Wet and wild

How Tel-Aviv's annual water fight escalated into physical violence

In case you missed it, on Friday Tel-Aviv’s Rabin Square was the scene of a veritable Hobbesian battlefield with Water War 2012.

Early spectators couldn’t help but revel in the fun. As far as the eye could see, Israelis of all ages were soaked to the bone, exchanging water in mock aggression. Occasional taunts pierced the laughter, whistling and splashing — and there was plenty of all to go around. In choice of weapons, no means was overlooked, and the ingenuity that defines both the IDF and Israel’s booming high-tech industry was on full display.

Tel Avivians soak it up on Friday (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Tel Avivians soak it up on Friday (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Unfortunately, however, the naive merrymaking soon gave way to unchecked anarchy. Playfulness took a turn for the worse when water combatants noticed the battlefield’s proximity to one of Tel-Aviv’s busiest streets, and Ibn Gabirol is a full four lanes wide at this section.

It began with harmless — if mischievous — squirting at passing cars, with the occasional open window being exploited. Taxis, in particular, seemed to inspire the ire of early radicals.

But gradually, the small crowd gathered on the margins of Rabin Square turned into a throbbing mass, occupying three adjacent lanes. Drivers were forced to work their way into a bottleneck in the remaining lane, which became a three-fronted ambush with water-fighters blocking oncoming traffic á la Tianenmen Square. Cheers erupted whenever a driver failed to roll up a window in time or else was foolish enough to open the door and try to confront the electrified crowd.

When water-fighters were no longer content to merely “wash” passing cars, one bold young thinker led the rest to a new strategy that targeted public transportation. Ingeniously, the boy grabbed the attention of a passing bus by feinting distress. When the unsuspecting and concerned bus driver opened his door, the floodgates opened — quite literally. The first time, uninvolved spectators and water-fighters alike held their breath for the repercussions. When nothing happened, bated breath gave way to a rumble of cheering from the crowd, which poured into the street en masse. “Bus! Bus! Bus!” they chanted in unison, alerting one another to approaching targets.

When drivers wised up, another young pioneer would lead the way, showing fighters how a small button alongside the bus door could be exploited to override the pressure mechanism and open the door. Participants soon exported this tactic to cars, too, flinging open doors and drenching occupants. Motorcyclists posed another easy target. I literally had to hold my breath every time a motorcyclist braved the flooded street under a barrage of water that threatened to throw him off balance.

By late afternoon, water-fighting tactics matured: the greater the risk, damage and response procured, the greater the cause for jubilation. More than once, a driver tried valiantly to confront the crowd. But this was precisely what they wanted. Behind the veil of numbers, they were anonymous and powerful. It could have been anyone, and everyone knew it. “Solidarity!” they shouted whenever a confrontation was near.

Once, a young water-fighter slipped on his own figurative poison (water from his bucket) while trying to pound a car; this time, roles were reversed and the young boy was pounded by the escaping car and thrown on his face. Decent enough to stop the car, the driver nearly transformed the outraged water-army into a bona fide lynch mob before he could get away.

Eventually, the unchecked aggression went too far for some of the water-fighters who rushed to intervene. These self-styled vigilantes were then greeted with more than just water, and harsh words were followed up by force on more than one occasion.

If you cared to notice, for example, two young IDF soldiers (Leor and Ron) could be seen trying to stave off the harassment by putting themselves in the way. Leor was later admitted to the emergency room. Here’s a video of the incident:

Meanwhile, police stood off to the side and watched as the situation spiraled out of control. From their safe vantage point, the jeers of the crowd could easily be heard; but when urged to do something, they responded blithely, saying, “Our orders are not to get involved.”

What is disturbing is not only that the police were there but wouldn’t act, or that Leor and others had to be hurt by City Hall’s negligence, or even the fact that a beautiful Friday in July was marred by sporadic violence; what’s disconcerting is how easily numbers lubricate and bring out the worst in us. As is often the case, it only takes a handful to ruin it for everyone. As a matter of fact, it only takes one ringleader to draw the dormant wolf within, but it takes a crowd to become complicit in the act by way of silence. The tragedy is that on Friday in Tel Aviv, nearly 400 years after Hobbes, man is still a wolf to man.

About the Author
Adam HJ Broza is an Argov Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya