Rally for Palestinian cause fills streets of Washington

Largely peaceful event coincides with march against World Bank, IMF

April 21, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Palestinian solidarity dominated a wide-ranging and largely peaceful protest yesterday, as thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of the capital wearing T-shirts that read "We Are All Palestinians," chanting "Free! Free! Palestine!" and hoisting signs proclaiming "Freedom Fighters Are Not Terrorists."

The rally coincided with a protest of the annual spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But protesters accusing those institutions of creating misery and debt in the Third World were drowned out by pro-Palestinian crowds attacking U.S. financial and diplomatic support of Israel.

"The U.S. should not be supporting Israel at all," said Yasser Kader, 24, a Palestinian-American who attends law school at the University of Dayton. "Israel claims it's a war on terrorism, yet we're losing families. It's destruction and death over there. Everyone has someone they've lost."

Police reported no arrests. Officers were out in force, with National Guard troops on standby.

Ten other protests are set to continue through the weekend, ending tomorrow with another pro-Palestinian rally planned outside a Washington hotel where a pro-Israel group is to hold a conference.

"We're taking it one day at a time," said District Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. Later he said the protests probably drew 30,000 to 50,000 people. Police do not, however, make official crowd estimates.

Though the day was peaceful, many of the images were searing. A group of men carried a plywood coffin holding 7-year-old Philastine Mustafa (who later was suffering from heat exhaustion), to symbolize the deaths of Palestinian civilians.

Others held signs likening Adolf Hitler to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Israeli leader ordered attacks on West Bank villages in the wake of Palestinian suicide bombings that targeted Israeli civilians.

"There's a fallacy that Jews have horns and tails - well, Ariel Sharon does. He's Satan," said Ruth Lopez, 40, a New York City schoolteacher who held a sign picturing the Israeli leader as a horned beast.

She said the assaults on Palestinians holed up in Bethlehem in the Church of the Nativity, which Christians have traditionally venerated as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, are reigniting anti-Semitism around the world.

The demonstrations brought out a smattering of special interests, from Black Panthers to Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who called themselves "Nerds Against War." Various activists denounced corporate polluters, racial profiling, human rights abuses in Latin America, U.S. military strikes on Afghanistan and more.

By far, the loudest cries involved the Middle East. Protesters assailed the United States for giving about $3 billion in aid each year to Israel. They accused Bush officials of ignoring the devastation wrought by Israeli soldiers in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin on the West Bank.

Demonstrators also accused the administration of targeting Muslims as a group after Sept. 11 and faulted the Bush administration for adopting an open-ended war on terrorism instead of relying solely on diplomacy.

"The way the U.S. has been acting is just creating more terrorists - it cannot be the bully of the world anymore," said Nasim Alikhani, 42, an Iranian mother of two from New York City. "Sept. 11 was the aftermath of what the United States has already done, taking away people's voice and dignity so that they turn to terrorism."

Others found a Middle East connection to their own troubles. Rodney Ward, 36, a former US Airways flight attendant who lost his job amid the post-Sept. 11 airline industry layoffs, held U.S. aid to Israel partly responsible for his small unemployment checks.

"The U.S. government immediately gave billions of dollars to corporate bailouts, war and oppressive governments like Israel," said Ward, of Boston. "But it took the government six months to find a measly 13 extra weeks of unemployment for people like me."

Last week, tens of thousands rallied by the Capitol in support of Israel at an event that included speeches by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Declaring that event a success, major Jewish groups did not counter-protest yesterday.

The conservative group Free Republic staged a counter-demonstration near the Washington Monument intended to show support for U.S. troops and Bush's war on terrorism. It was sparsely attended.

Still, the pro-Palestinian message alienated some demonstrators who might otherwise have come out to protest the World Bank and the IMF. Mainstream groups such as the AFL-CIO kept their ranks home.

The day included only one speech by a lawmaker, Georgia Democratic Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney.

The protests were far less tense than in April 2000, when police arrested about 1,300 anti-globalization activists at the World Bank and IMF headquarters in Washington.

Still, some of yesterday's protesters were eager to provoke. Outside the World Bank, a few demonstrators burned an American flag while others adorned themselves with pieces of the Stars and Stripes. Activists accused the Bush administration of stepping on civil liberties in its anti-terror crackdown.

Many demonstrators said the war on terrorism has intimidated critics of U.S. policy. It was time, they said, that those critics spoke up.

"I just wouldn't feel right if I wasn't here," said Nicole Abaid, 21, a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "People who don't agree with the Bush administration have been letting their opinions be marginalized - they're afraid of being tagged as `un-American.' "

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