In Tel Aviv: 100,000 rally for peace

TEL AVIV - Over 100,000 demonstrators filled Rabin Square here May 11 under the slogans, 'End the occupation that kills us all,' and 'Sharon leads us to a catastrophe.'

The protest was initiated by Peace Now, but the mass attendance was assured by the active participation of other Peace Coalition partners, including the Gush Shalom peace bloc, the Hadash Front for Peace and Equality, the Women for Peace coalition and others. A strong contingent was formed by the 'refuseniks,' more than 1,000 officers and reservists who refuse to serve in the occupied territories. Slogans on many banners and posters called for 'Two states for our two peoples ? Israel and Palestine,' and 'Jerusalem, capital of Israel and Palestine.'

'From this rally the message goes to Prime Minister Sharon that there is no consensus for his anti-Palestinian military operation,' Yossi Sareed, parliamentary opposition leader in the Knesset and chair of the Meretz Party, told the crowd. 'The very important message that there is a strong and growing peace camp in Israel is not sent to the Israeli government alone, but also the Arab world and the international community at large.'

Stopping short of a demand to eliminate them all, Sareed also called for removal of 'those settlements which stand in the way of peace.'

Knesset member Yossi Beilin, speaking for the so-called Doves in the government coalition Labor Party, observed that while President Bush has called Sharon 'a man of peace,' Sharon is shying away from any real peace effort as from the devil's grandmother. 'Sharon is leading our nation, and maybe the entire region, into a catastrophe,' Beilin said.

Observers noted that the speakers' list was much more limited than the forces that make up the broad coalition filling the square. No 'refusenik' spoke, nor did any speaker of consequence from the Peace Coalition.

Since the Jewish ultra-fundamentalist terror group Gilat Shalhevet ('Cheerful Flame') had threatened that some of the program participants at the rally were targeted for attack, the protest was guarded by 1,500 armed police.

Popular singer Yaffa Yarkoni sang several songs despite the especially strong threat she received for publicly supporting the 'refuseniks' and opposing Sharon's 'Defense Wall Operation.' Well-known author Amos Oz and comedian Dudu Topaz also addressed the demonstration.

Very early the same Saturday, a group from the Jewish-Arab Ta'ayush (coexistence) movement arrived at the Kissufim checkpoint crossing into the Gaza Strip. They called on the soldiers manning the checkpoint to follow the example of the more than 1,000 reservists who refuse service to oppress the Palestinian people, and leave their post to return home.

At the same time, three truckloads of solidarity aid for the suffering Gaza Strip population ? mostly canned food, baby food and clothes and medicines ? were transferred to trucks arriving from the Palestinian side of the frontier.

Contrasted with Saturday's anti-Sharon mass peace rally, the next day's Likud Party resolution nixing a Palestinian state at any time in the future, which followed a very raucous (televised) session of the ruling Likud Party's Central Council, resembled a horror story from out of this world.

In fact, it was a sharp controversy between the party's chair, Prime Minister Sharon, and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is challenging Sharon as party leader and in the next premiership elections in Israel. Netanyahu used the gimmick of the widespread opposition to a Palestinian state among the right-wing party's membership to attack Sharon.

Netanyahu censured Sharon for bowing to U.S. pressures by talking about a possible future Palestinian state. Sharon in turn recalled that Netanyahu had shaken hands with the 'arch-terrorist' Arafat (at the 1997 Wye plantation talks) while he, Sharon, had never done nor ever would do such an abominable thing.

Sharon, undoubtedly keeping in mind his allies in the international arena, Washington and the European Union, maintained that a Palestinian state was neither imminent nor an actual point of discussion, and called for postponement of the vote until a time when the question might become actual.

In secret ballot, Sharon's resolution was defeated 59 to 41 percent. After this came Netanyahu's motion, out of the blue, nixing a Palestinian state at any time in the future, which was adopted by a clear majority vote of raised hands.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org