Heeding a call by Gaza activists to partake in an international solidarity day, Israeli demonstrators assembled in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa Wednesday evening, calling on the government to end the eight-year military blockade imposed on the Hamas-controlled territory.
Across from the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, some 50 protesters were carrying signs reading “stop the Gaza siege” and “Hope for Gaza is hope for us” while chanting “Gaza, Gaza don’t despair, we will end the occupation” and “For every bomb and every drone, someone is making a buck.”
They were not deterred by a report posted on the event’s Facebook page hours earlier that the parallel demonstration in Gaza was violently dispersed by the Hamas government.
Sahar Vardi, a 24-year-old history student at Hebrew University wearing a black t-shirt reading “Gaza my dear” in Hebrew and Arabic, said she and a group of activist friends organized the Jerusalem protest after being asked to do so by a female student in Gaza with whom she was in touch through Facebook and Skype. “We know our message is also not popular with Hamas,” she told the crowd on a loudspeaker. “We’re here to say that it’s not the governments that should get to decide. We must bring about change ourselves.”
“The common denominator of all the people I speak to in Gaza is that they’re in despair,” Vardi said later. “That’s why this event gives me so much hope. Here are young Gazans, many of whom never left the Strip, who despite everything believe in protest and the ability to change. I think it’s incredible.”
Vardi said she was disappointed by the low participant turnout, but noted that the mere existence of three simultaneous demonstrations in Israel is good.
“We were specifically asked by the Gazans to bring their voice to Israel,” she said. “That’s impressive.”
Israel shouldn’t have imposed a siege on Gaza “in response to democratic elections” in the first place, Vardi added, and now understands that the blockade only radicalized Hamas and other Gaza factions.
“The Israeli government already negotiates with Hamas all the time, after every military operation. It discusses easing the siege. So it should make it official and say ‘here is what we’re doing.'”
‘The common denominator of all the people I speak to in Gaza is that they’re in despair… That’s why this event gives me so much hope’
The Israeli government, Vardi asserted, continues to hinder Palestinian efforts to forge unity between Hamas and Fatah, rather than negotiate with the unity government “which really represents Palestinians.”
Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade to prevent Hamas, a terror group avowedly committed to the destruction of Israel, from importing weaponry into Gaza to use against Israel. Hamas fired over 4,500 rockets and other projectiles at Israel during last summer’s 50-day war, and carried out several attacks through tunnels it had dug under the border. Israeli military officials say Hamas has restarted tunneling and rocket production and testing in the aftermath of the conflict. Hamas seized control of the Strip in a violent coup against the Palestinian Authority in 2007, two years after Israeli evacuated all its settlements and its military forces from Gaza.
At the street corner Wednesday night, composition student Amit Biton faced the traffic holding a sign that read “the wars in Gaza are not fate.” During operation Protective Edge last summer, Biton was physically assaulted at a similar demonstration around the corner while holding a sign reading “Stop the occupation.”
“It’s a small sacrifice compared to that of others,” he said.
According to Biton, Israeli “confidence building measures” such as lifting the military blockade, would weaken Hamas and encourage moderate forces in the Gaza Strip. Opening the Gaza Strip to Israel is a risk, he acknowledged, but so is leaving it closed, a situation that will inevitably lead to further violence.
“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot in our treatment of Gaza and the West Bank,” he said. “Our policy is only geared at overrunning them with force, rather than allowing normal relations to emerge … it’s time for us to be the mature party in the region, not the bully. We deserve much better than this.”
Judy Blanc, 86, a self-defined “progressive person,” told The Times of Israel she attends all demonstrations under the banner of “stop the occupation.” The New York native who emigrated to Israel in 1954 said she missed the Israel of her youth.
“I think Israel is not going in the right direction,” she said. “When I came in 1954 it was a social-democratic country. The kibbutzim were the elite, and that was a good thing. But certainly that wasn’t the end of it, because there was Palestine and there was conflict.”
Blanc said she visited Gaza 30 or 40 years ago, “but it was also difficult then.”
“Israel is so powerful and the Palestinians are so weak that I think we have to begin at the beginning. There are Israelis and Palestinians who can negotiate.”
Standing among a group of North Americans youngsters, Toronto-resident Isaac Kates Rose, a New Israel Fund / Shatil Social Justice Fellow working with Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem, said he came to show support for the youth of Gaza and “investing hope in the next generation both in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.”
“One of the more dangerous traps that the Jewish world at large and especially the Israeli public have fallen into is the idea that the policies of the Netanyahu administration have brought security,” he said. Nationalistic violence across Jerusalem in recent months has proven that Operation Protective Edge has been counterproductive.
“People in this city, Jerusalem, seemed to be dying on a weekly basis and security was nowhere to be found,” he said.
As the demonstration drew to a close, one participant notified the crowd that the IDF had just decided to return 15 confiscated Palestinian fishing boats to their Gazan owners.
“I don’t think this is a coincidence,” she said. “If our actions bring about positive change, we should demonstrate every week.”