Verbal altercations and shoving matches broke out next to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv on Thursday, as a group of Israeli artists and intellectuals and their supporters prepared to sign a declaration supporting the founding of a Palestinian state based on the pre-Six Day War lines.
At around 2 p.m. a handful of counter-protesters and cameramen swelled into a mob of hundreds shouting “traitors” and “fifth columnists” as the group of artists and intellectuals, which included 17 Israel Prize winners, began arriving.
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A small contingent of police managed to keep the two sides apart, but the steps of Independence Hall became clogged with dozens of shouting protesters, a few blowing whistles as one of their ilk heartily played a vuvuzela.
A group of Venezuelan tourists became trapped at the top of the stairs for several minutes after they exited the building’s museum, which commemorates Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which was proclaimed in the hall on May 14, 1948.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the stairs, Israel Prize laureate author Amos Oz stood silently as a crowd of counter-protesters shouted in his face.
Early in the demonstration, before the crowds began arriving, an Al-Jazeera news team was berated by counter-protesters who told the Israeli Arab crew “this is a Jewish country,” and “there will be peace when you’re gone from here,” among other remarks.
Eventually, Israeli theater legend Hanna Maron took to a microphone in the pedestrian walkway on Rothschild Boulevard and read from the declaration, as a cavalcade of boos and insults largely drowned out her words and counterprotesters began shouting at her, some of them inches away from the 87-year-old actress’s face.
In 1970, the German-born Maron was wounded when Palestinian terrorists attacked passengers waiting to board an Israeli airliner at Munich airport. One of her legs was amputated, but she continued to perform on stage and on television.
“Israel’s Declaration of Independence was made in accordance with the United Nation’s decision to divide the land between two states: a democratic Jewish and a democratic Arab state. Each people was expected to fulfill its natural right of self-determination in a sovereign state. We consider the independence of the two states and the unqualified end of the occupation a moral and an existential imperative as well as a necessary condition for a good neighborhood,” the statement read.
Israel Prize laureate and Hebrew University professor Avishai Margalit seemed a bit nonplussed by the shouting, saying, that it “just shows that there are people who are against this, this is still a democratic state.”
He added that the shouts were “all legitimate, this is a democracy.”
Thursday’s initiative came on the heels of a press conference held in Tel Aviv two weeks ago by a group called “The Israeli Peace Initiative,” made up largely of former security leaders.
The group called for the Israeli government to launch a peace settlement based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which, like the declaration on Thursday, calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, in addition to a compromise on the Palestinian refugee issue. Both initiatives were announced as the Palestinian Authority makes plans to unilaterally declare statehood in September.
Labor MK Ghaleb Majadle watched the fracas from the top of the steps of Independence Hall on Thursday and told The Jerusalem Post that “this initiative must be supported... The State of Israel must understand that there is no other way to achieve peace.”
When asked what he thought of the chants of “fifth columnists” and “Arabs out,” Majadle – a native of the Arab village of Baka al-Gharbiya – said, “We know these shouts. It doesn’t affect us. The stronger they chant, the stronger we are.”
He added, “By September, 120 states will have issued their support for a Palestinian state. In the end the only people who will be against it are the government and these shouters, and that’s a shame.
“The government of Israel has forgotten that it was the international community and the UN that founded the State of Israel – the world. This is the same world, the same international community, that wants to accept a Palestinian state,” he said. “If Netanyahu can’t make a decision, then the world must make a decision in his place.” He offered his endorsement of the declaration of Palestinian statehood in September, and added that it represented a failure of Israeli diplomacy.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, a middle-aged Ramat Gan resident
named Shlomo said that the initiative would bring “the worst thing
possible: to divide the State of Israel on the 1967 lines.”
He said that if that would happen, and if “2 million Palestinians return to here, we will leave. We are a people. There are 23 Arab countries – that’s where the Palestinian state needs to be.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon also criticized the initiative
Thursday, issuing a statement that read, “These actions only lessen the
chances of reconciliation and foster a false hope among Palestinians
that they can found a state unilaterally without negotiating with
Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) said she respected the
Israel Prize laureates who signed the declaration, but did not agree
with “their extreme views.”
“This is a group that is acting to spread a wrong message and is causing
Israel serious harm internationally,” she told Israel Radio.
Though the demonstration had a volatile edge to it, it ended shortly
after 3 p.m. without any injuries or arrests being made. The pro-
Palestinian state demonstrators then made their way to sign a petition
pledging their support for the initiative, as the crowds disappeared
into central Tel Aviv.
Reuters contributed to this report.