Hundreds protest Israel's Gaza policies as Sderot rally releases peace balloons

Hundreds protest Israel

A year after Operation Cast Lead, hundreds of Arab Israelis and left-wing activists, led by Arab MKs, gathered at the Erez crossing to the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday to protest against Israel's Gaza policies and to express solidarity with the Strip's residents. At the same time, on the Gazan side of the border, 100 foreign activists and some 500 Gazans held their own demonstration. At both protests, people held Palestinian flags and banners and shouted slogans accusing Israel of war crimes and calling on it to "end the siege." During the demonstration in Israel, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh addressed the protesters, via mobile phone, thanking them for their support and telling them that Palestinians in Gaza remained strong despite the war. "We have overcome the occupation, and will meet at the Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem, which will remain Arab and Muslim," said Haniyeh. Lana Khaskia, general coordinator for the Women's Coalition for Peace, said people came from across Israel to take part in the demonstration. "People came from as far away as Haifa and Acre to show solidarity with the people of Gaza and to show that we are a united people despite the barriers that Israel placed between us," Khaskia said. "We remember the war crimes and will continue to take action to end the siege. The blockade is an ongoing war crime. Children in Gaza suffer from anemia because of malnutrition. Gazans cannot rebuild their homes because Israel won't allow them to import building materials." She said that the demonstration was part of an international campaign called the Gaza Freedom March, organized by American anti-war group Code Pink. "Some of the international activists were able to make it into Gaza and join the protests, but hundreds more are stuck in Egypt, not allowed to enter because of the Egyptian government's restrictions," Khaskia said. According to a press release issued by Code Pink, 1,362 activists from 43 countries were prepared to enter Gaza through Egypt's Rafah crossing on December 27, but were barred from doing so by President Hosni Mubarak. Activists later accepted an Egyptian offer to allow 100 delegates through. One activist who did make it into Gaza was Rabbi Dovid Feldman, from New York. Feldman, who belongs to the fiercely anti-Zionist Natorei Karta sect, said Israel's offensive in Gaza last winter was "against Palestine, against Judaism, against the Jewish people and against humanity." Meanwhile, a small group of Israeli youngsters led by Sderot Mayor David Buskila and Minister for Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein gathered near Kibbutz Nir Am, opposite Gaza, to release balloons attached with messages of peace from the children of Sderot for the children of Gaza. (See story below.) Edelstein said he heard that there was a demonstration being planned and thought Israel had to do something to counter the messages conveyed by the pro-Palestinian activists. "We wanted to do something that went beyond the ping-pong of accusations and counter-accusations. We wanted to convey a different message," he said. "Their side was full of hate, while our side sent a message of longing for peace." Edelstein told The Jerusalem Post that the peace rally illustrated the differences between the Israeli and Palestinian societies. "Israeli children take it for granted that despite all the fear and suffering that they went through, their government owes them a normal life. The fact that Haniyeh and his cronies steal from their children and use their resources to buy rockets cannot be blamed on Israel," he said. Edelstein said he was concerned by the foreign activists who came to support the Palestinians. "Some of them are cynical, radical left-wing activists whose world is black and white, where Israel is always in the black, but others don't really understand what's going on and instead of promoting peace and helping the children of Gaza, they are assisting the murderers and terrorists of Hamas," he said. Khaskia said she was aware of the Israeli demonstration taking place at the same time as theirs, but said the two groups could not cooperate. "They were carrying Israeli flags and for us it was clear it [what was needed] was a protest against Israel's policies. We waved Palestinian flags, the children of Sderot were waving the flag of the country that committed war crimes a year ago," she said. AP contributed to this report.