TEL AVIV, Israel - Some 7,000 Israelis on Saturday evening protested the war in Gaza under the banner: "No more deaths - Israeli-Palestinian peace, now." According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, it was the largest protest against the Israeli military operation in Gaza thus far. With Israel having a population of about 8 million, it was the equivalent of a rally of about 250,000 in the U.S.
It took place in Rabin Square in central Tel Aviv. The square is named for Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who negotiated the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization and was assassinated by an Israeli right-wing extremist in 1995.
Slogans chanted by the protesters included "Stop the war," "Bring the soldiers back home" and "Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies." Participants called for an end to the fighting and a return to negotiations to end the occupation of Palestinian territories. They lit memorial candles among photos of the dead, both Israelis and Palestinians.
The protest was organized by Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), of which the Israeli Communist Party is a leading component; Combatants for Peace, composed of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters; and The Parents' Circle - Families Forum, an organization of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families.
Speakers included Knesset (Parliament) member Dov Khenin, who is a leader of the Israeli Communist Party; an Israeli captain in the reserves and a Palestinian veteran from Ramallah in the West Bank, both from Combatants for Peace; Ben Kfir of The Parents' Circle - Families Forum; Yifat Solel, head of the left-wing Zionist Meretz party's anti-occupation forum; Professor Eva Illouz, president of Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Israel's 107-year-old national art school; writer Odeh Basharat, columnist for Haaretz and the Palestinian newspaper al-Ittihad; and Dr. Julia Chaitlin, a lecturer at Sapir Academic College in Sderot and resident of kibbutz Urim in southern Israel near Gaza. The Meretz party and Peace Now organization had opted not to take part in the rally, according to Israel's Channel 2.
"So many heartbreaking moments happened this month," Khenin told the rally, as reported by Haaretz. "A son crying over his father's grave, a mother weeping for her son, and many pictures of the wounded and dead. Behind each picture is a name, a family. We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?"
The Israeli government, he said, should support the recently formed Palestinian unity government headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and negotiate for a peaceful just solution.
Kfir, whose daughter was killed in a Hamas suicide bombing in 2003, also spoke, and challenged the government's claim that there is no partner for peace among the Palestinians. He and other speakers criticized the Israeli government for its negative attitude toward peace negotiations, and for making war its default policy. Kfir noted, ""The infrastructure of terrorism is ignorance, poverty and despair. It is with these we must deal."
Roughly 300 extreme right-wing counter-protesters were on the scene trying to sabotage the main demonstration. According to Haaretz, they "shouted 'Death to the leftists'" and "merrily sang 'Why is there no school in Gaza? Because no more kids are left.'" A large police presence circled the square to keep the sides separate. Several of the rightists were arrested.
The invitation to the peace protest read: "On Saturday, the peace camp takes a stand at Rabin Square. The war is taking a heavy toll in lives and injuries on both sides, in destruction and horror, in bombings and rockets. We answer this by taking a stand and making a demand: end the war now!"
"We must end the war and start talking with the recognized Palestinian leadership of the West Bank and Gaza to end the occupation and the siege and to achieve independence and justice for both peoples - in Israel and Palestine."
"Instead of being drawn, again and again, into more wars and more military actions, it is now time to lead the way to dialogue and a political settlement. There is a political solution. What price must we pay - the people of the South and the other residents of Israel, and the people of Gaza and the West Bank - until we reach that solution? Together, Jews and Arabs, we will overcome occupation and war, hatred, incitement and racism - and offer a path to life and hope."
Photo: A scene at Saturday's peace rally in Tel Aviv, Israel. Combatants for Peace Facebook page