Thousands of Israelis gathered in this West Bank settlement on Thursday to protest the Palestinian self-rule accord and to demand a continued Jewish presence in Hebron.
Composed mostly of religious Jews wearing knitted kipot, the crowd, estimated at between 5,000 to 10,000, expressed anger at what many termed the government’s “sellout” to the Palestinians.
Originally planned to be held Wednesday in the heart of Hebron, the demonstration was moved to nearby Kiryat Arba after the government refused to allow demonstrators to gather in the tense city.
According to news reports, Israeli security officials had feared that a Jewish demonstration in Hebron would exacerbate an already volatile situation.
Many of those at the rally – called in part to celebrate the 26th anniversary of renewed Jewish settlement in Hebron – were armed.
At first, the demonstration resembled a picnic rather than a protest rally. Parents and children, many with ice chests filled with soft drinks and matzah, sat on the grass and socialized.
The atmosphere became more charged, however, when speaker after speaker – including Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, a Knesset member and former defense minister – lambasted the Rabin government for negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Speaking in Jerusalem shortly after the rally began, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin attacked his opponents.
“The lies and hypocrisy of the right must stop,” Rabin said, adding that it had been under a Likud government that Israel reached a peace treaty with Egypt.
During much of the two-hour demonstration in Kiryat Arba, the mere mention of the prime minister’s name evoked jeers and boos.
Several youths shouted “death to the Arabs,” and cheered statements calling for the expulsion of Arabs from Hebron and other parts of the territories.
The crowd warmly applauded Sharon, calling him “king of Israel,” following his impassioned denunciation of the Rabin government and of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in particular.
“This is no longer a Jewish and Zionist government, and Peres, who is handing over the Gaza Strip and Jericho to (PLO Chairman Yasser) Arafat should join him there as foreign minister of the state of Palestine,” Sharon told the crowd.
He called for passive resistance to the Rabin government, adding if the current policy of negotiating with the Palestinians continues, “we must paralyze the entire country, day and night.”
Knesset member Rehavam Ze’evi of the right-wing Moledet party took a similar anti-Palestinian stand.
“I believe in evacuating Hebron,” he told the crowd. “I believe in evacuating the Arabs from Hebron.”
Though many in the crowd shared Ze’evi’s sentiments. Others took a more moderate stand.
“History has shown that Arabs and Jews can’t live together,” said 16-year-old Moshe Amram from Halifa. “But if (the Arabs) are willing to accept all the rules and laws of this country, and not engage in terrorist activities, they’re free to stay here.”
Before the rally began, a group of youths from Kiryat Arba gathered outside a building where Noam Arnon, one of the settler leaders, was being questioned by police. Arnon had refused to surrender his revolver.
“Police state, police state,” the youths chanted.
They also voiced their support for Baruch Goldstein, the West Bank settler who gunned down at least 29 Palestinians at a Hebron mosque on Feb. 25.
“Dr. Goldstein, there’s no one like you in the world,” they chanted. “Dr Goldstein, we all love you.”