Thousands of Israelis gathered at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night to march in a protest, led by the Arab community, against the controversial nation-state law.
Organizers said the demonstration drew at least 30,000 people.
It was the second such demonstration against the legislation in as many weekends, with last week’s gathering, led by the Druze community, drawing at least 50,000 people.
Dozens of the protesters at Saturday’s protest carried Palestinian flags, defying a request by the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, which organized the demonstration, not to wave the flags at the event. At times, some participants chanted in support of Palestine and against Israel, including cries of “With blood and fire, we will redeem Palestine,” and “Million of martyrs are marching to Jerusalem.”
Protesters marched from Rabin Square to the Tel Aviv Museum Square, where a rally took place under the banner: “No to the nation-state law, yes to equality.”
Organizers of the protest had urged participants not to wave Palestinian flags as to not deter Jewish Israelis from attending the protest march in solidarity. But despite the request, dozens of activists from the Arab Knesset party Balad — one of the three factions in the Knesset’s 13-MK Joint (Arab) List party — were seen waving Palestinian flags at the demonstration, as were marchers in the streets en route to the rally. Balad had harshly criticized the request not to carry the Palestinian flag.
Other protesters carried signs in Hebrew and Arabic demanding: “Justice and equality now” and others calling the law “apartheid.”
Former MK Mohammad Barakeh, a longtime leader of the left-wing Hadash party who currently heads the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, told the crowd during a speech that the demonstrators were all at the square to “erase this abomination and remove the stain made by Netanyahu and his government called the nation-state law.”
Barakeh told a Times of Israel reporter at the event that the committee had “asked the public not to bring [Palestinian] flags, but I can’t control what people do.”
On stage, Barakeh was quoted as saying it is the “flag of the oppressed Palestinian people, the flag they are trying to eradicate from history via the nation-state law.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to Twitter to criticize the display, posting a short video of protesters waving Palestinian flags and writing that there was “no better testament to the need for the nation-state law.”
“We will continue waving the Israeli flag and singing Hatikva with great pride,” he wrote.
The head of the Joint (Arab) List, Ayman Odeh, told Ynet before the protest that “thousands of Arabs and Jews are making their way to Tel Aviv with a democratic and ethical message [against] the nation-state law. A democratic state must be a state for all its citizens.”
The Arab Higher Monitoring Committee had organized some 300 buses for the event, filled with participants from at least 26 non-governmental organizations, a majority of them left-wing.
No high-profile politicians or figures were set to participate at the rally.
Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay, head of the Zionist Union, said that while he backed efforts to amend the nation-state law, he would not attend the protest since he said it would include Palestinian nationalist elements.
“I can’t go to a protest where they are calling for the ‘right of return,” he told Hadashot. “I can go to a protest that calls for equal rights,” he added.
Israel has long insisted that the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, as defined by the Palestinians, is a non-starter in peace negotiations. The UN categorizes as refugees not just those Palestinians who were displaced or expelled from their homes in 1947 and 1948, but also all of their descendants. No other refugee population is treated as such, and so the Palestinian refugee population increases each year, and now numbers in the millions, while the rest of the world’s decreases.
As a consequence, accepting the “right of return” would mean millions of Palestinians being allowed to enter Israel, ending Israel’s majority Jewish status.
The nation-state law, passed by the Knesset July 19, for the first time enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” and says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” It also defines Arabic as a language bearing a “special” status, effectively downgrading it from its de facto status as Israel’s second official language.
Arab citizens make up some 20 percent of Israel’s population.
The Arab Higher Monitoring Committee was among a group of Arab Israeli organizations that petitioned the High Court of Justice against the law earlier this week.
Their petition said the law passed by the Knesset last month denied Palestinian national rights and was “colonialist,” “racist,” and “massively harmful to fundamental human rights.”
The government has argued the new law merely enshrines the country’s existing character, and that Israel’s democratic nature and provisions for equality are already anchored in existing legislation.