JERUSALEM (Jul. 5)
The five-day visit of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat to the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho spurred the Israeli rightwing opposition into high gear at the same time that it stirred popular Palestinian pride.
The opposition protests culminated in a massive demonstration Saturday night that clogged the narrow central arteries of downtown Jerusalem.
Uri Schorr, who came from outside Tel Aviv to demonstrate against the Israeli government, said he hoped the protests would signal to the Rabin government that “we mean business.”
“Our government is still covering up and saying (the autonomous area) is not a state and there won’t be any state, like an ostrich with its head in the sand,” said Schorr, who stressed he was not religious and rejected Rabin’s effort to categorize the protesters as religious fanaties.
Following the demonstration, which drew tens of thousands of people, hundreds of demonstrators rampaged through eastern Jerusalem, damaging Arab property and stoning a U.S. Consulate building.
The Jewish protesters also disrupted Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting by blocking traffic, blowing whistles and banging on metal objects. Police arrested dozens of protestors.
By Tuesday morning, opponents of the peace process were out in force, blocking desert roads with their bodies and burning tires to prevent Palestinians from going to the West Bank town of Jericho to hear Arafat speak.
In preparation for Arafat’s visit to Jericho on Tuesday, Israeli security forces rerouted Jericho-bound traffic to an old military road, which made the trip more than twice as long as the regular half-hour route.
Along the road there were at least five Israeli checkpoints to navigate, intended to prevent anti-Arafat Jewish settlers from getting to Jericho, soldiers said.
Meanwhile, Arafat was greeted throughout the autonomous areas by Palestinians who were both exuberant to see their leader return from exile and impatient to see concrete changes in their daily lives.
‘A HISTORIC DAY FOR OUR PEOPLE’
For his part, Arafat repeatedly called for Palestinian unity and the establishment of a Palestinian state that would have Jerusalem as its capital.
In Jericho on Tuesday, a few thousand Palestinians braved heavy security to stand under a scorching sun to greet the man they call Abu Amar.
After touching down dramatically in an Egyptian helicopter, he was cheered as he had been cheered last Friday upon his arrival in Gaza with cries of, “In blood, in spirit, we will sacrifice for you and for Palestine.”
“It is a historic day for our people when our president is coming back to his homeland to manage the Palestine National Authority,” said Munthir Salah, president of Najah University in Nablus, one of the dignitaries who had been bused in for the speech.
“It’s a first step to our state — Palestine,” Salah said.
Awni Shahrour, a dentist from Tulkarm who said he had last seen Arafat 24 years ago when Shahrour was a student in Algeria, said, “This is a historic moment to receive our president in our land which is liberated from Israeli occupation.”
A Palestinian woman, 25-year-old Fatna Kassab, said, “I am very happy, but I won’t be fully happy until we return to all the 1967 borders, especially Jerusalem.”
Throughout Arafat’s visit, the core of the Israeli opposition’s protest was a makeshift, dusty, multi-colored tent encampment opposite the Prime Minister’s Office, where hundreds of Jewish families from around the country have been living for weeks.
A MASSIVE POLICE PRESENCE
The right-wing activists claimed the Arafat visit marked the start of a Palestinian jihad, or holy war, for Jerusalem. They vowed that Jewish sovereignty over a united Jerusalem would never be compromised.
On Saturday evening, as Shabbat was drawing to a close, the camp was being stared down by a massive police presence fanned out across the street, in front of the government buildings.
The show of force was in apparent response to Rabin’s claim last week that the protesters planned to take over the government with violence.
But the protesters denied any such intention. They said Rabin was using hot rhetoric to turn the Israeli public against them and to serve as a pretext for anticipated police brutality against them.
Rabin intensified the rhetoric Sunday when he reportedly charged the radical right wing with being in all evil, wicked circle of partnership (with) the Hamas murderers” to undermine the peace process.
Yisrael Hanukoglu, a biochemistry professor at the Weizmann Institute, came from Rishon le-Zion to camp at the site, where he preferred to sleep in his car rather than take up residence in a tent.
Hanukoglu said that as a native of Turkey, he believes he is more sensitive than Westerners to the language and symbolism used by Arafat in the speech he gave when he arrived in Gaza City last Friday.
“In the symbolism of Islam,” he said, the references to “the blood of the martyrs and the importance of Jerusalem (make) it very clear to me that what he intends to do is establish a Palestinian state that’s eventually going to destroy Israel. There is just no question.”
By sundown Saturday night, at the conclusion of Shabbat, the ranks of those in the tent camp swelled as tens of thousands of demonstra tors joined them in downtown Jerusalem to rally against the government.
“Rabin the Traitor!” “Rabin resign!” and “Death to Arafat” were the favored chants as portraits of Rabin in traditional Arab headgear were held aloft and set on fire.
There were fliers offering a $1 million reward for the assassination of Arafat.
Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the speakers at the Saturday night rally, maintained that Arafat’s decision not to come to Jerusalem during this visit was immaterial.
“When Arafat came, he didn’t talk of Gaza,” Netanyahu told the crowd. “He spoke of Jerusalem, the Galilee and the Negev.”
Not all Israelis who were out on the streets of Jerusalem Saturday night agreed with the demonstrators.
“I am against the demonstration and I am very happy Arafat came because the time has arrived for peace,” said Miriam Danan, the owner of a pizzeria.
“I was born here and I know wars and I don’t want my two sons to be in Gaza,” she said, referring to last month’s withdrawal of Israeli troops from most areas of Gaza.
Even on the question of Jerusalem, Danon had a different view. She said she doesn’t want to lose the city to the Palestinians, but that its “internationalization is okay with me.”