journalist and commentator who has covered Israeli politics and U.S. foreign policy for over a decade. She is a founding editor of +972 Magazine, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, The Columbia Journalism Review, and more. She is currently senior analyst on Israel-Palestine with the International Crisis Group.