TEL AVIV — Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated for an end to the nation's "iron fist" policy in the occupied territories Saturday, presenting the government with its most significant internal challenge during the current outbreak of unrest among the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In Tel Aviv, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Jewish citizens took part in the biggest protest march here since Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. And in a gesture of protest in Nazareth, an Arab member of the Knesset (Parliament) resigned from the troubled Labor Alignment in the surprise climax to a noisy but peaceful anti-government demonstration by an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Arab citizens of Israel.
The demonstrations came after more than six weeks of rock throwing and other violent protests in the occupied areas, during which at least 36 Palestinians have died from Israeli gunfire. Hundreds of other Palestinians have been injured by gunshots or beatings, and as many as 300,000 at a time have been restricted to their homes under curfews.
Sponsored by Peace Group
The Tel Aviv protest was sponsored by the Peace Now group, a loose amalgam of leftist and moderate organizations and individuals that had also organized demonstrations against Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Only a 1982 Peace Now rally that drew an estimated 400,000 Israelis was bigger in numbers than Saturday's affair.
The half-mile-long march and the two hours of speeches had, on the surface, a tone reminiscent of the peaceful phase of the American anti-war protest movement of the 1960s.
The marchers, including many families and older people, carried lighted candles and sang peace songs as well as the romantic ballads of the idealistic days of Israel's founding. And as the vanguard of the huge crowd entered the rally site in downtown Tel Aviv's Kings of Israel Square, it was greeted by recordings of Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind," a staple of the U.S. anti-war movement.
But if the tone was nostalgic for an American observer, the message of the posters, chants and speeches was bitter and angry about the "iron fist" policy and its announced tactic of beating rock-throwing Arab young people.
One large placard showed a cartoon drawing of an Israeli soldier beating an Arab youth while he said, "Don't worry, you don't die from this."
Another sign carried the message, "The Territories Are Occupying Israel," an ironic play on the phrase "occupied territories." Periodically, the demonstrators would chant, "Free us from the territories," another sarcastic reference to the occupation and the near obsessive hold that the issue has on the nation.
Another chant was blunt to the point of brutality: "Four, three, two, one, we're going to beat the dwarf," a reference to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is below average in height.
The announcement in Nazareth of Abdel Wahab Darousha's resignation after 23 years as a member of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' Labor Alignment is not likely to have any immediate political impact, since Darousha is expected to remain in the Knesset.
New Political Bloc Possible
But his move was seen as a possible first step in the creation of a political bloc that could have an important impact on parliamentary elections scheduled for November. Such a bloc could give the 700,000 Arabs who live as full citizens inside Israel's pre-1967 borders considerably more leverage than they now possess to affect the national debate.
"I wanted to leave in protest over (Defense Minister Yitzhak) Rabin's 'iron fist' policy and to say to the party as a peace lover that I cannot support this policy," Darousha said in an interview. He called his decision "official and final," but he evaded the question of whether he will try to organize a new Arab party.
There are currently five Arab members in the Knesset, but political observers estimate that if Israeli Arabs voted as a bloc, they could control as many as 12 seats in the 120-seat Parliament. That could make them the third-largest group in the assembly and theoretically allow them to play a power broker's role in dealings with the bigger blocs of Peres and Shamir.
Speaking at the Nazareth rally, Darousha called on all other Arab members of Labor as well as the party's dovish wing to also quit in protest over what he characterized as Labor's increasing tilt to the right.
More Than Just Politics
More than political considerations appeared to be at work in galvanizing many of the Tel Aviv demonstrators. Galia Golan, a Peace Now organizer, said she had expected only about 20,000 to attend Saturday night's affair.
She said the much larger turnout reflects the fact that more and more citizens do not accept Shamir's rationalization that occupation of the territories and the use of heavy force against protesters are matters of national security.