TEL AVIV – It’s been a long time since this city has seen such a large mass rally for peace and against the Sharon government’s war crimes policy as the one the evening of Feb. 9.

The plaza across the street from the Defense Ministry was filled to capacity by nearly 15,000 Jewish and Arab Palestinian protesters. Some 28 peace organizations called the rally, with the main slogan, “The Occupation is Killing Us All.”

Among the initiators were Gush Shalom, the Women’s Coalition for Peace, the Monitor Committee of the Arab community, the Yesh Gvul organization of army reservists who refuse service in the occupied territories, the Campus Student Association and the Jewish-Palestinian Ta’ayush (“In Common”) solidarity organization for the occupied territories.

Uri Avneri of Gush Shalom opened the rally by reading a message from besieged Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, which was greeted by tumultuous applause from the crowd. Avneri then observed that in the past, Gush Shalom had emphasized that the occupation creates war crimes. “Now,” he said, “after a year of Sharon’s rule, we must state that the occupation itself is a war crime.”

Avneri pointed out that in the extremely dangerous current situation that threatens a major bloodbath in the region, “the unity of all the peace forces, the working together of all Israelis and Arab Palestinians is of utmost importance to fight this common danger.”

Mayor Shawqi Hatib, chair of the Monitor Committee of the Arab-Palestinian population of Israel, emphasized that the one million Arab minority population of Israel, like their Jewish compatriots, condemn all terror and bloodshed, no matter who perpetrates it. Arab Israelis are struggling, together with Jewish forces for peace and democracy, to replace the Sharon regime with a democratic government promoting a real and just peace policy and respect for the Arab people’s rights.

The most impressive feature of the rally was the active contribution by officers and soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories. Major (res.) Yishai Rosen-Tzwi, an initiator of the open letter by 53 officers to war minister Ben-Eliezer refusing to serve in the occupied territories (later published as a newspaper ad), said over 200 reserve officers and soldiers had added their names to the letter.

“While doing your duty in the occupied territories, you are confronted with masses of people sunk by Israel’s rulers in deep misery and daily humiliation,” Rosen-Tzwi said. “And then you get orders to push these people still deeper into misery, not to let them lead a normal life.” He added, “A decent person with a human conscience cannot execute such inhuman and criminal orders.”

Former Education Minister Shulamit Aloni opened her speech by citing a poem written by popular national writer and poet Nathan Alterman 54 years ago during the War of Independence. It denounced the massacres of Palestinians perpetrated by Israeli forces at that time. Today, she said, Army Chief of Staff Mofaz would denounce Alterman as an anti-Israeli left extremist.

She emphasized that Sharon and his collaborators, including Mofaz, “are radically contravening fundamental traditions by policies that arouse indignation of any decent person. They torment the indigenous Palestinian people by military terror, to deprive them of their very existence as human beings, to evict them from their land, owned and tilled by their ancestors for many generations.”

Aloni warned that war criminals tried after earlier wars could not hide behind the excuse of “following superiors’ orders.” Aloni, for many years head of the Peace Now movement, also criticized Peace Now’s refusal to join in the rally and emphasized the urgent need for unity of all Israeli peace movements in order to defeat the Sharon government.

Though Peace Now did not join in sponsoring the Saturday rally, a number of its supporters were in the crowd, and rally organizers called on everyone present to join in Peace Now’s rally scheduled for the following week.