Thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv Saturday evening to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to begin annexing parts of the West Bank next month.
Police initially sought to block the rally but backtracked Friday after meeting with organizers, who urged participants to wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Dozens of officers were securing the demonstration after police said attendance would be capped at 2,000, though the Haaretz daily put turnout at 6,000 people in what appeared to be the largest protest in the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The demonstration was organized by the left-wing Meretz party and the communist Hadash faction of the majority-Arab Joint List, along with several other left-wing rights groups.
MK Nitzan Horowitz, the head of Meretz, told the crowd that annexation would be a “war crime” and would cost Israel millions as the economy is already reeling due to the pandemic.
“We cannot replace an occupation of dozens of years with an apartheid that will last forever,” shouted a hoarse Horowitz. “Yes to two states for two peoples, no to violence and bloodshed,” he continued. “No to annexation, yes to peace.”
Horowitz said “annexation is a war crime, a crime against peace, a crime against humanity, a crime that will result in bloodshed.”
He called out Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Economy Minister Amir Peretz, accusing them of “raising their hands and crawling to the other side.”
The three center-left lawmakers had pledged not to sit in a government with Netanyahu, citing the premier’s indictment on graft charges, but after Israel’s third inconclusive election in March agreed to join him in a coalition.
The coalition deal signed between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White allows the prime minister to begin moving forward with annexation on July 1. The parts of the West Bank that Israel will extend sovereignty over are those earmarked for it under US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.
“You have no mandate to approve this apartheid. You have no mandate to bury peace,” Horowitz yelled. The Meretz head claimed Netanyahu was being pushed to carry out the controversial move by the “messianic” Trump administration.
“Make some noise so no one thinks that we’re a bunch of nerds,” the emcee shouted at the crowd after Horowitz’s speech.
Fellow Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg savaged Trump’s peace plan as “a cursed deal between one man who’s trying to win an election and another who’s trying to escape a corruption trial,” referring respectively to the US president and Netanyahu.
“Trump is not a friend of Israel. Bibi [Netanyahu] is not good for Israel,” she said, ironically echoing settler leaders who oppose the US plan due to its backing for a Palestinian state. “This [peace] deal has nothing to do with what is good for us, Israelis and Palestinians who live here in the Middle East.”
She said the agreement would “officially make Israel an apartheid state… [Enacting] sovereignty [in the West Bank] without [granting] citizenship [to Palestinians] is apartheid,” she asserted.
Also addressing the rally was Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, who spoke from quarantine by video link after a member of his party contracted COVID-19. Odeh said all Jews and Arabs who support peace and justice must oppose Netanyahu’s plan to enact Israeli sovereignty over some 30 percent of the West Bank.
“Annexation is apartheid,” Odeh told the cheering protesters.
Odeh compared the protest against annexation to the Four Mothers protest movement in the late 1990s, which pressed the government to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.
Labor MK Merav Michaeli, who opposed her party’s decision to join the new government, told protesters she came to Rabin Square as a representative of those in her center-left faction who oppose annexation.
Michaeli said the move will damage relations with Jordan, which along with Egypt is the only Arab country to have full ties with Israel, as well as with close trade partners in Europe.
She also bashed Gantz for agreeing to join a government that would carry out such a move.
Vermont senator and former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders addressed the rally in a video message from the US.
“I’m extremely heartened to see so many of you, Arabs and Jews alike, standing up for peace, justice and democracy,” the self-described Democratic socialist said.
He added: “The plans to annex any parts of the West Bank must be stopped. The occupation must be ended and we must work together for a future of equality and dignity for all people in Israel and Palestine.”
Some of the protesters waved Israeli, Palestinian and Communist flags, with several dozen holding up pictures of Iyad Halak, a Palestinian man with autism who was shot dead by police last week in Jerusalem’s Old City. Police said they believed Halak had a gun; he was unarmed and holding a cellphone, and apparently did not understand the officers’ orders to stop.
Ripping a page from protests in the US, Peace Now CEO Shaqued Morag told demonstrators to take a knee “in memory of George Floyd. In memory of Iyad Halak. In memory of all the victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
After the protest ended, police cleared a group of protesters who illegally blocked Ibn Gabirol street, a main thoroughfare in the city that runs by Rabin Square.
שקד מורג עכשיו בכיכר:
אנחנו חיים בעולם שבו בני אדם מאבדים את חייהם בגלל גזענות ושנאת חינם.
בואו ניצור הערב בכיכר כולנו תמונה שהעולם כולו יראה. נזכיר שחיי אדם הם הערך המקודש ביותר.
בואו נכרע יחד ברך
לזכר ג'ורג פלויד.
לזכר איאד אלחלאק.
לזכר כל קורבנות הסכסוך הישראלי פלסטיני. pic.twitter.com/p6XGuAn3od
— שלום עכשיו (@PeaceNowIL) June 6, 2020
Police said five protesters were detained, including a photographer from the Haaretz daily who was covering the protest.
A reporter at the newspaper tweeted that the photographer identified himself as a journalist, but was forcefully apprehended by officers.
בושה וחרפה למשטרת ישראל. צלם "הארץ" תומר אפלבאום עושה את עבודתו ומצלם מעצר בתל אביב ובתגובה השוטרים מתנפלים עליו באלימות.
— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) June 6, 2020
Ahead of the rally, Knesset opposition leader Yair Lapid dismissed Netanyahu’s annexation vow as “spin” meant to distract the public’s attention from his ongoing corruption trial and the pandemic-induced economic crisis.
“I think it’s spin by Netanyahu, who is trying to deflect attention from economic meltdown, including the collapse of independent businesses, and his criminal trial,” he told Channel 12 news in an interview.
“I support the Trump plan. I oppose unilateral annexation,” Lapid added.
Saturday’s rally came amid a wave of regional and international criticism of the planned Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank under the peace plan being advanced by the Trump administration in the US.
Much of the international community has already expressed strong opposition to the move, and the US has also recently intimated that it wants Israel to slow down.
Palestinians are vocal in their opposition to Trump’s plan, which gives Israel the green light to annex Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley, in what is intended to be part of a negotiated process but may go ahead unilaterally.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.