Class struggle in Jerusalem: An interview with Oren Feld, branch secretary of Hadash Jerusalem

Above: Members of Hadash Jerusalem and other anti-occupation activists take part in protests outside Israeli PM’s residence, Jerusalem, 26.7.20. The banner on the left reads “Democracy for all” in both Hebrew and Arabic; the banner on the right reads “Police violence kills”. Photo: Oren Ziv

Editor’s Note: The following interview was given before the tragic explosion in Beirut.

Maor Yavetz grew up in Jerusalem and now resides in Liverpool. He is a member of the Communist Party and is active in his local branch of ACORN, the union for housing & community. 

Background

Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) is a socialist alliance of left democratic organisations, which was founded by the Israeli Communist Party in 1977. It seeks to unite Jews and Arabs along class lines in the fight for true democracy and for a just peace. Its main guiding principles are an end to the Israeli occupation of 1967 and the foundation of a sovereign and sustainable Palestinian state alongside Israel, ensuring equality for ethnic minorities, and the advancement of women’s and worker’s rights. Hadash is represented in the Israeli parliament by five Members of Knesset, who as part of the Joint List coalition form a substantial parliamentary force. In addition, Hadash is active in local government as well as throughout civil society, with branches in many Palestinian towns within Israel and increasingly in Jewish areas.

Oren Feld, 28, is the branch secretary of Hadash Jerusalem and a member of the Israeli Communist Party. I discussed the recent protests in Jerusalem with him, state repression and police brutality, Israel’s younger generation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the class struggle.

1. Hello Oren, can you introduce yourself please and tell us about your role as branch secretary, and a little about the work you do in the Jerusalem branch of Hadash? Also, what is the significance of the joint (Arab-Jewish) struggle to your political work?

I am the secretary of the Jerusalem district branch of Hadash, and have been in the role for a year and a half. During this time, my comrades and I have faced an ongoing political crisis. This consisted of three national elections; an ongoing campaign of militarised police brutality in Isawiya – a neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem; record breaking rates of house demolitions, including the destruction of 72 homes in the neighbourhood of Wadi Al Hummus (East Jerusalem); forced evictions of Palestinian families in Silwan (East Jerusalem, bordering the Old City); the COVID-19 pandemic; and recently, the largest popular uprising in Israel in almost a decade. Although this period has been very intensive, we managed to use it to restart the branch and recruit more comrades for the cause. Hadash in Hebrew stands for Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, and it consists of the Israeli Communist Party (MAKI) and other progressive supporters. As a front, we try to establish a coalition of the radical left in Jerusalem and build political power for the struggle against the occupation and the exploitation of the working class. 

In a so called ‘unified Jerusalem’, Palestinian Jerusalemites do not receive citizenship by birth. Rather, they have to apply for it, undergo extensive inquiry by the Israeli Shin Bet (secret police) and face endless bureaucracy by the Ministry of Interior – all of which make it nearly impossible to receive Israeli citizenship. Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem have next to zero ability to affect the political powers which control every aspect of their lives and police them. Jerusalemite Palestinians receive a residency permit, which can be taken away if they leave the area of Greater Jerusalem, or by a court order. They can only vote in local municipal elections, but cannot be elected as this right is reserved for citizens. As the policies affecting them are often decided at a national level, they have no control over them and therefore boycott local elections, as a means of defying Israeli rule in occupied East Jerusalem.

We as Hadash, see East Jerusalem as an occupied territory (since 1967), which was annexed by Israel in 1980. Under Israeli rule, this annexation has lead to misery, acute inequality and to a brutal oppression carried out by a militarised police force. While Hadash views the joint struggle as one which is based on citizenship – aspiring for equality and democratic participation for all citizens – the unique political situation in our city means that our joint struggle between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, is different to that taking place across the land. Therefore, our struggle is based on solidarity.

That being said, as our organisation is legally based in Israel, we are aware that we are representing the occupation whether we like it or not. For this reason, we refrain from official political activity in East Jerusalem, and focus on solidarity. In West Jerusalem (which is predominantly Jewish), our work aims to raise the class consciousness, through a range of social campaigns. For example, we are fighting against the outsourcing of jobs and the privatisation of services, both in the Municipality, as well as in academic institutions. We do this alongside our Palestinian comrades who are Hebrew University students, and originate from the Palestinian towns of the Galilee and surrounding regions, who are Israeli citizens. In addition, we cooperate with our Palestinian comrades from the villages west to Jerusalem who are also Israeli citizens, such as the village of Abu Ghosh.

This has been the source of our strength in the last century. The joint struggle has existed in Jerusalem for nearly 100 years, when our youth movement (YCLI – YCL Britain’s fraternal organisation) was first established in the city. It experienced the oppression of the British occupation, which did not allow print shops to print leaflets in both Hebrew and Arabic, knowing its revolutionary power even back then. Already in those days, the comrades predicted what we experience today, and how the reactionary powers will only be defeated by the joint struggle of the working class – Jews and Arabs alike. In Jerusalem, the ‘united front’ that is Hadash was born in 1977. It unified the Communist Party with non-communist democratic organisations, as well as with the Israeli Black Panthers movement – who emerged from the impoverished neighbourhoods of Jewish West Jerusalem. Today we carry the same revolutionary ideas, which allows us to stay strong and united, even through such difficult times, until we will bring a just peace to this city and land. 

2. The recent protests have been drawing thousands of people, many of whom vary greatly in political opinion and affiliation – including those who are opposed to the annexation and occupation. Can you tell us more about this, and where does Hadash fit into it?

I think that in order to answer that question, it’s important to understand the current political movement, and how it came to be.

Throughout the last four years, anti-corruption protests have been taking place, which were originally initiated by a non-partisan movement consisting mostly of older people. The reason it erupted into what we now recognise as a popular uprising, was because of the attempts on the part of Jerusalem Municipality and District Police, to shut the protests down. The protesters then began a campaign which was called ‘the siege of Balfur’, and established a permanent protest – day and night – outside the Prime Minister’s state residence on Balfur street in Jerusalem. In turn, the authorities brutally attacked a peaceful sit-in protest twice, in an attempt to clear a pavement which was being blocked, leaving many injured. As well as the sit-in protests, weekly demonstrations took place on Fridays, which gradually drew greater crowds. During one of these demonstrations, the police arrested key figures of the protest, in what has been widely recognised to be politically motivated arrests. 

This type of state repression is considered unprecedented, as far as sections of the Israeli population living within the 1948 borders are concerned. It naturally caused a shockwave among the Israeli public, and this led to even greater numbers of people taking to the streets. As if the crack down on the protests and political repression were not enough, public anger reached a boiling point when the corrupt ‘unity’ government between Netanyahu and Gantz, exploited the COVID-19 crisis for their own profit and political gain. Tax reductions were introduced specifically aimed at Netayahu’s own property, 36 new ministerial positions were created to serve those closest to power, and bailouts were being handed to the super-rich.   

The more recent wave of mass protests began to grow as the second wave of COVID-19 hit the country, itself caused by government inaction. In response to the second wave, the government passed the Authorisation Act, which has been widely referred to in the media as the ‘great corona law’. This is an authoritarian law which extends the government’s – and therefore the PM’s – ability to pass regulations without parliamentary scrutiny. The parliament can only challenge these regulations after they have already been passed. The combination of draconian government actions and political repression of protests signifies to many a rise of a new authoritarian regime led by Netanyahu, which will see him weakening the judicial system and the parliament in order to avoid trial (he is charged with multiple accounts of corruption). 

As Hadash, it was and remains difficult for us to join in with these protests. Political repression is nothing new to us, but rather something we have witnessed and experienced throughout our movement’s existence. What many Israelis saw as ‘unprecedented actions’, such as political arrests, is in fact a well-established strategy of the 53-year-long occupation regime. Consider for example the mass incarceration of Palestinians, or the routine arrests of left political activists in non-violent protests. During Netanyahu’s reign, he has vilified the left and labelled them as traitors. This led many to fear being politically active and associated with the left. Therefore, it is not easy for us to take part in protests which are predominantly Zionist. They do not acknowledge the full history of the state, and ignore what takes place just few kilometres away, in the name of the occupation and annexation. 

We are a movement intent on appealing to the masses, and so rather than ignore these growing protests, we arrived carrying our banner which read ‘Democracy for all’ in both Hebrew and Arabic. This was the first bilingual banner at the protests. To begin with, our presence consisted of branch members as well as unaffiliated individuals, however this soon grew to hundreds of demonstrators unified under our banner. Together, we call for equal democratic rights for everyone under Israeli rule; we call for a just peace, an end to the occupation and for climate justice. This method enabled many to find themselves in those protests and join the struggle, changing the existing Zionist narrative of ‘save democracy’, to the one which argues for the establishment of a true democracy for everyone. This is the only way in which we will prevent further government corruption, which is fuelled by those who profit from the occupation and its centres of power. We find our role as Hadash in Jerusalem to be about raising the voice of the class struggle, which is still not present enough in the protests, but we’re working on it. 

3. A great proportion of those attending the protests are young people. How have young people in Israel been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and how are these experiences linked to the protests?

Among the Israel public young people were the least compensated group, receiving virtually no government aid. University students who couldn’t work a full time job received little to no unemployment benefits. Citizens between the ages 18-20 were not entitled to unemployment benefits, because the majority of the unemployed people in that age group are Palestinians (Israeli citizens), who do not serve in the military. The majority of young people work in the retail and hospitality sectors, which were both severely affected due to the quarantine. 

Among the youth, there is a growing feeling that the future holds very little for their generation. There have been significant dropout rates among college and university students, as the virtual learning methods enforced by the quarantine were impractical for many, while others simply could not afford to continue paying their fees. One of the main slogans at the recent protests was ‘an entire generation demands a future’. I think this outcry stems from a combination of the current socio-economic situation, the fear of a climate catastrophe, and a fear of an Orwellian future under Netanyahu.

Generally speaking young Israelis tend to avoid politics. Subsequent right-wing governments have normalised the occupation, and created an atmosphere in which disbelief in any possible change runs deep through the education system. For many who have never organised or been politically involved, this would be the first time they joined a demonstration, which in turn makes the protests more spontaneous and decentralised. Aside from the anti-occupation block (which Hadash is part of), the voices being raised by young people mostly call for government transparency, an end to corruption and against the link between the government and the rich.

Members of Hadash and the Israeli Communist Party (MAKI) during a demonstration outside the Israeli PM’s residence, Jerusalem, 1.8.20

4. The mass protests have spread quickly and have been met with severe police and political repression. Can you tell us about this? How do these compare in your view to the forms of state repression used against Palestinians, as well as against other demographics of Israeli citizens e.g. Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews)?

It is new for Israeli secular Jews to face this level of police repression. Water cannons for example, have never been used to supress demonstrations of this nature and demographic; but this in turn radicalises people and makes them question the hegemonic powers. However it could get much worse. We have yet to witness the use of the notorious ‘skunk’ (a putrid liquid fired out of a water cannon), flash grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and of course live ammunition.

All of these methods – which are manufactured in Israel and exported elsewhere – were previously used against Israeli citizens, including Ethiopian Jews, Haredim, and Palestinians. Protests of non-citizen Palestinians are often supressed with live ammunition. 

There has been an attempt to militarise the repression of the protests, even if only visually. The police are using military grade vehicles in the areas surrounding the protests, despite knowing they will not face any violent opposition that will justify using it for transport. Along the regular police, two specialised forces are deployed to the demonstrations; Magav (border police / gendarmerie) and Yasam (riot police), both of which are normally armed with military grade weapons, however they are not armed at the demonstrations. Their presence is used to intimidate the protestors especially during the use of a ‘kettle’ tactic, in which the police force the crowds into a bottleneck where they face the water cannons. The intention here is to terrorise people, so they would not rejoin the protests. 

Despite the fact that the violence inflicted by the police during these protests can be traumatising, it is not even remotely similar to what people in Isawiya suffer on a daily basis under the occupation. Over the past year for example, the people of Isawiya were subjected to a brutal campaign of militarised police oppression, which included routine nightly invasions, violent under cover policing, and arrests of children, to name a few. 

However, the repression of the demonstrations in West Jerusalem can get a lot worse. The Minister of Interior Defence, Amir Ohana, has instructed the police to break down the protests, and the police have used the media to refer to our presence there as problematic. There are now indications that the police are trying to use similar methods of undercover abduction against Israeli protesters who are active in the struggle against the occupation in East Jerusalem. The undercover police target activists who are known for their political activity in East Jerusalem, and have done so a number of times. One particular activist who was arrested by undercover police during the protests, was interrogated and told that if she desists from political activity, she will have no problems. I find this so-called ‘delicate’ form of repression to be terrifying. 

5. There has been a fascist presence at some of the demonstrations, which led to ongoing threats online and in some cases to violent clashes. Can you tell us more about this, and how in your view the left should respond?  

The most vocal group of fascists is La-Familia – the hooligan firm of Beitar Jerusalem football club, who are known for their violence and racist ideology. The majority of them are youth at risk, who are being exploited by their leaders, and who are in turn exploited by the far right. Individuals from the Jewish settlement in Hebron have been inciting them on the terraces for decades. Beitar is also the favourite team of the right wing Likud Party, and Netanyahu is a fan. He even occasionally attends games, along with other Israeli right wing politicians 

When you look at that sort of a chain of command, I see that I have nothing against the youth that are being exploited. On the contrary, I wish we were on the same side and therefore I disagree with those who take a more militant approach, and try to counter their violence. For me they are victims, and our political answer to it should lie in the demands to empower our welfare, health and education systems. A clash between two sets of divided and exploited people doesn’t make any sense to me. They are not the enemy, their leaders – the people who incited them for years against Palestinians – they are the political enemy. Our response to them should be to organise, and work towards a society of prosperity and for a just peace. 

6. Historically, times of crises have held great potential for socialists and communists to advance the case for the class struggle among the people, but they have also brought with them new dangers – such as the rise of the far-right. What is the role of Hadash at this time, and how do you see it engaging the working class? 

We primarily focused on establishing our presence at the protests, in order to be heard and to spread our message, however there is still work to be done in connecting it to the class struggle. This is our next item on the agenda, and it won’t be easy. For the majority of Palestinians, the Israeli flag is a symbol of oppression and inequality, and I think that we need to raise the non-Zionist voice and create a protest within a protest, so that everyone will feel welcome to join. We also need to connect other areas of struggle to the protests.

Previously, there has been a successful coalition against police brutality. Now we need to expand it to housing rights, to the lack of safety of Palestinian citizens of Israel due to organised crime; we need to connect it to the hundreds of workers who died in Israel due to the neo-liberal disregard for their lives, we need to connect it to women’s rights and the abolishment of the patriarchy. I believe we are on the path to doing so, and Jerusalem, with all its complications, is the perfect ground for such revolutionary unification of struggles.  

7. How can communists and internationalists in Britain and elsewhere support your work and the struggles you are engaged in?

I mean, the protests are taking place on Balfour street and King George street, they commemorate the imperialist actions that were taken in this land. The effect of what we experience here in Jerusalem today is the direct product of the imperialist efforts of the past and present. The best way to help is to defeat imperialism, and there is no better place to do that than where it originates from. The best thing comrades can do is to keep on their local struggle for the liberation of humanity, support each other, and organise. 

8. Do you have a message to Britain’s communist youth? 

Keep on with the struggle – the victory is certain! 


Useful links

Hadash website English section

Hadash Jerusalem fb page

MAKI website English section (regularly updated with articles)

BANKI / SHABIBA (YCL Israel) Facebook and Instagram

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