• ’We are at a crossroads’: Thousands protest West Bank annexation in Tel Aviv
    ’It’s up to all of us to stand up to authoritarian leaders’, Bernie Sanders told the crowd of protesters via video conference ■ Haaretz photographer tackled by police
    Lee Yaron, Josh Breiner | Jun. 6, 2020 | 10:23 PM

    A joint Jewish-Arab rally against Israeli plans to annex West Bank settlements took place Saturday in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square with thousands of participants.

    The protest was originally forbidden by the police due to fears over the coronavirus, but police relented and issued a permit on Friday night. Organizers have appointed some 50 supervisors who will ensure that coronavirus regulations are maintained.

    Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders addressed the rally via video conference, expressing his support for the protesters and condemnation of Israel’s annexation plans. The senator said that he was “heartened” to see Arabs and Jews demonstrating together.

    “In these difficult days … it has never been more important to stand up for justice, and to fight for the future we all deserve,” Sanders said. “It’s up to all of us to stand up to authoritarian leaders and to build a peaceful future for every Palestinian and every Israeli ... In the words of my friend Ayman Odeh: The only future is a shared future."

    A number of Israeli politicians also spoke at the the protest.

    Head of the Joint List alliance of Arab-majority parties, Ayman Odeh, told the crowd, “we are at a crossroads. One path leads to a joint society with a real democracy, civil and national equality for Arab citizens ... The second path leads to hatred, violence, annexation and apartheid,” Odeh said. "We’re here in Rabin Square to pick the first path,” he said.

    “There is no such thing as democracy for Jews alone,” Odeh added. “Just like Martin Luther King and his supporters in the United States, we must realize that without justice there can be no peace. And there will be no social justice if we do not end the occupation,” Odeh said.

    Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz told protesters, “annexation is a war crime. A crime against peace, a crime against democracy, a crime that will cost us in blood.” The left-wing party leader also criticized Defense Minister Benny Gantz and members of the center-left who joined the Netanyahu-led government: “You are full partners, you are backing and authorizing this tragedy.”

    Among the other speakers at the rally were Muhammad Baraka, chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee in Israel, MK Merav Michaeli, MK Tamar Zandberg, and MK Ofer Cassif.

    Director of Breaking the Silence, Avner Gvaryahu, referred to the U.S. administration’s Middle East peace plan, saying that “Trump isn’t sending his kids to guard the outposts … The children of American annexation supporters cannot be killed or kill out in the territories, but our kids can.”

    Tegan, a 17-year-old who came from Taibeh to protest, said that this is not her first demonstration and that Arab youth are starting to arrive more often to protest in Tel Aviv.

    “I’m protesting because enough with all this bloodshed. We need to make peace between Jews and Arabs now,” she said. "Enough racism, enough murder, we’re just over it. Bibi and Trump are racists and I’m a little, a lot, afraid of what will happen if there’s annexation. Last week I was at the women’s march and we want to tell the politicians that enough is enough.”

    Meanwhile, Simcha, a 50-year-old protester from Kfar Yona said, “we voted for Gantz because we thought that it would be an alternative and they betrayed us. Labor too.” Simcha added, “We’re tired of ingratiating ourselves to the center and hoping that they’ll bring change. We can only oppose the occupation and advocate for democracy in a Jewish-Arab partnership. Next time, I’m voting for the Joint List.”

    Dozens of police officers and guards monitored the demonstration. The police spokesperson said they have called on participants to uphold order, particularly in relation to the Health Ministry guidelines regarding the coronavirus by keeping a two-meter distance between one another and wearing masks.

    After the official event ended, a number of protesters stayed and blocked traffic surrounding the square. Police issued a statement saying, “with the conclusion of the protest in Rabin Square this evening, a handful of protesters stayed at the site and disturbed the public order by blocking traffic. Police call upon the protesters to restore order and obey officers’ instructions.”

    Protesters lay down on the pavement surrounding Rabin Square, echoing protests taking place around the world against police brutality which were sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. They shouted slogans including “Enough occupation,” “Police, who are you protecting?” “The occupation is terror and nothing will change that,” and “Eyad, Eyad and again Eyad,” in reference to the 32-year-old autistic Palestinian man who was shot dead by police in Jerusalem’s Old City last Saturday.

    Five protesters were arrested. Video showed police violently throwing a Haaretz photographer to the ground as he covered the protest. “I tried to film the policemen, and then they decided to arrest me,” photographer Tomer Appelbaum said. “One punched me, one kneed me and one shoved my head.”

    After initially telling organizers that they could not hold the protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, police said Friday that the demonstration would be allowed to proceed.

    The organizers welcomed the decision. “We did not give in to the attempts to silence us,” they said in a statement, “or give in to annexation, which will perpetuate the occupation and thwart the two-state solution.”

    Law enforcement authorities eventually gave the march their approval after lawmakers from the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties held talks with the police. Threats from left-wing activists to come to the square despite the ban also played a role in the decision.

    On Thursday, organizers said that police told them that they cannot hold the event in the Tel Aviv landmark due to coronavirus regulations. Police suggested that the protest be held in the city’s Yarkon Park instead, citing regulations and saying that too many people are expected to attend, according to activists.

    Police said in a statement that they had told organizers the square isn’t large enough for the number of protesters expected: “It was made clear to the organizers that the square can’t contain the amount of protesters expected to show up.” According to police, a proposal for an alternative location “was unfortunately turned down,” adding that the organizers “showed no responsibility for the protesters’ safety and health.”

    On Wednesday, police told organizers that they could not march and asked them to put a damper on attendance amid a rise in coronavirus cases, saying that a rally with more than 1,800 people in the square was forbidden. Organizers told police that protests with more participants had been held during periods with more stringent restrictions, but this failed to convince them, they said.

    Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh said on Twitter that Saturday’s event should go ahead as planned. “It isn’t surprising that the only demonstration the police are trying to prevent is an Arab-Jewish one against the annexation and the occupation and for peace and democracy,” he wrote. “The coronavirus is dangerous, but we mustn’t give up the right to protest in public.”

    Earlier this week, the police blocked a march against violence against women. A demonstration took place at Charles Clore Park instead, on Tel Aviv’s waterfront.

    Netanyahu has set July 1 as the deadline for beginning the process of unilaterally annexing settlements established in the West Bank since 1967, including the Jordan Valley. This week, he sought to reassure settler leaders that annexation would be promoted independently of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan. In past weeks, settlers have opposed the conditions delineated in the Trump plan, namely a freeze on settlement expansion and the isolation of some 15 settlements inside territories of a future Palestinian state, which they also oppose the establishment of.

    After the meeting with settlers leaders this week, Netanyahu’s office put out a statement that the prime minister is committed to negotiations with Palestinians under the Trump plan.