From snow to hand biting, Israel protesters aren't shy

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

August 10, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM-- A group of Yemenite Jews, newcomers to Israel, began to protest when they found cars driven on the sabbath and "naked women" in bathing suits in their new neighborhood near Tel Aviv.

When Police Chief Tal Aharon came to talk to the protesters, they replied with what he graciously considers a traditional greeting: They bit him on the hand.

"There's a lot of things they don't know about Israel," the chief concluded. (The next day the Yemenites apologized, another contravention of Israeli custom.)

But Commander Aharon is a forgiving fellow. He got a tetanus shot, and he is offering the immigrants a police relations course including tips on how to stage a protest.

Demonstrations and protests are a vigorous art in Israel. There are many shortcomings of democracy here, but the exercise of free speech by Israelis is not one of them.

Take Gila Svirsky, for example. Almost every Friday for more than five years, she has stood, dressed in black, with other women at a major intersection in Jerusalem to protest Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It is not a popular position. But each Friday on cue, the Jerusalem police arrive to protect the protesters' right to be there. They even clear the square for the women.

The protection is necessary because hand-in-hand with the right of protest is the right to heckle.

"We don't do any carrying-on, chanting or anything. But we evoke a lot of hostility," she said. "They call us whores; they say screw you. I would say half the reactions have something to do with our sex. A few men have pulled down their pants."

Violence is not uncommon at Israeli political rallies.

"When the issues are very hot, individuals here are very expressive," said Janet Aviat, a political scientist at Hebrew University and veteran of 16 years of peace marches.

"They push, they shove, they curse, they defame, and they are also violent," she said. The worst incident was in 1983 when a grenade was thrown at a Jerusalem peace march. One man was killed.

Usually, though, the protests are more entertaining than threatening.

A settlers' group last month used a crane to swing a house over a busy highway. The house symbolized the government's willingness to uproot Jewish homes to gain a peace settlement in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, they said.

Peace negotiations at the prime minister's office have sometimes brought out a huge, 40-foot wooden caricature of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, erected by those opposed to a settlement with Arabs. It is an impressive construction job, if a bit ghoulish, with red-paint blood dripping from the hatchet in his hands and skeletons hung from his belt.

On one occasion, settlers in the Golan Heights urged a freeze to the negotiations by bringing 120 tons of snow to Jerusalem.

Currently, a protest-by-banner is draping buildings in Israel. Those opposed to the return of the Golan Heights have hung huge slogans on buildings across from the home of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Jerusalem, near his home in Tel Aviv, and along the route he takes to work.

Targeting one's audience is a proven method. Associates of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin said he was driven to despair by the vigil outside his home in the 1982 Lebanon war.

Mr. Rabin, too, seems bugged by the banner protest. He reportedly has instructed aides to see if the banners can be declared illegal.

When he goes to his office, Mr. Rabin passes a patch of trees that has become Israel's Lafayette Park. Ethiopians camped there to gain rabbi status for their religious leaders, Arabs camped there to protest deportations, families of victims of Arab attacks camped there to demand retribution.

Other protests are at home. The ultra-orthodox haredim expressed displeasure over the excavation of old burial sites by burning trash containers and breaking street lamps in their own neighborhood.

But the protest of the year was the one staged by farmers seeking higher prices for their poultry.

The farmers stood outside the fence of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and pelted anyone within throwing distance with eggs. Then they began tossing live and dead chickens over the fence.

There were no reports of legislators flocking to their cause.

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