Several thousand demonstrators gathered on Saturday evening, June 6, in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to protest far-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex large parts of the occupied Palestinian West Bank, possibly as early as July 1. The crowd of Jews and Arabs denounced Netanyahu’s annexation saying the move was beneficial to neither Israelis nor Palestinians.
Organized under the initiative of Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) and the Communist Party of Israel (CPI), the rally included participants from numerous organizations: Young Communist League of Israel, Meretz, Coalition of Women for Peace, Rabbis for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence, Crime Minister, Peace Now, Standing Together, Mossawa Center, Yesh Gvul, Mesarvot, Academy for Peace, Gush Shalom, Combatants for Peace, Social Workers for Peace and Social Welfare, Parents Circle – Families Forum, Sikkuy, Ir-Amin, Other Voice, Arab Alternative Planning Center, The School of Peace – Neve Shalom, Zazim, Free Jerusalem, Black Flag – Against Annexation, All That’s Left – Anti-Occupation Collective, Socialist Struggle, Resist Apartheid, and Arab Movement for Equality.
Protesters held aloft a variety of flags (red, Israeli and Palestinian) flags with several dozen holding up pictures of Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old Palestinian man with autism and who was shot dead last week in Jerusalem’s Old City by Israeli border police.
The head of the Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh, who has contracted COVID-19, addressed the rally via a video link from his home in Haifa. He told the crowd, “We are at a crossroads. One path leads to a joint society with a real democracy, civil and national equality for Arab citizens … The second path leads to hatred, violence, annexation and apartheid.” Odeh emphasized “We’re here in Rabin Square to pick the first path” and said that all Jews and Arabs who support peace and justice must oppose Netanyahu’s plan to enact Israeli sovereignty over some 30 percent of the West Bank. He compared the protest against annexation to the Four Mothers protest movement of the late 1990s, which pressured the government of Ehud Barak to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.
MK Nitzan Horowitz, the head of Meretz, told the crowd that annexation would be a “war crime” and would cost Israel millions as the economy is already reeling due to the pandemic. “We cannot replace an occupation of dozens of years with an apartheid that will last forever,” shouted a hoarse Horowitz. “Yes to two states for two peoples, no to violence and bloodshed,” he continued. “No to annexation, yes to peace.” Labor MK Merav Michaeli, who opposed her party’s decision to join the new far-right government, told protesters she came to Rabin Square as a representative of those in the Labor party who oppose annexation. Michaeli said the move would damage relations with Jordan, which along with Egypt is the only Arab country to have full diplomatic ties with Israel, as well a Israel’s close trading relations with the European Union.
Former US presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders addressed the rally in a video link, expressing his support for the protesters and condemning Israel’s annexation plans. Sanders said that he was “heartened” to see Arabs and Jews demonstrating together. “In these difficult days … it has never been more important to stand up for justice, and to fight for the future we all deserve,” the democratic socialist senator said. “It’s up to all of us to stand up to authoritarian leaders and to build a peaceful future for every Palestinian and every Israeli … In the words of my friend Ayman Odeh, ‘The only future is a shared future.’”
Some demonstrators held signs that said “Palestinian Lives Matter,” a nod to America’s Black Lives Matter movement. Ripping a page from the current protests in the US, Peace Now CEO Shaked Morag told demonstrators to take a knee “in memory of George Floyd; in memory of Iyad Halak; in memory of all the victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” “Taking a knee” has become a political gesture in the United States to protest racial oppression and demonstrate solidarity with the oppressed.
Among the other speakers at the rally were former MK Muhammad Barakeh, chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee in Israel, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, and Hadash MK Ofer Cassif (Hadash). Director of Breaking the Silence, Avner Gvaryahu, referred to the imperialist “Deal of the Century,” saying that “Trump isn’t sending his kids to guard the settlements … The children of American annexation supporters cannot kill or be killed in the territories, but our kids can.”
Police Violence after the Rally
After initially telling organizers that they would have to downsize the anti-annexation protest at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Saturday night, purportedly because of coronavirus restrictions, police allowed the rally to take place without limiting its size. However, the original plan of the organizers to lead a march from Rabin Square to the Tel Aviv Museum was abandoned when police refused to issue a permit for the march. A preview of what was to take place on Saturday night occurred 48 hours earlier when on Thursday, June 4, hundreds of demonstrators who participated in a protest against the draconian and authoritarian “Corona Bill” currently being advanced by Israel’s right-wing coalition blocked Ibn Gabirol Street a main thoroughfare in the city adjacent to Rabin Square. Police forcefully broke up the crowd and arrested 12 activists.
Similarly, on Saturday night, after the rally ended, police attacked hundreds of protesters who once again blocked Ibn Gabirol Street (this would have been the route of the march to the Tel Aviv Museum that was originally planned). Five protesters were detained, including a photographer from Haaretz who was covering the protest. The photographer, Tomer Appelbaum, later related the police brutality he experienced: “One punched me, one kneed me and one shoved my head.” Video showed police violently throwing the Haaretz photographer to the ground as he covered the protest. “I tried to film the policemen, and then they decided to arrest me,” Applebaum said.
Partial Victory in the Fight against Silencing of Protest
Despite disappointment in having to abandon the idea of holding a march following the rally, organizers consoled themselves in the police’s acquiescing to the actual holding of the rally. “We did not give in to the attempts to silence us,” they said in a statement, “or give in to annexation, which will perpetuate the occupation and thwart the two-state solution.”
On Friday, MK Odeh said that Saturday’s event should go on as planned. “It isn’t surprising that the only demonstration the police are trying to prevent is an Arab-Jewish one against the annexation and the occupation and for peace and democracy,” he wrote. “The coronavirus is dangerous, but we mustn’t give up the right to protest in public.” Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash) echoed and elaborated this sentiment: “The intention of the authorities to suppress critical anti-occupation voices is another illustration of the shrinking democratic space in Israel under Netanyahu. The protest that worries them the most is one in which Jews and Arabs resist the occupation together.”