Unprovoked police attacks marred an otherwise peaceful rally of Palestinians, Israelis and Europeans who joined hands Saturday in the biggest demonstration of the two-year-old Arab uprising.
Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and truncheons to break up crowds that had gathered outside the historic Old City of Jerusalem.
At least 50 participants were reported to be hospitalized with mostly light wounds and welts and another 50 were arrested, police said. All but 16 Palestinians were released by nightfall, a spokesman said. Two thousand municipal and border police were on hand for the rally.
An Italian woman in the Pilgrims Palace Hotel suffered severe damage to an eye when green dye sprayed from a police water cannon burst windows along the upper floors and sent shards flying inside. In another incident, police overshot their mark with tear gas canisters and gassed a unit of their comrades.
The tumult took place in Arab-populated East Jerusalem near the Damascus Gate, one of the main entrances to the walled enclave that encompasses shrines of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.
Police also raided the National Palace Hotel in East Jerusalem and sprayed tear gas into a packed lobby where Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini was preparing to give a post-demonstration press conference.
“Today, even with a permit to hold a demonstration, you can see that the police used brutality,” said Husseini, who is associated with the mainstream Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“We, the Palestinian people, have the same experience every day,” he said. “But today, we are not alone.”
Despite the short outbursts of violence, most rally-goers, which included women and children, stood calmly, held hands and, at one preplanned moment, launched colored balloons aloft in the unseasonably clear skies. Pacifist anthems such as “We Shall Overcome” and “Give Peace a Chance” blared from loudspeakers near Jaffa Road, Jerusalem’s main commercial street.
The goal of completely encircling the Old City with a human chain was foiled as large groups collected near main intersections and city gates. Crowds on the side of the city facing the Mount of Olives were sparser.
No one unfurled Palestinian flags or threw stones, both of which commonly incite police to crack down. Police said they attacked demonstrators because they were shouting “nationalist slogans,” government radio reported.
Some youthful demonstrators shouted “Long live Abu Amar!” the Arabic nom de guerre of PLO chief Yasser Arafat, but most people settled on shouting “We want peace!” in a variety of languages.
The rally was organized by European peace groups, the Israeli Peace Now movement and Palestinian activists and was meant to show support for negotiations to end the Arab uprising on the basis of giving the Palestinians an independent state alongside Israel.
“There are Israelis joining hands with Palestinians, and this means compromise,” said Galia Golan, an organizer from Peace Now. Golan said that the estimated crowd of about 20,000 was larger than expected, given the police blockade set up to intercept participants from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At least a third of the crowd was made up of Israeli Jews.
Palestinian leaders said that the rally heralded “a new phase” of protest and suggested that there may be more such demonstrations in tandem with Israeli peace groups. “Joint activity is a way of showing that on both sides, there is a demand for a just solution,” said Hanna Siniora, editor of Al Fajr, a newspaper in East Jerusalem.
The government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir lashed out at the demonstrators, and there were calls from members of his Likud Party to prohibit such events in the future. Pinhas Goldstein, a member of Likud, called the Israeli and European demonstrators “tools of Israel’s enemies,” government radio said.
Teddy Kollek, the longtime mayor of Jerusalem, criticized foreign participation. “I have my doubts about guests who visit for an hour, create a disturbance and leave us to cope with the damage to years of efforts to foster coexistence,” he said on the eve of the rally.
Peaceful mass rallies have been rare during the past 18 months of the intifada, as the uprising is known. Rallies are forbidden for Palestinians, and police routinely break up crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets. Only the umbrella of European and Israeli participation made Saturday’s rally possible, Arab organizers said.
Several Israelis present were shocked by the police action. Menahem Bluzer and his wife, Yorit, both Israeli citizens from Rehovot, were bruised in the head by rubber bullets.
“We were standing alone. The crowd had already run off. A policeman saw us clearly. He took aim and fired right at us,” said Menahem Bluzer, who wore a bandage around his head. His wife showed a large welt on her forehead.
“I am ashamed. I am not pleased to tell this story. The police--our police--shot at us without reason,” Bluzer said.
The demonstration followed weeks of negotiations among the Europeans, Palestinians and Israelis to agree on a common theme. Some hard-line Palestinian activists opposed joining hands with Israelis while Arabs are being shot down in the street and imprisoned by the thousands.
In a brief speech at the northwest corner of the Old City, Husseini evidently sought to balance the line between militancy and showing empathy for Israelis. “We must respect our people who have been killed and who are in jail,” he said.
“We also have respect for Israelis who are in jail for opposing the occupation,” he added, in reference to about 100 Israeli soldiers who have served short prison sentences for refusing to do military duty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Palestinian citizens in general welcomed the participation of foreigners, but its effect on Israelis, who have grown mistrustful of a critical outside world, is harder to gauge. Even Israeli peace activists were wondering about not having staged the rally themselves.
“There is a certain discomfort about having foreigners participate. After all, this is our struggle, the Israelis and Palestinians,” said Sidra Ezrahi, an Israeli peace activist.
The Europeans included about 900 from Italy and smaller groups from Britain, West Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries, as well as a small number of Palestinian-Americans.