Palestinian flags waving in the air. Red flags and black flags, too. Thousands of fired-up Israeli Arabs turned out in keffiyehs, marching alongside thousands of Israeli Jews to the martial beat of a drum corps. A din of Arabic chanting, including the cry of "Falastin!" Posters held high showing dead Palestinian children lying in Gaza's freshly bombed-out rubble.
Such was the scene on Rehov Ibn Gvirol in Tel Aviv last Saturday night.
It was the country's first big protest against Operation Cast Lead, and if the purpose was to sway Israeli public opinion, it backfired. Horribly. The mainstream Left, led by Peace Now, Meretz and cultural heroes such as Amos Oz and David Grossman, was calling haplessly for a cease-fire, and now that message was being carried defiantly by some 10,000 non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. These marchers, except for a tiny minority of out-of-place Zionists, didn't only sympathize with the Palestinians, they identified with them.
The protest was organized by Gush Shalom, the mainly Jewish activist group led by Uri Avnery, and Hadash, the mainly Arab socialist party. Like the more familiar peace demonstrations organized by Peace Now and Meretz, this one began at Kikar Rabin, but unlike those other rallies, it did not end with the singing of "Hatikva." God forbid. I saw three Israeli flags in the crowd - all being carried as close as possible to the curb.
"I tried to march in the middle of the crowd, but people said they were offended," said one fellow carrying the blue-and-white. "I respect their sensitivities."
An Arab Hadash member from Ramle explained that because of the war in Gaza, the Israeli flag had become too hated a symbol to display. A contingent of a few dozen marchers carrying a Meretz sign said they'd planned to carry Israeli flags, but the party activist who was supposed to bring them never showed up.
In Hebrew as well as Arabic, the crowd chanted for peace, for Jewish-Arab coexistence, for security in Sderot as well as in Gaza. But it gave all the blame to one side alone. "All Israeli government ministers are war criminals," they chanted. Not a word was said against Hamas. "We're not pro-Hamas, but Hamas is under attack," explained the Hadash member from Ramle.
The Arab and radical Jewish Left does not influence mainstream Israelis, except maybe to push them further to the Right. However, the much larger Zionist Left was instrumental in ending the First Lebanon War, in forging a peace process with the Palestinians and in getting Israel out of Lebanon and Gaza - yet the voice of Zionist peaceniks is all but neutralized today. One reason is that when IAF jets began bombing Gaza two weeks ago, they either supported the decision or kept mum about it.
"The State of Israel must defend its citizens... The suffering of the residents living near Gaza cannot continue," wrote Oz in a front-page Yediot Aharonot opinion piece two Fridays ago, the day before the IAF went into action. Yet a few paragraphs down, Oz added: "The best course for Israel is to reach a complete cease-fire in return for an easing of the siege on Gaza."
Meretz also called for a start-and-stop military operation: "There is no choice but to hit Hamas in a precise way and to act for a renewed cease-fire."
Novelist Meir Shalev, who writes a Friday column in Yediot, likewise came out for a brief, surgical reprisal against Hamas, but also called for negotiations with it.
Peace Now said nothing. In the run-up to the war, the organization's leaders were "divided in their opinions and ill-at-ease about the situation," said Tel Aviv University Prof. Dan Jacobson, an influential voice in the movement.
Yet after the first day of the war, which saw IAF bombs kill some 230 Gazans, including scores of civilians and traffic policemen, the Zionist Left moved very quickly back into its familiar dovish mode, calling for an immediate cease-fire. Novelist David Grossman, who emerged as the peace camp's most authoritative voice after his son, Uri, was killed in battle on the last day of the Second Lebanon War, led this second wave.
In an article for The New York Times that was reprinted in Haaretz, Grossman wrote that while Israel had the right to retaliate for Hamas's rockets, it could not put an end to them by purely military means, and that pursuing that goal would only cause needless death, destruction and vengefulness on both sides. "So let us stop," he wrote. "Hold our fire. Let us attempt to act against our usual reflexes. Against the deadly logic of military power and the dynamic of escalation."
He urged Israel to unilaterally cease fire for 48 hours, giving Hamas a chance to respond in kind and foreign mediators an opportunity to step in. If this didn't work and Hamas kept fighting, Grossman wrote, "we can always start shooting again."
However, by the time the peace camp rediscovered its voice, nobody was listening. Israel's leaders said they were determined to break Hamas, while Hamas's leaders said they were determined to lure the IDF into a death trap in the refugee camps. With Israeli politicians and nearly all the media depicting Operation Cast Lead as a "war of no choice" that was on the road to success, the public seemed in favor of staying the course.
Left-leaning NGOs took out ads in the newspapers and circulated e-mails, but that was about it. The hundreds of thousands of peace demonstrators who'd filled Kikar Rabin during past wars stayed home.
MARCHING ON Ibn Gvirol were many Arabs who had bused down from an earlier, gigantic antiwar rally in the Galilee town of Sakhnin. Also on hand were a few old lefties in worker's caps. A man of about 60 wore a Stalin T-shirt. Che Guevara's image was everywhere. Among the signs and stickers was a play on Ehud Barak's campaign slogan: "Not a buddy - a leader." The new version read: "Not a buddy - a murderer."
The small group of Meretz members said they attended the rally despite their misgivings because it was the only game in town, and that they'd planned to make their politics clear with the Israeli flags that mistakenly got left behind. I asked them about the party's initial support of Operation Cast Lead - which surprised a lot of people - and they said Meretz had been split, with MK Zehava Gal-On and others, including themselves, opposing it.
"But the Hashomer Hatza'ir kibbutzniks near Gaza who've been catching Kassams wanted the operation, and they apparently convinced Jumis [the nickname of party leader Haim Oron, himself a member of a kibbutz in the South] and that was that," said Meretz member Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal.
In a telephone interview, Oron said he took his stand in favor of the war for purely substantive reasons - not because of the elections and not as a favor to his friends on the kibbutzim near the Gaza border. "People think that since I'm on the Left I'm supposed to say Israel should turn the other cheek, then the third, then the fourth - I'm sorry, that's not me," he said. "I know what everybody's saying about the kibbutzniks in the South - let me tell you, my friends over there are every bit as leftist and dovish as all the critics, the only difference is that they've been getting rockets on their heads for all these years. And I don't see anything wrong in taking these people's concerns into consideration when deciding what stand Meretz should take."
Oron said a solid majority of party members supported the government's decision to strike Gaza; the objections by Gal-On and some other more dovish figures, he maintained, were a matter of "nuance."
"A few hours after the war began," he continued, "I went on Channel 2 and said clearly, and I may have been the first to say so, that our goal now must be to reach a new cease-fire."
He insisted that Meretz's developing position on the war had not been unclear, just that it was more complex than the usual black-and-white view. "What's unclear? Does clarity demand that you either accuse Israel of war crimes or, on the other hand, say that Israel is beyond criticism? Just because our position is complex doesn't mean it's unclear, although it may be harder to put across in a slogan."
The main reason why the Zionist Left has been quiet is that this time the enemy is Hamas. "A majority of the peace camp, myself included, sees Hamas as a terrible movement, a misery for Palestinians, Israelis and everyone else," said Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords. He says that if the war were strictly hurting Hamas, he would go along with it. "But the war is hurting Gaza as a whole; we're killing civilians and legitimizing actions we never would have thought of before. I never thought the siege and the economic pressure on the entire Gazan community was right. I don't see that we have any hocus-pocus strategy to destroy Hamas, so I don't think the end result of this operation is going to get us anywhere."
Pundak is speaking as chairman of the umbrella group Israeli Peace NGO Forum. His day job is as director of the Peres Center for Peace, and it's this latter role that points up another main reason why the peace camp has such a low profile: President Shimon Peres, once the unofficial leader of this camp, is now a prime spokesman to the world for Operation Cast Lead.
The Labor Party that Peres once led has left the peace camp on the margins. Labor leader Ehud Barak, who, as prime minister, got Israel out of Lebanon and sought to hand over Gaza and nearly all of the West Bank to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, is, of course, the defense minister in charge of the war. Furthermore, the head of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, has taken a leave of absence to run as a Labor candidate in the February 10 Knesset elections.
So, as the saying goes, what's left of the Left? For this war, not a whole lot. Israeli Arabs and Jewish anti-Zionists basically have the field of protest all to themselves.
THE POLICE in Tel Aviv did a brilliant job of keeping the thousands of left-wing antiwar protesters and hundreds of right-wing anti-antiwar protesters apart. The leftists were in the street with their red, black and Palestinian flags, while the rightists were on the sidewalk with their Israeli flags, while lines of cops and barricades separated the two sides.
The police had tried to bar Palestinian flags from the march, but the High Court had allowed them. As the chanting, flag-waving marchers passed in front of them, the right-wingers were enraged. "Traitors, terrorists, fifth columnists, go die in Gaza!" they hollered, pushing against the police who were straining to hold them back.
Toward the end of the protest, a few resourceful right-wingers got near the curb to scream at the columns of marchers. One man from the South in a denim jacket brushed past police and yelled in their faces: "It's all over! The Golani Brigade is eating them up! The mosque is destroyed!"
A few Arab marchers screamed back and had to be restrained by their own, while police grabbed hold of the counterprotesters who were advancing on them. The march ended in front of the Cinematheque, cordoned off by police, as the leftists milled happily with one another, satisfied that they'd made a strong statement.
But as police relaxed, a crowd of right-wingers, including a few in Betar Jerusalem gear, surged toward the crowd in and around the Cinematheque, shouting "Anti-Semites!" and shoving leftists in their path. Police rushed over and got between the two sides, as the leftists took cover inside the Cinematheque.
The rightists, triumphant at last, unfurled a giant banner with Gilad Schalit's picture on it and chanted, "Death to the Arabs!" Little by little, the leftists made it home, the police finished for the night and the rightists wrapped in Israeli flags had the run of the street.
In the crowded little eateries on Ibn Gvirol, the TVs were tuned to the news that the ground invasion of Gaza had begun.
The following day, Sunday, Jacobson, the professor from Peace Now, said he hadn't taken part in the march because he "thought it would play into Hamas's hands. I'm not going to march under a Palestinian flag, which is not my flag; I'm an Israeli citizen, and now our soldiers are fighting and our civilians are under fire."
At the same time, though, Jacobson said the ground invasion "was the worst decision we could have made. I'm old enough to remember how we got stuck in the mud of Lebanon, and I'm afraid that this operation in Gaza is not going to go as planned. I don't see either side backing off."
I asked him what the peace camp planned to do besides taking out ads. "I don't know," he said. As a rule, he continued, the Zionist Left raises its voice in protest only in response to a genuine crisis. "It was only after Sabra and Shatilla and too many funerals of Israeli soldiers [in the First Lebanon War] that 400,000 people came out to protest. The public raises its voice only at the point that the situation becomes intolerable."
Israeli peaceniks aren't comfortable with the death, destruction and danger resulting from Operation Cast Lead. But for now, evidently, they can tolerate it.