Supporters of Israel rallied in front of the country's consulate in Los Angeles on Sunday as the Jewish state continued to defend itself against an international outcry over a deadly raid on a pro-Palestinian aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip last week.
"Today we call all the world to wake up," said Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan, who addressed the cheering crowd while wrapped in his national flag. "Those who led the flotilla were not peace activists. Those who tried to murder our soldiers were not freedom fighters."
Protesters said Israel has been unfairly criticized for enforcing a blockade that is necessary to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls Gaza and refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist.
"Every other country in the world has the right to defend itself, and Israel, which does it in a very humanitarian way, is vilified and damned," said Ira Cohen, a Los Angeles podiatrist who held up a handwritten sign saying, "Mr. President, you must support Israel."
Los Angeles police estimated the crowd in front of the consulate in the 6300 block of Wilshire Boulevard at about 2,200. It was the latest of several recent Los Angeles demonstrations supporting and opposing Israel's raid.
Israel's actions have brought widespread international condemnation and threatened its relations with Turkey, once an important Muslim ally. Nine activists were killed last Monday in a clash with Israeli commandos who rappelled from helicopters onto the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara. On Saturday, Israel's navy seized another protest vessel trying to reach the Gaza Strip without incident.
Aid groups say the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt has done little to weaken Hamas and has devastated Gaza's economy, leaving 80% of the territory's 1.5 million residents dependent on international aid. The Obama administration says it is working quietly to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to relax the policy.
A parade of local and state politicians dropped by Sunday's demonstration, which was organized by the Israeli Consulate, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and other community groups. They included Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner, Republican Senate contender Chuck DeVore, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D- Sherman Oaks), Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Council members Paul Koretz and Janice Hahn.
From the podium, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke by cellphone to Noam Shalit, father of Israeli
soldier Gilad Shalit, whose capture four years ago was part of what prompted
Israel's blockade. He is still being held by Hamas in Gaza.
"I'm a father of four children. I cannot even imagine in my wildest dreams that one of my children [should be] kidnapped and be held for all these years," Schwarzenegger said. "We all are concerned and we all love you and we want to pray for you and your son, that he gets released as quickly as possible."
Daniel Pereg, who was captured on YouTube carrying an Israeli flag at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Los Angeles last week, received loud applause from the crowd.
But a speech by David Pine of Americans for Peace Now, which has been critical of the Israeli government, was drowned out by boos and hisses. Organizers appealed to the crowd to allow him to speak.
Also making appearances were Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight and Judea Pearl, whose son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped and killed in 2002 while investigating Al Qaeda activities in Pakistan. Several Christian groups also were represented at the rally.