JERUSALEM, Jan. 8 (JTA) — When Zelda Brown planned her vacation to Israel this winter, she probably didn’t expect to be spending it like this.
Brown, of Queens, N.Y., was among tens of thousands of Israelis and other Jews — as many as 100,000 people, according to an Israel TV estimate — who gathered outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls Monday night for a rally to preserve the unity of the city under Israeli rule.
“I’m delighted to be here at the time of the demonstration,” said Brown, who was there with her husband and a friend. “It’s very inspiring. It’s just a shame there’s a need for this.”
As President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak race to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal under intense time pressure — Clinton leaves office Jan. 20 and Barak faces elections Feb. 6 — many Jews are balking at the concessions Israel is being asked to make in its capital and on its holy sites.
Monday’s rally, under the slogan, “Jerusalem, I Pledge Allegiance,” drew demonstrators not only from the fervently Orthodox and religious Zionist sectors, but from Israel’s secular mainstream as well. Organizers said that some 1,000 buses brought participants from across Israel and from settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“I believe Jerusalem must not be divided,” said Avram Lahiani, who brought his wife and child from the coastal city of Acre, north of Haifa. “All Israel belongs to the people of Israel.”
Tzipi Hershko, 17, of Petach Tikva, agreed.
“I want Jerusalem to remain in one piece,” Hershko said. “It belongs to us, and it’s not going to the Arabs.”
Organizers initially had intended for rally participants to encircle the Old City’s stone walls in a human chain. But the plan was scrapped when police barred access to primarily Muslim areas out of fear of violence.
In a stark reminder of the ongoing conflict, the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo once again came under Palestinian fire Monday night. No one was hurt, but an apartment was damaged.
In the French Hill neighborhood, Palestinians tossed a firebomb at Israeli cars on a major Jerusalem thoroughfare. North of the city, an Israeli boy was wounded in a shooting attack on the Jerusalem-Modi’in road, which passes near the Green Line and has become a focal point for Palestinian attacks.
Organizers of Monday night’s rally described the event as nonpartisan and sought to prevent political statements and posters. But the gathering carried a distinctly political context, given the U.S.-led peace efforts that contemplate splitting Jerusalem between Israel and the Palestinians, and putting the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, under Palestinian sovereignty.
Addressing the rally, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert issued a direct appeal to Clinton, who is sending envoy Dennis Ross to the region on a last-ditch peace mission before he leaves office on Jan. 20.
“How regretful it would be after eight years of your term, brimming with friendship” for Israel, “that what will be left is the fact that you, Bill Clinton, are the first president in the history of the United States to propose dividing Jerusalem,” Olmert declared. The crowd booed at the mention of Clinton’s name.
Natan Sharansky, the Yisrael B’Aliyah Party leader who quit Barak’s government last summer over expected concessions at the Camp David summit, was one of the organizers of Monday’s rally. The gathering aimed to send a message to the world, and to the Palestinians, that the Jewish people will not abandon Jerusalem, Sharansky said.
“Jerusalem is not a question of borders or security, but a question of the identity of the Jewish people,” he said.
In a move aimed at underscoring American Jewish support for Jerusalem, Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, ignored criticism of his decision to participate in the gathering.
Lauder told the gathering that millions of Jews in the world stand beside those Israelis who oppose dividing Jerusalem.
Lauder said he came as an individual and not in his official capacity, but his participation drew criticism from some American Jewish leaders. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA World Union, said Lauder’s attendance does not reflect the views of all American Jewish organizations.
“The chairman of the Conference of Presidents represents 54 major organizations, not himself,” Hirsch said. “The conference itself did not give its authorization for Mr. Lauder to participate in the rally, let alone to speak. In fact, it specifically feared that his speaking would be perceived as interfering directly in Israeli politics, which all agreed the conference has never done before.”
Those gathered at the rally to sing, dance, hear the speeches and watch images from Jerusalem’s history — beamed by laser onto the stone walls — said the message was the Jewish people’s commitment to Jerusalem.
Former Supreme Court Judge Moshe Landau told the rally that Clinton should keep to himself his “creative and confidence-building proposals” to transfer sovereignty over the Temple Mount.
“We received a precious deposit from our predecessors, and it is our duty to pass it on to those who come after us unharmed,” Landau said.
Clinton has suggested that the Palestinians be given sovereignty over the surface of the Temple Mount, which today houses the Al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Israel would have some measure of control over underground areas, where the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples are believed to lie.
Under the Clinton plan, the Palestinians also would assume control over Arab parts of Jerusalem, which would become the capital of a Palestinian state.
Barak has said he won’t transfer sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians, but hasn’t ruled out letting a third party run the site.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians hardened their stance toward Clinton’s proposals, saying they did not address Palestinian “rights.” In a related move, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ highest Islamic authority, issued a religious ruling Monday declaring all of the Temple Mount, above and below the ground, as holy Islamic land.
The demonstration passed quietly with the exception of some isolated incidents. Near the Damascus Gate, police forcibly dispersed Palestinians who threw rocks at them. The police also prevented a group of rally participants from entering the area.
In another incident, police detained a woman from the Jewish extreme right who tried to enter the Temple Mount disguised as an Arab woman.
(JTA Staff Writer Michael J. Jordan in New York contributed to this report.)