It all began with a tree in Turkey

published: 15.11.2013

Whoever visits Istanbul these days and speaks to the youngsters gathered in Gezi Park, discovers a new spirit – the spirit of Taksim Square.

It all began a year ago with the Turkish government's plan to build a "redevelopment project" in the historical Gezi park, including high rise buildings, tunnel entrances and walls that endanger vehicles and civilians. Despite opposition by the Cultural Heritage Board, by architects and vast parts of the public, the government pushed ahead.

In the end of May, bulldozers entered the park and started uprooting one ancient tree after another. Members of the newly founded "Taksim Solidarity" movement and concerned citizens convened in the park and stopped the bulldozers. Around 50 people pitched tents and decided to spend the night in the park to keep a "Gezi park watch."

The sit-in brought about unprecedented police violence, as thousands of people assembled in the park, were brutally attacked with tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, etc. The toll was heavy: a few protesters were killed and some 8,000 people were wounded. Some remained blind and hospitals were given strict orders not to treat them. About 34 journalists covering the events were arrested and accused of incitement. They are still in Turkish prisons. Asked on Turkish television who had given the order to violently curb the protests, Prime Minister Recep Ergdogan proudly announced: "It was me."

This all happened at a time that more and more Turkish citizens feel the brunt of the growing repression of their government. When women's personal liberties and choices are being curtailed, and when Erdogan declares that he wants to "roll back Turkish history by two hundred years" – meaning cancelling all the progress made as a result of Ataturk's revolution.

Thus, the peaceful protest of people who love nature and want to preserve their cultural heritage and the city's most important public space, turned into a political force demanding freedom, democracy and social solidarity.

As tents multiplied, and more people from all walks of life joined in, so did hundreds of banners representing different groups – Muslims, Christian, Jews, students, writers, human rights groups, and the mixture of their colors spoke louder than words of their quest for pluralism and the respect of diversity.

Taksim Square Solidarity, the movement born out of these protests, gathers people from all over the country – actors, actresses, journalists, artists and intellectuals, as well as 126 various professional bodies, NGO's, trade unions, political parties and neighborhood associations. They carry on, unabated with their high profile struggle.

Turkish writer Ihsan Eliacik passionately said: "We are not enemies of the government, we did not prepare a coup d'Etat. Gezi Park, which started as a dream for a few, became a dream of thousands. A dream of freedom and democracy. This is how Revolutions start. These youngsters are the new Revolution."

It is difficult to predict today what the future holds in store for the "Taksim Square Solidarity" movement. Contrary to what happened in some of the Arab countries, this body rests on the solid support of the organized civil society -- on workers unions, on public campaigns and on a political party active in Parliament -- and their struggle will continue even if it takes a long time.

The youngsters I met there on a recent visit are enthusiastic, highly motivated and determined. Looking into their eyes, I saw the same fire, the same passion, that brought the hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets two years ago, demanding social justice.

And yet, I could not help but think that we, in Israel, are privileged to live in a democratic society which guarantees the freedom of assembly and of speech and where the government does not give marching orders to the police to brutally crush protests.

Colette Avital is a former Israeli ambassador and former member of Knesset

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