Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated for an end to the nation's "iron fist" policy in the occupied territories Saturday, presenting the government with its most significant internal challenge during the current outbreak of unrest among the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In Tel Aviv, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Jewish citizens took part in the biggest protest march here since Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. And in a gesture of protest in Nazareth, an Arab member of the Knesset (Parliament) resigned from the troubled Labor Alignment in the surprise climax to a noisy but peaceful anti-government demonstration by an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Arab citizens of Israel.
The demonstrations came after more than six weeks of rock throwing and other violent protests in the occupied areas, during which at least 36 Palestinians have died from Israeli gunfire. Hundreds of other Palestinians have been injured by gunshots or beatings, and as many as 300,000 at a time have been restricted to their homes under curfews.
Sponsored by Peace Group
The Tel Aviv protest was sponsored by the Peace Now group, a loose amalgam of leftist and moderate organizations and individuals that had also organized demonstrations against Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Only a 1982 Peace Now rally that drew an estimated 400,000 Israelis was bigger in numbers than Saturday's affair.
The half-mile-long march and the two hours of speeches had, on the surface, a tone reminiscent of the peaceful phase of the American anti-war protest movement of the 1960s.
The marchers, including many families and older people, carried lighted candles and sang peace songs as well as the romantic ballads of the idealistic days of Israel's founding. And as the vanguard of the huge crowd entered the rally site in downtown Tel Aviv's Kings of Israel Square, it was greeted by recordings of Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind," a staple of the U.S. anti-war movement.
But if the tone was nostalgic for an American observer, the message of the posters, chants and speeches was bitter and angry about the "iron fist" policy and its announced tactic of beating rock-throwing Arab young people.
One large placard showed a cartoon drawing of an Israeli soldier beating an Arab youth while he said, "Don't worry, you don't die from this."
Another sign carried the message, "The Territories Are Occupying Israel," an ironic play on the phrase "occupied territories." Periodically, the demonstrators would chant, "Free us from the territories," another sarcastic reference to the occupation and the near obsessive hold that the issue has on the nation.
Another chant was blunt to the point of brutality: "Four, three, two, one, we're going to beat the dwarf," a reference to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is below average in height.
The announcement in Nazareth of Abdel Wahab Darousha's resignation after 23 years as a member of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' Labor Alignment is not likely to have any immediate political impact, since Darousha is expected to remain in the Knesset.
New Political Bloc Possible
But his move was seen as a possible first step in the creation of a political bloc that could have an important impact on parliamentary elections scheduled for November. Such a bloc could give the 700,000 Arabs who live as full citizens inside Israel's pre-1967 borders considerably more leverage than they now possess to affect the national debate.
"I wanted to leave in protest over (Defense Minister Yitzhak) Rabin's 'iron fist' policy and to say to the party as a peace lover that I cannot support this policy," Darousha said in an interview. He called his decision "official and final," but he evaded the question of whether he will try to organize a new Arab party.
There are currently five Arab members in the Knesset, but political observers estimate that if Israeli Arabs voted as a bloc, they could control as many as 12 seats in the 120-seat Parliament. That could make them the third-largest group in the assembly and theoretically allow them to play a power broker's role in dealings with the bigger blocs of Peres and Shamir.
Speaking at the Nazareth rally, Darousha called on all other Arab members of Labor as well as the party's dovish wing to also quit in protest over what he characterized as Labor's increasing tilt to the right.
More Than Just Politics
More than political considerations appeared to be at work in galvanizing many of the Tel Aviv demonstrators. Galia Golan, a Peace Now organizer, said she had expected only about 20,000 to attend Saturday night's affair.
She said the much larger turnout reflects the fact that more and more citizens do not accept Shamir's rationalization that occupation of the territories and the use of heavy force against protesters are matters of national security.
"Not all who are here," she said in an interview, "want a Palestinian state or to start negotiations with the PLO. But this is a moral issue. Israelis do not want a country where their children are told it's OK to beat people and sit on their land."
This view was supported in conversations with several others at the rally. One elderly couple, former refugees who came to Israel from Egypt in 1957, said they had never attended an anti-government rally before.
"But I wanted to be here tonight," the woman said. "I had to be here. This can't go on."
David Gordon, an immigrant from Britain, said that he and his wife had brought their young daughter because "it is important that the politicians realize we aren't just leftist college students.
Wants Nation to Survive
"I want to see this country survive, and the only way to do that is to accept that other people have the same rights to survival as we do," Gordon said.
David Latani, a well-known Israeli folk singer and participant in past protests, said: "People forget that we've had these (demonstrations) before. They didn't stop the government, and I don't believe this will do any good either. The people are moving to the right and they believe force is the only way to deal with the Arabs."
The current unrest erupted Dec. 9 in the Gaza Strip in the wake of rumors that a Dec. 8 traffic accident, which claimed the lives of four Gaza Arabs, was a deliberate act by the driver of an Israeli truck. The disturbances have since spread to the West Bank of the Jordan River, with its larger Palestinian population, and assumed the character of a general protest against Israel's occupation of the two territories and the tactics it has used to cope with the unrest.
Saturday's demonstration in Nazareth was the second by Arabic citizens of Israel since Dec. 9. These citizens organized a "Peace Day" strike Dec. 21 that resulted in violence in several Arab towns and sent a political tremor through the Israeli heartland.
Powerful Arab Ties
The experience showed that while Israel's Arabs are generally loyal to the state, they still feel powerful ties to the Palestinians in the territories and back the latter's wishes to create an independent state of their own next door to Israel.
"We are one people, and the bond is always there," commented Mayor Ibrahim Nimr Hussein of Shfaram, Israel's second-largest Arab town behind Nazareth. "But when the situation gets tougher, the bond gets stronger."
There was no strike call Saturday, but the Rev. Shehadeh Shehadeh, a leading Protestant cleric in the north and member of the demonstration organizing committee, said that if Israel doesn't change its practices in the territories "we are ready to make (a strike) again--we see this as our right."
Nazarenes crowded balconies and rooftops along the route of Saturday's march under warm, partly cloudy skies. Buses brought marchers from as far south as Jerusalem, and a pro-Palestine Liberation Organization radio station broadcasting from southern Lebanon even advised listeners about routes and schedules.
One youth, his face covered with a checkered kaffiyeh, briefly raised an outlawed Palestinian flag. But otherwise the marchers mostly carried banners and signs criticizing government policy in the territories and calling for an international Middle East peace conference.
"Israel--Palestine; Two States--Two Peoples," one sign read.
"Rabin: How Many Palestinians Have You Killed This Month?" asked another in English.
While most groups in the march chanted or sang noisily, one, composed mostly of what appeared to be high school students, remained eerily quiet. They were preceded by a banner reading: "Martyr Rest. We Will Continue the Struggle." Each student carried an individual black sign with white lettering giving the name and age of one of the fatalities of the unrest.
Kenneth Freed reported from Tel Aviv and Dan Fisher from Nazareth.
L.A. Jewish leaders cope with doubts over unrest. Part II Page 1.