WASHINGTON – An activist dressed as an elderly Palestinian woman lay on the pavement outside the convention center where the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convened for its annual conference on Sunday, her arms stretched wide while she desperately pleaded for help. The pro-Israel delegates waiting in line in the chilly morning air stared at her coldly. Then, another activist representing an Israeli soldier appeared and rammed the butt of his mock cardboard rifle into her head.

That is the true picture of what is happening in Israel and the occupied territories, according to anti-Israel protesters who gathered outside the AIPAC convention.

“We’ve been doing that kind of visual for years and I think it’s pretty powerful to illustrate that there are pregnant [women] who have died in childbirth, [since they were] unable to get to hospitals on time in the West Bank and in Gaza,” said Rae Abileah, one of the organizers of the protest.

While she was reluctant to say assaults on elderly Palestinian women by Israeli soldiers were an everyday occurrence, she did say “there have been cases where that has been the reality.”

Abileah was one of a few hundred people who gathered outside the convention center here to demonstrate against Israel, just as they do every year. The protesters carried banners, sang songs, set up fake checkpoints and built a cardboard wall symbolizing the barrier in the West Bank.

But this year’s protests differed slightly from previous ones. Instead of focusing on Palestinian rights and demands for statehood, much of their criticism related to the possibility that either Israel or the US might launch a strike against Iran to stop its nuclear program.

“This country can’t afford a military attack,” said Abileah. “We’ve gone through ten years of unjust war in Iraq, we’re still in Afghanistan, our budget is a disaster, kids in this country can’t afford to go to college, it’s insane to be thinking of war.”

Her opinion was echoed by Sasha Glzin, a 24-year-old student involved with Jewish Voice for Peace and CODEPINK the two groups that organized the protest. “I don’t think [the US and Israel] will be well served by militarily striking Iran,” she said. “I think there are better ways to deal with a regime or a country you’re not happy with. Striking civilian populations, striking people in Iran isn’t going to get the outcome the US and Israel wants.”

Michael Figa, 30, a bio-tech engineer from Boston, said he could understand Israeli concerns over Iran. He described himself as a realist, saying he recognizes Israel’s right to exist and that Iran was known to fund terrorist groups that launched attacks against Israel. At the same time, he said Israel must end its occupation of the West Bank, accommodate the Palestinians regarding the “right of return” of refugees from 1948 and allow the creation of a Palestinian state.

“If you have peace between Israel and the Palestinians then that would defuse the entire issue because there’d be no more wind in Iran’s sails,” he said.

Figa said such a deal might placate Iran and persuade it to drop its nuclear program of its own accord.

“Perhaps the mullahs would not like it theologically but peace would defuse the situation,” he added.

Further down the road another group of anti-Israel protesters assembled outside the entrance to the convention center. They chanted slogans against AIPAC and Israeli policy using loudspeakers. One protester was wearing tefillin.

Barbara Isaacson, who traveled from Boston to take part in the AIPAC convention, gazed at the group of protesters from a distance.

“I’m so ashamed of them,” she said. “I can’t believe they’re Jewish.” She brushed aside questions about whether she understood the plight of the Palestinians. The protesters, she said, were more anti-Israel than they were pro-Palestinian.

Besides, she added, Israel had done everything it could to cultivate peaceful ties with the Palestinians.

“We can’t do it, we tried to give them Gaza and look what happened,” she said.

“Every time we give in we get it worse. We can’t give in, we have nowhere else to go.”

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