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On July 19 I joined a licensed march in Haifa against the Gaza war. Typically such demonstrations draw a few hundred people who gather to shout slogans: “Girls in Gaza and Sderot want to stay alive,” “Money for education, not for occupation.” The Israeli press mostly ignores them. They thus achieve little either as acts of solidarity with Palestinians or as political pressure. Still, I felt an urge to go. Many innocent Gazan children were being killed in my name.
The day of the protest, the sound of a crowd reached my open windows. I was surprised. It was too early and too loud to be the demonstration. An optimistic thought crossed my mind—a huge antiwar march—but I knew that couldn’t be. I drove, following the sound to the main road where counter-protesters with Israeli flags walked toward the meeting point. I kept going until the road was blocked, not by the demonstration but by a huge crowd, mostly men, many in black shirts, holding the Israeli flag in one hand and a stick in the other. Some wore the flag like a toga. Their shouts were loud and clear: “Death to the Arabs! Death to the traitors! Death to the leftists!”
Through my open car window, I heard one flag-wearing guy tell others where the police had sent the protestors. He explained how they could get around police lines so they could “punch some Arab suckers and their leftist whores.” Another, holding a meter-long stick, leaned in my window and asked, “Hey brother, did you see the bus of the Arab sluts parking?” I mumbled, “What? No. Maybe.” He stood back, waved his stick, and joined the chanting: “Death to the Arabs! Death to the leftists!”
As a traffic jam grew behind me, I saw the police across the street with horses, truck-mounted water cannons, and lots of special forces. I know these people; I have seen them in action and even worked with them on one occasion in 2000 as a commando on the Lebanese border. They have zero tolerance for road blocking. When they declare a gathering illegal, the order is given and they fire the water cannons. Then horses enter the crowd from the front and more troops arrive from the sides. In Palestinian neighborhoods, tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets come next. The police, acting in groups of three, knock people to the ground and arrest anyone on the road. Crowds dissipate like dust.
An officer declared the gathering illegal, so I thought I knew what would happen next. But instead of sending in his men, he told the mob, “I don’t want to disperse you, please keep on being cooperative. Don’t block the entire road.” It took the police more than fifteen minutes to open one lane.
I was shocked. The police were not going to protect our march. And their message to the mob was clear: we know your actions are illegal, but we are backing you.
I parked and found my way to the demonstration through the crowd of flag wearers. In the small garden where the police concentrated us, a shrinking number of demonstrators shouted, “Stop the shootings, stop the hate, we don’t want a fascist state.” But another chant continued, louder: “Death to the Arabs, death to leftists.” The mob threw stones and bottles at us over the policemen’s heads; they used tear gas against us. When I asked an officer to help me remove a wounded protestor, he refused. “He shouldn’t come out here from his hole,” the officer said. We were not going to stop the fascism that night.
When I decided to go home, I realized that none of the Arab protestors would be safe leaving the garden. I saw Arab women trying to plan their way out. I suggested escorting one through the mob with this plan: “I will speak Hebrew loudly and you will keep silent. I will chat about my research, and we will safely cross the road like two Jews leaving that café.” For years I have opposed my government’s policies, but I was never so ashamed to be an Israeli Jew as in that moment.
Many innocent people have lost their lives in Gaza. I lost only the freedom to express my thoughts in my neighborhood streets.
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