On May 17, Israeli soldiers invaded the streets of Haifa’s German Colony neighborhood, beating Palestinian protesters with batons and lining them up blindfolded along the now blood-splattered sidewalks. The scenes of violence in northern Israel’s largest city, however, were not the result of a fresh government crackdown on Palestinian activism or a new surge of protest from the Young Communist League of Israel. The attacks were part of a well-choreographed street performance organized by youth to bring the realities of the occupation home to Israel’s cities. The campaign, called in Arabic Tzahal Ma Byestahal (“The Israeli army isn’t worth it”), seeks to drum up opposition to recent attempts by the Israeli government to introduce mandatory army enlistment for the 1.4 million Arab-Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.
Amjad Shbeita, the general-secretary of the Young Communist League of Israel that has been the organizing force behind the performances, told Ma’an Palestine news agency that the campaign is a response to the government’s attempts to break apart the Palestinian community inside Israel on religious lines by introducing service for Christians, who compose about 10 percent of the total Arab-Palestinian population in Israel. “The government began a war against our national unity by calling for military service for certain groups,” he said, highlighting that both mandatory enlistment that began for Druze Palestinians in the 1950s and talk of introducing similar legislation for Christian Palestinians today are part of a plan to divide Arab-Palestinian society. “They are trying to provoking sectarian conflict between and among the united Palestinian people by getting Christian youth to sign up,” he argued. “The idea for the street performances began when we realized that we needed to do something completely out of the ordinary in order to reach out to youth who do not participate in traditional political activities,” Shbeita said.
The group decided to organize a series of 26 performance pieces involving scenes from army life, including home demolitions, arrests, beatings, and detention of Palestinian civilians. So far, Tzahal Ma Byestahal has been exhibited in both Nazareth and Haifa, and the group plans to show it in other cities as well. The Haifa performance entailed the participation of about 70 artists and approximately 2,500 audience members in total in all of the scenes, Shbeita told Ma’an.
“There was widespread participation in the event from all religious groups — Muslims, Christians, and Druze — as well as from all regions, including the North, the Negev, Jerusalem, among others,” he added. When performed on the streets of Israeli cities, the scenes are a chilling reminder of the daily violence committed by Israeli soldiers in towns and villages only a few kilometers away. Unlike many protests organized by the Israeli left, however, Tzahal Ma Byestahal is unique in that it targets Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel themselves, with dialogue primarily in Arabic. Tzahal Ma Byestahal, however, is committed to opposing the enlistment of all Israelis in military service, including Christians and Muslims as well as Jews and Druze, who are already forced to serve.
The blurred lines between reality and fiction, however, did not end with the performance itself. Shbeita told Ma’an that since the end of the shows, four participants in the group have been summoned for interrogation by the Shin Bet, secret services. The summons, however, point to the state’s nervousness regarding a new wave of young Arab-Palestinian political activism in recent months, and Tzahal Ma Byestahal in particular. “This project in the streets scares the government because they don’t know how to respond,” Shbeita explained, adding defiantly: “But they did not weaken our spirit and we will continue the struggle.”