NAZARETH, northern Israel — Before the mass rally in support of Gaza turned violent Monday afternoon, dispersed with tear gas and “skunk” water cannons, slogans were chanted and speeches delivered.
The procession left from outside the Church of the Annunciation and moved slowly toward the Mahmoud Darwish Cultural Center. Thousands of protesters heeded the call of the High Follow-Up Committee — the largest Arab-Israeli umbrella organization — and took to the streets waving large Palestinian flags. Some were carrying posters of mangled Palestinian children with the Hebrew words “The Israeli bank of targets.”
They were unmistakably Israeli: men in trendy sunglasses and gelled hair, women in skinny jeans and tank tops; Palestinian keffiyehs wrapped around their shoulders. Some were wearing crucifix necklaces, others the communist hammer and sickle.
The High Follow-Up Committee had declared a general strike across the Arab sector Monday to protest an IDF operation in the Hamas stronghold of Shejaiya the previous day, which left some 70 Gazans dead and hundreds injured, according to Palestinian medical reports, along with over a dozen Israeli soldiers. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman responded with a public call on Jews to boycott the businesses of the protesting Arabs. Nevertheless, all the shops in Nazareth were shuttered, as they were in other Arab towns along my route from Jerusalem.
Seated next to me on the bus was 19-year-old Younis Abdullah from Ein Naqouba, a village outside Jerusalem. He was hoping to start studying software engineering in Haifa next year, meanwhile working as a “writer” at Shaarei Zedek hospital, employed on Shabbat to preform tasks that Jewish nurses are prohibited from doing.
“I came to express my opposition to Israel’s oppressive policies against innocent people in Gaza,” Abdallah said. “I’m sure the demonstration will be peaceful; that’s the most important thing.”
At the rally, Abdallah volunteered to serve as my personal “writer,” quickly jotting down chants including “Gaza will not succumb to tanks and mortars” and “We warmly salute the children of the stones.” The city’s billboards were covered with handwritten posters reading “Israel is the source of terror” and “Boogie [Ya'alon], minister of defense, how many children have you killed until today?”
The mainstream Israeli Jewish understanding of the war with Hamas as a defense against terrorism, rocket fire, “attack tunnels,” and the Islamist organization’s fundamental opposition to Israel, had little resonance here.
And as much rage as they had for Israel, a unique sense of betrayal was directed at the Arab world and primarily Egypt; which they widely considered Israel’s main accomplice in the onslaught on Gaza. “Destroy, O people, all the reactionary powers,” marchers chanted. A poster on the wall read “Shame on the reactionary Arab regimes.” One protester punned that he wanted “a siyassi (political) solution, not a Sissi solution.”
At the Darwish Center, behind a protester carrying a sign reading “Sissi is the hero of Israel” — a reference to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi who submitted a ceasefire agreement endorsed by Israel and the West but rejected by Hamas — Muhammad Zidan, head of the High Follow-Up Committee, began to speak.
“We are here to raise our voices against Israel’s barbaric aggression,” he said. “To the Israeli establishment, our message is that the logic of power is history. The only solution is ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state.”
Zidan appealed to PA President Mahmoud Abbas to stand up publicly against Israel, and to the Palestinian “resistance” in Gaza to refrain from a ceasefire until the blockade is removed from the Strip.
“I am most surprised by the Egyptian position,” he added. “I don’t understand how it can shut its gates in the face of the injured. This position does not reflect the Egyptian street. It’s shameful. To witness children dying and not help is not just to be an accomplice to the crime, it’s to be its source.”
As the demonstration came to a close and people started heading home, Hunsniya, a 50-year-old veiled woman from the Galilee town of Tamra, said she agreed with Zidan.
“The greater responsibility is the Arabs’, more than anyone else,” she said. “Arabs should support the government of Gaza, their blood brothers. It should be the Arabs who stand with us, not other foreign countries.”
Arab regimes, she continued, reject the principle of democracy manifested in Hamas’s Islamic government. “They refuse true Islam,” she said. “Our system is based on ideal democracy. But the Arab regimes don’t want that, they want dictatorship.”
As she was speaking, a large group of youths — some of them masked — broke away from the main procession and headed for the highway leading into Nazareth, to confront police. The police declared the gathering illegal and began firing tear gas and stun grenades. Policemen on galloping horses dispersed the crowd, which started running back toward the Church of the Annunciation through streets littered with burning debris.
I also started running, Younis Abdullah of Ein Naqouba at my side. But as we veered left into a deadend ally to avoid the crowd, we were cornered by border police. Abdullah was mistaken for a rioter, handcuffed, and taken to the Nazareth police station for questioning.
On the way back to Jerusalem, Du’aa Ali Nasser of Nazareth, an occupational therapy student at Jenin’s American University, reflected on the fact that these days pro-Gaza demonstrations can scarcely take place in any Arab capital.
“Even in Ramallah, government security prevents protest,” she noted sadly. This, she added, was the result of Israeli and American control over the Middle East, “if not the entire world.”
“I sense more Western solidarity than Arab solidarity with Gaza,” she said.
Previously confined to the West Bank and Jerusalem, large pro-Gaza rallies were a new phenomenon in Israeli Arab cities, Nasser noted. Perhaps citizens had been fearful of government harassment or of destroying delicate relations with Jewish co-workers, she speculated. Many relatives spoke to her of newly pronounced Jewish hostility, “even from people on the political center.”
A sour attempt at dialogue with a Jewish high school in Sderot back in 2008 left Nasser disheartened by the possibility of coexistence.
“There were many verbal confrontations and abuses between us,” she said. “The idea was coexistence, but I came out feeling that coexistence won’t work.”