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Demonstrators Outside the Hague Mirror Opposing Sides in Middle East

February 24, 2004
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Holland turned into a staging ground for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week, but the streets here were far safer than in the Middle East — and far less volatile than some had feared.

Monday was a day of anger and tears as the International Court of Justice began its hearings on Israel’s security barrier. For some Israel supporters, it also was a day of dancing in the streets, as demonstrators from across Europe, Israel and the United States joined hands and danced in their rally for Israel.

Later, the same square used by 2,500 pro-Israel demonstrators became the site of a pro-Palestinian demonstration of slightly smaller size. For the most part, Dutch police managed to keep the two groups apart, but the police’s efforts did not temper demonstrators’ vehemence toward each other — and for their cause.

While inside The Hague’s Peace Palace representatives of the Palestinians were testifying against Israel’s security fence before a 15-judge panel, outside the pro-Israeli demonstrators spoke of Israel’s need for a security barrier in the face of Palestinian terrorism.

To make their argument more poignant, the demonstrators brought with them an Israeli bus mangled in the Jan. 29 Jerusalem suicide bombing, in which 11 people were killed just around the corner from the Israeli prime minister’s official residence.

Demonstrators said a hush fell over the crowd when the flatbed truck bearing the shattered bus rolled in.

In a disturbingly familiar image, 10 members of Zaka, the fervently Orthodox rescue and recovery service that collects victims’ body parts after terrorist attacks in Israel, stood around the bus in their yellow work suits.

Iris Boker, director of Zaka in Europe, said the bus had such a strong effect that it would probably be sent to other demonstrations rather than be returned to Israel. She said there were several requests from U.S. groups to use the bus.

On Monday, unlike on Sunday — when Zaka volunteers in Jerusalem had to clean up after another suicide bombing in the Israeli capital killed eight — the Zaka volunteers at The Hague served a purely cosmetic purpose: They came to Europe to help convey a graphic understanding of the impact of terrorism in Israel.

Eli Pachter, 24, who has worked with Zaka for three years, talked about how he arrived at a recent bombing site in Tel Aviv with a friend from Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency ambulance service.

“We started evacuating bodies in the most honorable way,” he said. “On the scene you become like a robot. Seeing a killed baby — you never get used to it.”

Yaron Hyrowski, 30, a paramedic, was one of 12 Magen David Adom workers who came to The Hague. “It is not our place to talk about politics,” he told JTA. “We are here to be with the families” of Israeli terrorism victims.

Miri Avitan came to the demonstration at The Hague with a photo of her son Assaf, who was killed at his 15th birthday party in a suicide bombing in December 2001.

“He was celebrating his birthday with his friends and all his friends died,” Avitan said.

Bridgit Kessler’s daughter, Gila, was killed in a suicide bombing on June 19, 2002.

“That was the day I died,” said her mother, who has three other children. “I don’t want to have to wake up one day and they should tell me one of my kids has died.”

Around noon, hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters began assembling, many bearing Palestinian flags, signs calling for the “end of occupation” and pictures of Palestinians killed during the current intifada. Aside from pro- Palestinian citizens of nations from around the world, the Palestinians were joined by a few Jews affiliated with Neturei Karta, a Chasidic fringe sect opposed to modern-day Israel.

Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset who is close to Yasser Arafat, spoke at the Palestinian demonstration.

“People who are here are putting the occupation into the important international scene,” he said. “If you are against the wall, you are pro-life.”

Marie-Jose Van Overveld-Roosendaal, a Dutch woman who came to the pro-Palestinian demonstration, said her mother had rescued a Jewish woman during the Holocaust and was honored with a tree at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel. Nevertheless, Overveld-Roosendaal said she is so angry at Israel that she wants to uproot the tree and replant it in “Palestine.”

One of the Dutch demonstrators, who wore a kaffiyeh, said he “had hesitated all day whether to participate in the pro-Israel or in the pro-Palestinian demonstration.”

“I have a double loyalty towards both the Palestinians and the Israelis,” said the man, who refused to give his name. “I have lived in Israel for two years as a volunteer, and I love both of them.”

Ultimately, he said, he chose the Palestinian side. He then walked off shouting, “Sharon is a terrorist.”

The Palestinian demonstration was dispersed prematurely by Dutch police. An Israeli television reporter said he saw some Palestinian participants trying to physically attack nearby pro-Israel demonstrators. According to Ronny Naftaniel, director of the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, a pro-Israel Dutch group, said Dutch police reported that several demonstrators were carrying signs comparing the Star of David to the swastika, which is illegal in Holland.

Shelley Klein, director of advocacy at Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization of America, said the demonstrators outside the Peace Palace were not as bad as during the U.N. conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, in the summer of 2001, which turned into an occasion for unrestrained Israel-bashing.

The United States and Israel boycotted that event in protest. They did not attend today’s hearing either. The United States said the international court was not the right forum to decide a political issue, and Israel said it would not attend because it does not the recognize the court’s jurisdiction in the matter of the fence.

Klein said she felt Monday’s hearings were so one-sided that she found herself hoping the demonstrators outside would make up for Israel’s absence inside.

Testimony against the fence came from the Palestinian representative to the United Nations, Nasser Al-Kidwa, and several other Palestinian lawyers who spoke, uninterrupted, for some three hours; South Africa’s deputy foreign minister; and representatives from Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, among others.

Outside, some pro-Israel demonstrators said that while they did not support construction of Israel’s security barrier, they wanted to draw attention to the reason for it: terrorism.

“It is not an Israeli fence; it is a Hamas fence, it is an Islamic Jihad fence,” said Joel Kaplan, president of B’nai B’rith International and representative of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Chabot said, “The people who ought to be on trial today are the people who are training children to aspire to be suicide bombers, not people who build fences to protect innocent lives.”

Alan Sermonetta, 37, came to The Hague with a group of about 100 Jews from Rome.

“I want the wall not to separate two states, but just for security,” Sermonetta said.

A contingent of students from Yeshiva University in New York carried a large banner and danced the hora in two groups, men and women.

Jacek Dulinksi, 30, came with a group of about 40 Jews from Posnan, Poland.

Derya Yalimcan, 30, a Turkish student from Germany, said he came to protest the hearings because Israel is one of Turkey’s few allies in the Middle East.

“I came because of the suicide bombings,” he said. “You can’t do anything about it and you feel helpless. What else can we do besides come to this demonstration?”

On Tuesday, another demonstration was scheduled in which pro-Israel forces would hold “alternative hearings” with members of the E.U. Parliament and relatives of Israeli terrorism victims, including Arabs and Druse.

Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York, president of Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, said he was disappointed that the pro-Israel demonstrators seemed unwilling to shout.

“Don’t be afraid; raise your voices,” he urged.

Alongside the Jewish supporters of Israel, Christians for Israel held their own pro-Israel march. More than 1,000 participants carried photographs of Israeli terrorism victims.

Thys Bovernkamp, from Holland, held up a card for someone who was killed in Sunday’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem. “I don’t know the name, only the number — 928,” he said.

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