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Palestinians weigh in on Israeli street protests

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Palestinians have largely been absent from the historic demonstrations in Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis are protesting plans by the right-wing government to weaken the courts. NPR's Daniel Estrin explored why Palestinians are rarely in the crowd.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Abed Abu Shehadeh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, finds the Israeli street protests fascinating.

ABED ABU SHEHADEH: We are living in an historical period of time. The Israeli society never - has never witnessed, in the past 75 years, clash in this magnitude.

ESTRIN: He's a Tel Aviv city council member, working within the Israeli political system to help his own Palestinian Arab community. Arab citizens make up 20% of Israel and face widespread discrimination. He's concerned if the right-wing gains powers over the Supreme Court, Arabs could face more discrimination and even be barred from public office.

ABU SHEHADEH: Things are changing very fast, and obviously, it's going to affect us.

ESTRIN: And yet he and his community are not at the street protests against the government. A main sticking point has been the sea of Israeli flags at the protests.

ABU SHEHADEH: What's pushing me away - the magnitude of the Israeli flag.

ESTRIN: He sees it as the Israeli left trying to assert its nationalism and Zionism.

ABU SHEHADEH: And I don't think I'm welcomed there. And places that I'm not welcomed, I'd rather not go there.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling in non-English language).

ESTRIN: Some Israeli Jewish protestors say they don't want Arab citizens in the streets protesting with them.

ZOHAR DVIR: Let's say, keep it clean...

ESTRIN: Zohar Dvir a retired deputy police commissioner.

DVIR: ...Not, you know, to see Palestine flags.

ESTRIN: Over years of failed peace talks and continued violence, Israelis have seen the center and left lose support when it promotes compromise with the Palestinians. Now, Israeli columnist Anshel Pfeffer says the center left has found a new narrative motivating the Israeli mainstream to protest - protecting democratic institutions and opposing religious impositions on people's lives.

ANSHEL PFEFFER: This battle for Israeli democracy has served as that narrative, and it's so powerful and so successful so far. It's forced Netanyahu's government to back down. So I don't see, at least in the next few years, the centrist parties in Israel saying, OK, let's also talk about the Palestinians.

ESTRIN: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suspended the judicial overhaul for now, but many in his coalition still support it, and protests are continuing. Palestinian political activist Nour Odeh is following the protests from where she lives in the West Bank, where Israel maintains a military occupation, and there is no democracy.

NOUR ODEH: There is a small, very brave minority among the protesters who are talking about this reality, about apartheid and about occupation. But they remain a very small minority, unfortunately.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling in non-English language).

ESTRIN: A few hundred Jewish Israelis do chant - no to occupation - every week at the democracy protests in Tel Aviv. Protester Ruti Singer is among them, and she says they're not just the usual hardcore leftists.

RUTI SINGER: You see more and more people with these signs, which says, there's no such thing as democracy with occupation.

ESTRIN: Abu Shehadeh, the city council member, wants that message to reach more Israelis.

ABU SHEHADEH: The people who are shouting democracy, why aren't you shouting democracy for everyone? When you're going out and asking for liberty and democracy and afraid of what the right might do to you, why aren't you asking and challenging what are you doing to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza? Why aren't you morally challenging yourself on your role in preserving the occupation?

ESTRIN: He wishes his Palestinian Arab community could take advantage of this opportunity to mobilize themselves and promote that message, even if they're not joining or aren't made to feel welcome at Israel's historic protests. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH'S "EXPERIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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