A Fatah-organized mass rally against Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the West Bank drew thousands to the Jordan Valley on Monday, despite coronavirus concerns and Israeli forces turning away buses carrying protesters to the event.
It was the largest rally of its kind since Trump in January unveiled his controversial plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which gives Israel a green light to annex West Bank settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley, amounting to some 30 percent of the territory.
In a speech at the rally, UN Special Envoy to the Middle East Nikolay Mladenov told Palestinians never to give up on their dream of a state. Mladenov repeated the UN position that Israeli annexation would violate international law, adding that it might “kill the very idea that peace and statehood for the Palestinians are achievable through negotiations.”
“You’re not renting a house here, this is your home. You do not throw away the keys to something that you have been building for 25 years. You protect it and you invest in the future, a future that is built on shared values of democracy, accountability and prosperity for everyone,” he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to announce his strategy to implement Trump’s plan as soon as July 1.
The Trump plan envisions the creation of a Palestinian state, but on reduced territory and without meeting the key Palestinian demand of having its capital in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians have rejected the plan and have been trying to rally international support against it.
“People of Palestine, do not despair — do not give up, do not give up, never give up,” Mladenov said, “because peace is what we’re all here for.”
He also observed a moment of silence with the crowd over the shooting death of Iyad Halak, a young autistic Palestinian man from East Jerusalem, at the hands of Israeli police who say they mistook him for a terrorist.
“Iyad is the latest victim in a senseless number of killings and deaths of both Israelis and Palestinians. His death reminds us how expensive and how precious peace is and how difficult it is to keep,” Mladenov said.
Halak’s mother also spoke at the protest, condemning what she called “despotic” Israeli rule in Jerusalem and saying that she hoped her son would be “the last martyr.”
“As a teacher, I say, ‘Teach in your schools that we do not want war,’” she said.
The rally was something of a diplomatic achievement for Palestinians. Rarely have so many prominent international representatives gathered together in the Palestinian territories using the same language to affirm their opposition to Israeli policies. In addition to the UN’s Mladenov, European Union representative Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, as well as the ambassadors of Russia, China, Japan, and Jordan also spoke at the event.
The Palestinian’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the event was “unprecedented,” adding, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Today, the world came to us, they spoke to us, and they told us we’re not alone. They’re with us in the battle for freedom and dignity and justice. They told Netanyahu and Trump, you are on one side, and facing you is international law,” Erekat said in a speech at the rally.
At least 1,000 protesters attended the demonstration, which took place outside of Jericho in the Jordan Valley. The turnout was much greater than another anti-annexation rally held in Ramallah in early June, which drew only a couple hundred. Fatah Secretary General Jibril Rajoub had announced on Sunday that the rally would go forward as planned despite new movement restrictions in the West Bank to prevent the spread of a “second wave” of coronavirus.
“Our participation in the march will absolutely be in accordance with Health Ministry instructions, with regard to social distancing, masks, and gloves and obedience to all safety guidelines,” Rajoub said.
While the crowd was dappled with masks and gloves, little social distancing was in evidence at the protest, despite efforts to space out the crowd. Rows of senior Palestinian politicians sat side by side and greeted one another with friendly embraces.
Tens of buses carrying protesters were also turned away from the event by Israeli forces at al-Hamra Junction in the Jordan Valley. The Israeli army blocked entrances to Jericho and exists from Nablus at temporary checkpoints to prevent the buses from entering, Palestinian media reported.
“After evaluating the situation, it was decided not to permit the buses to enter,” a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces told the Times of Israel, declining to elaborate further on the record.
Clashes broke out between the protesters at al-Hamra and Israeli security forces. Israeli security forces used rubber-tipped bullets and tear gas against protesters and at least four Palestinians were injured, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service.
The rally was attended by prominent members of the Palestinian leadership, including Erekat, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, Rajoub, and ministers in the West Bank PA government.
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Protesters in Jericho held up signs that said “Palestine is not for sale” and “No Palestinian state without the Jordan Valley”.
EU representative von Burgsdorff said in remarks delivered at the rally that Israel’s plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank constituted a serious violation of international law. He said that even without annexation, Palestinians would continue to live under an occupation whose sovereignty the EU did not recognize.
“Unilateral annexation would cause real and possibly irreparable damage to the prospect for a negotiated two-state solution. We continue to support the two-state solution based on international parameters and the 1967 lines with Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestine living side by side,” von Burgsdorff said.
The European Union has a longstanding interest in Palestinian affairs and is the largest source of funding for the Palestinian Authority. The EU provides around €650 million yearly to the Authority and other Palestinian organizations, and has provided €115 million so far in additional assistance this year to the ailing Palestinian health sector.
He also warned Palestinians against taking any unilateral actions of their own in response to Israeli annexation.
“If Israel annexes there won’t be any land left for a Palestinian state,” said protester Mohammed Ishloon, 47, who came to the demonstration from the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp outside Jericho.
“We will not let Israel steal our lands,” added demonstrator Kamal Said.
AFP contributed to this report.