Jerusalem — President George W. Bush’s three-day visit to Israel has spurred a rush of grass-roots activism by Israelis who want the American and Israeli governments to hear their message.
Unfortunately for the protesters, the government’s decision to hermetically seal much of Jerusalem from Wednesday through Friday, coupled with its reluctance to grant permits for anything requiring even a modest police presence — meant that most events had to be held prior to Bush’s arrival.
On Monday supporters of Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel, gathered in the city center to demand his release from prison.
On Tuesday those opposed to giving the Palestinians part of East Jerusalem and the West Bank tried to form a human chain around the Old City walls. Later that day, Women in Green and other right-wing organizations gathered in the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa, situated over the Green Line but within city limits, to protest the Bush administration’s demand that Israel freeze building on all land Israel captured in 1967.
Left-leaning groups also made their voices heard during Monday’s demonstration at the Migron Outpost, the largest unauthorized outpost in the West Bank.
“We felt it was our duty to concentrate on the issues we feel should be on the agenda between President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert,” said Peace Now spokesman Yariv Oppenheimer a day after about 100 protestors converged on the Migron Outpost.
Oppenheimer said the political left has decided to concentrate on the more than 100 outposts established without permission from the Israeli government “because we know this issue is very important to the American government and the Palestinians. We wanted to show everyone that it’s also an important issue for at least part of Israeli society.”
The demonstration at Migron was vital, Oppenheimer said, because average Israelis stay informed about settlements and outposts “from what we and the media report.” Israelis, he said, view outposts as being “far away, deep in the West Bank, and we need to bring them back to the public discussion.”
The fact that the American government is opposed to the outposts is just one reason to dismantle them, Oppenheimer said.
Israelis and Palestinians are both affected by the outposts on a day-to-day basis, he said.
“Some of the Palestinians living near them suffer from abuse, their children are threatened [by outpost dwellers] on their way to school. And we keep getting phone calls from the families of Israeli soldiers who have to spend a week or two guarding these illegal settlements.”
In the hours leading up to Tuesday’s Har Homa demonstration, Nadia Matar, co-founder of Women in Green, said the Bush visit was an opportunity for those opposing territorial compromise “to continue our campaign, begun the day after the expulsion from Gush Katif, to assert our biblical and historical rights to the Land of Israel, for the right of Jews to live everywhere in the Land of Israel.”
Once the rally ends, Matar said, demonstrators planned to accompany trucks filled with building materials “donated by friends of Israel all over the world” either to “settlement hilltops to create new outposts or to expand the existing outposts we created during Chanukah.”
Matar termed it “incredible” that a “foreign leader is telling the Jewish people not to build in their own homeland. How would Americans feel if someone told them it is forbidden to build a new neighborhood in Washington or New Mexico or anywhere else in their country? Americans would never accept such a decree.”
A rally organized by One Jerusalem, a group fighting for Jerusalem’s continued unification, fell far short of its goal Tuesday of completely surrounding the entire Old City Walls with demonstrators.
Even so, at least a couple thousand people, most of them young and religious, and lots of journalists, turned out for the event, meant to send the Bush and Olmert governments a strong message.
“We’re here to show support for a unified Jerusalem and to remind President Bush that God gave Jerusalem and the Land of Israel to the Jewish people,” Eitan Behar, deputy director of the World Beitar youth organization, said during the demonstration outside the rain-drenched Jaffa Gate. His group brought two buses full of students to the rally.
Lea Shapiro, an 18-year-old from New Rochelle spending a year at the Midreshet HaRova seminary in Jerusalem, said she had decided to brave the inclement weather “because the Land of Israel is a gift from God to the Jewish people. No one has the right to take it away from us,” she almost shouted.
At yet another rally timed to take advantage of Bush’s trip, demonstrators said it is high time for Olmert to press Bush harder for Pollard’s release. (On Monday night the Pollard campaign called off protests planned for Bush’s visit.)
The event, which included a renaming ceremony of French Square to Jonathan Pollard Square located opposite the Prima Kings Hotel, on the main route between the prime minister’s residence and the American Consulate’s West Jerusalem branch, was organized by the Jerusalem City Council in coordination with the Jerusalem-based Committee to Bring Jonathan Pollard Home and Justice4JP.
As Israeli and American flags waved overhead in the soft breeze, David London, executive director of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, said Bush’s visit provided an opportunity to remind the president that Israelis have not forgotten Pollard.
“This is the best time to press for his release because Bush is on his way out of office. Traditionally, American presidents pardon many people as they’re finishing up their term.”
Kenny Lerner, a Jerusalemite who moved from Riverdale 11 years ago, was less diplomatic.
“President Bush is pushing for the release of terrorists who committed murder. All we’re asking for is Pollard’s release. He’s served his time. Enough is enough,” Lerner said.