[Note: LiveBlog entries will scroll at the bottom. Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG]
Massive, angry rallies are overwhelming Israel as protesters, calling it the "mother of all demos" increase pressure on PM Netanyahu to either listen to the peoples' demands or get out of the way.
Police have mobilized across the country, blocking streets for the unprecedented numbers and the possibility of confrontation as protest leaders admit these rallies will be angrier. The police presence is unlike what has been seen up to this point, and is due to the government's estimates that the numbers tonight may reach concerning numbers.
To understand the scope of the numbers, according to both protest estimates and police reports, around 4% of Israel's population are currently in the streets (with that number likely to grow as the evening wears on), which in the United States would be the equivalent of nearly 12 million people.
The "tent city" protests – so named because of the tent communities now clogging public squares in dozens of cities across the country – were originally triggered by the country's young, urban middle class over unsustainable housing costs. However, the protests have morphed into a movement representing a multitude of domestic social justice issues, among them: health care reforms, the expansion of public education and the lowering of taxes on middle and lower class citizens.
It is a broad, largely unified social movement (now supported by an astonishing 88 percent of the populace) that continues to exert increasing levels of pressure on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and has become the single greatest threat of his political career.
Developments Leading Up to Today's Protests
A number of significant events occurred this week:
1) Right-wing groups & settlers attempt to join protests
In an effort to de-legitimize the protests and/or add their agenda to the growing list of protesters' demands, far-right wing extremist groups attempted to join the tent city in Tel Aviv.
They were met with anger by many protesters, as the photo and video below attest:
2) Palestinians establish presence in tent protests
So far, protest leaders have shied away from introducing geopolitical, human rights issues (such as the occupation and the settlements) into the protests for strategic reasons, given that such divisive wedges could break public support. (For a full analysis of this, read "Where Are the Geopolitical, Human Rights Issues in Israel's 'Social Justice' Protests?")
This week, Tent #48 established a prominent presence in Tel Aviv's tent city, forcing (along with the settlers' presence) Israelis to confront the notion of social justice protests that don't deal with Palestinian rights.
3) Netanyahu/Knesset thumb noses at protesters' demands
Among the many demands protesters' presented Netanyahu with on Tuesday was their opposition to a housing bill designed to fast-track building without public review. The bill, intended to address the housing crisis that sparked protests, was vociferously opposed by protesters.
When the Knesset, ignoring the public demands, passed it on Wednesday, activists in three cities blocked streets, with hundreds marching on the Knesset and blocking the street leading to its entrance.
4) Mass numbers of taxi drivers joined the protests
Hundreds of taxi drivers in Tel Aviv blocked roads, joining the protests and adding to the general strikes that have already taken place, strikes that were supported by Israel's organized labor and most major municipal governments.
LiveBlog (Scrolling) in EST
11:29: This will be my last update for the night. I want to leave with this:
What we witnessed tonight was historic – the largest protest in Israel's history that spanned a multitude of social/economic demands as well as broad segments of Israeli society.
In general, it's now safe to say that, what began as a movement started by a few, young Israelis in Tel Aviv has transformed into a national movement.
And while protest organizers have not yet felt comfortable with including in these 'social justice' protests the elephants in the room (occupation and settlements), many pockets of Jews and Arabs did so tonight, and did so mostly with crowd support.
In all, this is a movement that seems to still be growing. It's potential for change in Israel, in all realms, is truly unpredictable.
When I started covering this two weeks ago, I knew it was big. Otherwise I wouldn't have started with the "OMG 30,000 people are marching" diaries.
However, I did not imagine it would reach this level.
I will continue to write about it as developments occur. Stay tuned. And G'night.
11:01: Okay, here's a fun game. Feel free to play along:
Netanyahu downplaying the number of people who protested in Israel tonight is like someone standing in a burning building downplaying how hot it is.
10:28: Here is the front page of Haaretz English. I want you to notice the subtitle:
That the first statement coming from Netanyahu's office is a denial of the official count (which, by the way, is closer to 400,000) tells me one thing: he's fucked.
Not only is the response tone deaf, but when -- as a leader -- your first political instinct is to deny what is occurring, or to attempt to downplay what is occurring, you are doing nothing but digging a hole.
If Netanyahu is to survive this, he will have to engage Israeli society openly and with respect. He will have to come up with solutions to the problems that have driven people into the streets.
Downplaying what we all see with our own eyes is reckless and foolish.
9:57: Gideon Levy with a new piece in Haaretz -- he must have stayed up all night writing it:
Tel Aviv was bursting at the seams last night. It was not the mother of all protests - it was the grandmother of all protests. The city looked yesterday like one of the stormiest cities on earth. Streams of people were flowing in every direction, some on foot, some in cars. Buses and trains spewed out the crowds, and not everyone even managed to get to the area of the protest. An amazingly large sign, in Hebrew and Arabic - the latter is about to cease being an official language in this country - read "Egypt is here."
Indeed, the pictures last night looked like the nights of Tahrir Square. Now the comparison to the Cairo revolution is not exaggerated or wishful thinking. Now it really does resemble it, not including the violence, of course...
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can go on joking with his ministers; his fate is sealed. The cynics can continue tsk-tsking and talking about the "confused" and "spoiled" protest, and yet, a protest it is, the likes of which has never been seen here.
9:48: There were many arrests after the crowds broke, as Israeli undercover and uniformed police arrested a number of protesters who they had been tracking on Twitter and Facebook, as well as random anarchists. Below is a pic from that episode:
And more pictures are coming out showing just how incredible the crowds were. This protest was Israel's largest in history. And, you know, it says something about Netanyahu and the current government, for they are the first leadership group in Israel's history that inspired nearly 5% of the population to take to the streets against it:
9:21: I'm back, and will be giving thoughts (soon) on Israel's largest protests in history, as well as pictures of police arrests and crowds.
5:53: I must go out for a bit. Please, in the comments, keep this live blog going! Here's how: on Twitter, search for the hashtag #j14. That stands for July 14, the day these protests began. You can post in the comments developments, as it seems that police activity is picking up. Conflict may be brewing between right-wing elements and the main protesters, and undercover cops are now deploying in the crowd. I imagine arrests will begin soon, which will not be pretty. I'll be back to pick things up in a few hours. Until then, YOU ARE THE EYES AND EARS FOR THE COMMUNITY.
5:39: Activestills, a group of independent photojournalists, have updated their pictures. They are amazing, as usual. Here are a few:
5:18: Reports of police and protesters beginning to struggle in Tel Aviv. Now that the official protest has ended, and the live news streams have ended, conflict and arrests are going to be inevitable. I hope it doesn't get violent, as the numbers are simply crushing right now.
5:14: According to a few citizen journalists I trust (including Elizrael), there was a large group of Jews and Arabs jumping and screaming together "the people want to end the occupation."
5:05: Over 30,000 gathered in Jerusalem outside Netanyahu's residence.
5:00: According to Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf, Palestinian Knesset member Tibi told the crowd: "Israel IS Jewish & democratic. Democratic 4 Jews, Jewish 4 all the rest."
4:53: The main protest stage, leaders sing "Hatikva," which is Israel's national anthem. It is also a Jewish-only anthem – not an anthem for all residents of Israel (as it speaks just of Jewish yearning). This is a political move on the part of the protest organizers, who are still very much trying to maintain public support. It is also a sign that they are less likely to explicitly champion geopolitical issues in the near-term, as some have been asking me.
4:33: As I watch 320,000 Israelis yelling at Netanyahu, a singular emotional response is this: he's fucked.
4:00: Palestinian speaker was on one of the main stages saying Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies. More a statement of motivation than truth, but kudos for the sentiment. The protest leaders on stage have still not explicitly addressed Palestinian issues. But I sense this won't be able to be sustained much longer.
Crowds are surging all over the country. More police has been deployed. Amazingly, though, no reported arrests or conflicts. As in past demonstrations, that will likely change as we approach the midnight hour (5 pm EST).
3:38: Palestinian Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi joined the Tel Aviv march. Train service has collapsed with the numbers. Infrastructure can't handle these numbers.
3:23: So far, things have remained peaceful as over 300,000 protest in Israel (which in the U.S. would be 12 million people). Many on Twitter have noted, sarcastically, that were this 300 people protesting in the West Bank, there would be tear gas and rubber bullets already, and a lot of anger is coming out in the social media regarding these protests. It's an anger I understand, and an anger I'm acknowledging here, but not an anger I want to focus this diary on. For I think that if these protests end up creating the type of momentum that can create electoral shifts in Israel, as many think they have the potential to do, geopolitical human rights issues (such as the occupation and the settlements) will have no choice but to make their way into the discussion. It's happening already, in very limited degrees.
3:14: Numbers across the country are approaching 300,000 as commentators on Channel 2, clearly unnerved by what they're seeing, are calling upon Netanyahu to acknowledge this movement or risk the consequences.
3:02: Student leader screams, "We want change! Netanyahu, we are not your enemy! We are your people! Listen to us!" Announcers say over 1/4 million are now on the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem alone.
3:00: A college student leader of the protests is speaking before massive crowds in Tel Aviv screaming, "We will not give up on the dream for a just society," and is spreading his message to everyone. Of course, the question from any is this: is he including Palestinian, geopolitical issues? Some think it will become impossible for these protests to continue without such issues coming to the fore.
2:51: Now 200,000 in Tel Aviv alone, with many tens of thousands in Jerusalem and around the country.
2:29: There are now 150,000 in Tel Aviv ALONE and growing. The police are being re-mobilized to the periphery, though it's hard to find one.
2:23: Channel 2's main political analyst thinks that if Netanyahu does not deal with this in the next week, the consequences are unpredictable. The numbers are showing that this is a societal protest -- that this is the entire people against the government.
2:17: The numbers are simply staggering. There are currently 100,000 just in Tel Aviv. This is massive, and many fear it could get unruly. We shall see if they can keep this peaceful.
2:05: Using GPS and cellular, a scientist is talking about the fact that in Tel Aviv the numbers are already larger than last week, with untold numbers trying to get by blocked roads. As for Netanyahu, it's been announced that tomorrow he will convene a group to try and solve some of the issues the protesters have raised.
2:00: Israel TV just interviewed an Israeli protester on the street who explained that this movement cannot be separated, ultimately, from the settlements and the Palestinian issue. He admits that leaders have not made such issues central, but says, as a citizen, everyone knows that they are connected to the economic issues of housing around which all of this started. This is just an anecdotal interview, but is being broadcast to millions on Israel's largest station.
1:50 Crowd on Israeli TV look massive, as do the patrols of police on the streets. My hope is that this remains peaceful. Israeli commentators are arguing about the effect of the protests, and everyone seems to think that there is no way this type of momentum won't change electoral dynamics. Many are blaming Netanyahu for his insistence on refusing to talk to the protesters.
1:24: Wireless networks are beginning to collapse in Tel Aviv as the crowds surge and network use increases. Several citizen journalists on the ground are beginning to indicate this is not only massive, but different in tone.
12:57: Computer models are projecting 200,000 to 300,000 protesters leading to or already at the protest sites, the upper levels equaling over 11,000,000 in the United States.
12:48: Here is a link to Israel's Channel 2, which a live stream of what they are calling Israel "giant protest."
12:23 - Thousands of protesters (number estimates are fuzzy) are blocking streets at a major junction in the north of the country, a first for these protests – an indication that tonight is going to be explosive.
12:13 - Massive traffic jams are being reported leading into Tel Aviv with thousands already on the streets in anticipation of the 2 PM EST protests. The city's infrastructure seems incapable of handling the expected crowds.