Tense battle for public opinion rages on US streets

Better organized pro-Arab demonstrators push Israel supporters to respond.

anti gaza op protest london 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
anti gaza op protest london 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Thousands of demonstrators on opposing sides of the Gaza conflict took to the streets in cities across America on Tuesday, staging confrontations that were at times tense but largely nonviolent. Several pro-Palestinian groups held rallies and marches in front of Israeli consulates, at major intersections and at US politicians' offices, chanting anti-Israel slogans and demanding that the attacks on Gaza end. "Israel is a terrorist state," chanted some of the close to 1,000 participants in one of Tuesday's bigger demonstrations, held in Dearborn, Michigan, home to one of America's largest Arab populations. In Arabic, others said, "God is Great" and "A martyr is beloved of God." Protests were also held in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and several other cities, with Jewish groups scrambling to hold counter-demonstrations upon learning of events being held opposing Israel's action against Hamas. May Long, a retiree living in Florida, was among the 50 or so pro-Israel supporters who showed up in Ft. Lauderdale to voice support for Israel, in contrast to the hundreds that she estimated had gathered to call for a halt to Gaza attacks. She described protesters carrying signs proclaiming "Nuke Israel!" and heard chants of "Palestine to the Sea!" She said that extra police were called in to keep the two groups separate, but that some pro-Palestinian demonstrators still approached her group, giving them the finger and making other "aggressive" moves. The Ft. Lauderdale police and pro-Palestinian organizers in Florida, who billed the event as a National Day of Action to Stop the Massacre of Palestinians, could not be reached for comment. "I've never seen anything so frightening," said Long, an Israel activist who has participated in many similar rallies. The nature of the demonstration held in Boston was also different than previous encounters, according to Nancy Kaufman, the local Jewish Community Relations Council executive director. In the past, she said, anti-Israel rallies had only attracted a handful of participants, but Tuesday afternoon some 100 people came out to protest at the Israeli consulate. "There are bigger crowds than they've had before and they're better organized, and that's of great concern to us," she said, adding that antiwar groups seem to be involved in addition to local pro-Palestinian groups. Kaufman said she was pleased that some 200 pro-Israel counter-protesters turned out on short notice, outnumbering the other side. She said that she was helping to organize another event ahead of New Year's Eve in Boston later Wednesday when she heard that the pro-Palestinian group was planning something. "It's in the middle of a snowstorm, but we're doing it," she said. The ANSWER Coaltion, a national anti-war group that organized the national day of demonstration, also said that it was pleased with turnout despite the lack of preparation. "With such short notice, this is by far the biggest turnout we've had," said national coordinator Brian Becker of the thousands that protested across the country. He said that a wide number of groups joined answer, but that they were all united by the sentiment that Israel should stop its bombardment of Gaza and its blockade of the coastal strip. He added that Hamas's rocket attacks were a result of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and it was the latter that must change. The pro-Israel group Stand With US estimated that more than 500 people turned out to support Israel on Tuesday in New York, though that was likely less than came to back the other side. Outreach coordinate Avi Posnick said that more events were planned, as well as efforts to provide Israel supporters with information and pro-Israel messages to convey to the media and broader public. A few miles south at City Hall, Israeli Consul-General Asaf Shariv met with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, displaying an exploded rocket for reporters. "We are obligated to defend our people, and that is what we are doing," Shariv said. Bloomberg voiced his support. "I can only think what would happen in this country if somebody was lobbing missiles onto our shores or across the border," he said. Boston demonstrator Hillel Stavis said he sensed a good deal of public support for his side during the rally Tuesday, estimating that 90 percent of the drivers who honked while passing by, did so in support of the pro-Israel contingent. He noted that the event ended with the Israel group, bearing Israeli flags and calling for peace in the Middle East, singing "Hatikva," "Oseh Shalom," and other songs. The aim, he said, was "to give people a good, positive feeling and show the other side that Israel is here to stay." The Associated Press contributed to this report.