400,000 People at Protest Rally

Last Saturday night’s rally here to protest the massacre of Palestinians in two refugee camps in west Beirut and the government’s refusal (at that point) to launch a full independent investigation of the carnage was the largest rally ever to have taken place in Israel, either in support of or in opposition to government policies. It also saw a number of significant firsts.

The rally’s organizers — the Labor Alignment; the Shinui Party and the Peace Now movement — claimed that “over 400,000″ people participated from all over the country and that the participants crossed party lines. Police declined to give on estimate of attendance, but said it was “one of the largest” rallies to have been held.

SEVERAL FIRSTS NOTED

According to observers who have attended rallies in the past, this one, at which speakers also called for the resignations of Premier Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, was marked by the presence of a small but significant number of protesters wearing knitted skullcaps which has become the mark of the young members of the National Religious Party. Few, if any, such headwear was seen at previous protest demonstrations.

Equally unusual was the presence this time of men and women who were described as “not Ashkenozim.” This description was not used by commentators as a form of racism or denigration, but merely to state a visible fact. Previous rallies critical of the Likud government and its policies were notable for the almost complete absence of the Sephardic segment of the population which university sociologists and political researchers claim to be the largest single component in Begin’s “con-sequency.”

Both these firsts may indicate the start of a change in the hitherto solid support for Begin and Sharon in their prosecution of the war in Lebanon, political analysts noted. The presence of young NRP members and Sephardim may account for shifts in both the NRP and Tami Party stands, until now opposed to a judicial inquiry into the Beirut massacre and in general support of Begin and Sharon.

Speakers at the demonstration included Labor Party leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin,Shinui Party leader Amnon Rubinstein, Civil Rights Party leader Shulamit Aloni, Peace Now spokesman Tzali Reshef, Mapom leader Victor Shemtov, and Avraham Burg, a reserve combat officer and son of Interior Minister Yosef Burg.

LIKUD CANCELS PLAN FOR RALLY

Meanwhile, Likud decided to cancel its plans to hold a mass rally here next Saturday night in answer to the massive rally last Saturday. Likud spokesmen said they did not wish “further to widen the gap within the Israeli public” or to “add to the waste of millions of Shekels spent by the opposition in organizing its rally.”

But the real reason for the cancellation of the Likud demonstration, for which advertisements have already appeared in the local press, was the fear that the pro-Likud organizers would not be able to match the record turnout of last Saturday night’s rally. A smaller attendance, it was noted, would be seen as a propaganda defeat for the government.

The first of the rallies to protest the government’s military action in Lebanon, also organized by the Peace Now movement, drew 100,000 people. It was followed shortly afterwards by a pro-government rally at which the attendance was claimed to be about 250,000 people.

NEXT STORY