US rally against Israeli 'occupation' attracts smaller numbers than expected

Protesters wave Palestinian flags, call for the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

palestinian rally 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
palestinian rally 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Billed as a massive rally and the first national demonstration focusing on an end to the Israeli occupation, a pro-Palestinian protest held on the Capitol lawn Sunday afternoon drew upwards of 2,000 protesters chanting anti-Israel slogans, waving Palestinian flags and calling for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The sponsors, US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, United for Peace and Justice and 300 supporting organizations, said they were pleased with the turnout at the rally. Critics, though, called the smaller-than-expected turnout a poor showing for a nationally planned event. The rhetoric and signs on display were less vicious than at similar protests in other places, notably in Europe, which contributed to a relaxed atmosphere that heated up only slightly as the demonstrators were confronted by handfuls of pro-Israel advocates when they began their march to the White House. Most rally speakers were long-time peace activists and Palestinian partisans who led "occupation is a crime" chants and held banners proclaiming "all Israel is occupied." One speaker decried the joint occupation of America and Palestine, the latter by Israel, the former by AIPAC; many referred to Israel as an apartheid state. The event also featured a call from high-profile comedian Roseanne Barr for a reassessment of US foreign policy. "That change starts with our calling for the end of American taxpayer and American government [support] for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands," said the controversial Jewish performer in a statement that was read from the dais. "All of us, regardless of our national or our religious affiliations, seek a new policy in the Middle East based on equal rights for all." Barr was not the only Jewish presence at the rally, as groups including Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) brought supporters from around the country. JVP organizer Sydney Levy said it was important for the crowd to understand that Jews were among the participants because "some of these things are being done in our name and, more importantly, we're worried that some people are afraid of criticizing the occupation because they can be labeled anti-Semitic." Across from the rally, other Jewish groups demonstrated on behalf of Israel, holding Israeli and American flags and singing the Israeli national anthem. Only a couple hundred counter-protesters showed up, a turnout many attributed to the organized Jewish community's decision to largely ignore the event. "We didn't feel the need to bring it more attention," said Hadar Susskind, Washington director for the Jewish Council For Public Affairs. "We're focused on [holding] positive events." One Israel activist who did show up, though, said it was the other side who had the poor turnout. "I expected more on their side, and I'm actually quite pleased that they're small in numbers. They made a lot of noise on the Internet," said 27-year-old Washington resident Alex Nizhnikov, who sported an IDF T-shirt. The dozens of empty port-a-potties lining one side of the rally perimeter suggested that many more protesters had been expected, but US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation organizer Phyllis Bennis said she was "absolutely" pleased with the turnout. She wouldn't estimate the size of the crowd as she didn't want to get into a "numbers game." "This is a historic event. This is the first time there's been a national rally focused solely on ending US support for the Israeli occupation," she said, standing in front of the towering Capitol building. She added that the demonstration was aimed mainly at Congress and would be followed up by a lobbying day Monday with 200 visits to members of Congress representing 30 states. "There's a sea-change happening in public opinion" regarding Israel, said Bennis, explaining the timing of the rally, which also coincided with the 40th anniversary of Israel's victory in the 1967 war. "Public opinion is changing, but it doesn't happen overnight." She pointed to backing for the Israeli perspective in popular culture and the US education system to explain why more people haven't joined her cause yet. But Susskind differed with her assessment. "There continues to be a small minority of people who share their opinions," she said. "I think people think that the US and Israel share a special friendship and strategic relationship that benefits both countries."