Haifa protests crack the wall of fear

Haifa has long been a center of protests in 1948 occupied Palestine, here during the Unity Intifada protests of May 2021. 

Mati Milstein NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

On Monday, 27 May, following yet more bloodshed in Rafah, some 300 people, Palestinians and their allies, gathered in the Prisoner Square in the historic German Colony neighborhood of downtown Haifa.

Prisoner Square is the unofficial name given by protesters to a square in the middle of al-Carmel street (today Ben-Gurion street), a traditional place of gathering for Palestinian protests in the city.

The square has seen many protests over the years against the various massacres and bombings in Gaza, in support of prisoners, and over local issues concerning Palestinians in Haifa such as crime.

It was the focal point for the demonstrations of the Unity Intifada of 2021 and the 2013 protests against the planned expulsion of Palestinian Bedouins living in the Naqab region, and many others.

As a result, the Israeli police have kept an eye on the square. For instance, on 18 October, following the bombing of al-Ahli hospital in Gaza, police occupied the square and prevented people from protesting, insisting on immediately suppressing and arresting anyone who raised a sign or their voice.

The swift repression and the overall terrifying conditions of the dictatorship Israel has become following 7 October was enough to intimidate people into silence.

For a while.

Cracks in the wall

On 27 May, the atmosphere was similar with one significant difference: this time the people were not willing to give up the street so easily.

The police initially decided to allow people to gather, despite keeping a menacing presence and occasionally making arrests and grabbing signs.

The police have claimed there are no directives to take away protest signs criticizing Israel’s war crimes in Gaza. But it has been well documented on numerous occasions that police are doing just that.

The 27 May protest was no different. Two protesters were arrested while holding a banner that read “Stop the massacre.”

A protester holding a picture of Walid Daqqa – who died in Israeli detention in April after nearly four decades behind bars – was arrested as well on charges of supporting terrorism.

Police also snatched a Palestinian flag from a protester, as well as any sign containing the words “murder,” “massacre” or “genocide.”

After about an hour of shouting slogans in support of Gaza, when a few right-wing counter protesters carrying Israeli flags arrived on the other side of the road, the police declared the demonstration illegal and began dispersing the crowd.

According to Israeli law, a standing protest that doesn’t include a march or political speech doesn’t require a permit. But Palestinian protests are often dispersed on the grounds of disturbing the public peace.

Once the protest was declared illegal, mounted police charged toward the crowd, and people began running in all directions. Eight people were arrested with some violence.

“Order” had been restored. But the wall of fear had been seriously cracked.

Some demonstrators were hospitalized following the violent dispersal and arrests. Some of those who were brought in front of a judge the following morning appeared to be bruised and injured.

Some also reported verbal abuse while still in the police station.

Violent assault

Three days later, on 30 May, another protest was called in Prisoner Square. This time the police decided to reimplement the policy from 18 October.

Large numbers of police occupied the square in advance, and an intimidating presence of undercover and uniformed cops questioned people on their way to the square and took their IDs.

Some 20 right-wing Zionist counter protesters had already gathered on the other side of the street, waving Israeli flags and singing nationalist songs.

Demonstrators decided last-minute to move to a nearby square. When people gathered and started shouting slogans for Gaza, however, police quickly came, pronounced the protest illegal and ordered people to disperse immediately.

Refusing to be intimidated, the protesters stood their ground and continued to chant.

Again, police chose violence, pushing people and charging at them on horseback. Again there were several arrests.

In the chaos that ensued, people ran in different directions and spontaneously continued their demonstration where they were.

A crowd of protesters spilled into the nearby Allenby street, known as al-Zaytoun street prior to the Zionist colonization and Nakba of 1948, and marched along the road, waving Palestinian flags and singing songs in support of Gaza, its people and Palestine more generally.

The atmosphere was ecstatic. People cheered from windows and balconies, and passing cars honked their horns in support, confirming what we already knew: Haifa is and remains Palestinian.

Police followed. With mounted officers and police on motorcycles charging into the crowd, demonstrators escaped into buildings and the narrow alleys of the German Colony, to regroup again in al-Carmel street to start again.

Following a few more cat and mouse games lasting several hours, a group of protesters gathered back at Prisoner Square and decided to end their demonstration where they had planned to hold it all along.

Despite the “best” efforts of Haifa police, they failed to suppress the crowds. Their aggressive behavior only ensured one protest became several parallel protests.

There was a clear sense of people taking their streets back, and standing up to state repression.

Again eight people were arrested.

One of them, Eran Maoz, refused to recognize the authority of the court, be represented by a lawyer or sign any release conditions. In front of the judge, he declared that Israel is committing a genocide in Gaza.

He would not, therefore, accept the legitimacy of the proceedings.

He remained in custody for two days but was eventually released without conditions.

Another protester, Nizar Ghanadri, was held in custody for three days, charged with assaulting a police officer. He was released into house arrest, after paying bail of just over $1,000, and was barred from Haifa for 15 days.

Only time will tell if the current wave of renewed Palestinian activism in 1948 occupied Palestine will turn into a substantial street movement against Israel’s atrocities in Gaza.

But despite police trying to repress every Palestinain expression of disgust over the genocide in Gaza, people are increasingly defiant, and it won’t be so easy for the Israeli authorities to make them lower their heads this time.

Mati Yanikov is a Haifa-based anti-colonial activist.