Last Friday morning, Dr Lionel Kopelowitz, president of the Board of Deputies, paid a courtesy call on Mr Yitzhak Shamir, Prime Minister of Israel, and no doubt exchanged pleasantries of a non-controversial nature. If the Board delegation had walked toward the Damascus Gate on Shabbat afternoon, they would have witnessed another side of the Israeli reality — the spectacle of unprecedented police violence against countless peaceful Arabs and Jews who were participating in linking arms around the one city of Jerusalem in the hope that the 1990s would bring peace to this troubled land.
The “Time for Peace” demonstration attracted over 25,000 people — many of whom brought young children. In a carnival atmosphere. Jews from all parts of Israel, thousands of Palestinians, Christians of every conceivable denomination from the Old City and many foreign visitors attended. Members from traditional communities including my own walked together after Shabbat morning services.
Despite repeated Likud opposition through the non-granting of visas to foreigners and attempts to stop bona-fide West Bank Palestinians from attending, the participants were in a very positive mood. In contrast, it was clear to me from the outset that the police were highly nervous and ready for action.
Standing with Israeli friends near the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem, at 2.40 — the prearranged time to link hands in this symbolic action for peace — I saw instead a blue cloud of tear-gas rise up from the crowd, nearby followed by the use of water cannon spraying green dye.
Hundreds of people ran towards us in panic chased by border police. A young woman from Ramallah told me that rubber bullets were being fired. A petrified Palestinian girl gripped my arm in fear — an ironic alternative to the linking of arms in peace. I saw about a dozen young Palestinians randomly apprehended and placed against the Wall by armed border police near the Damascus Gate. A number of Arab women implored us to intervene, possibly because some of us were wearing kipot.
Fortunately, Knesset Member Dedi Zucker appeared on the scene and skilfully calmed down a crowd of highly agitated Palestinians as well as negotiating with the border police. He adeptly defused a potentially explosive situation.
I am also convinced that had it not been for the presence of clearly identifiable Jews as well, as members of the international press, even more violent measures would have been used against these Palestinians. I saw no Palestinian flag and heard only occasional slogans chanted in Arabic and the repetition of “We want peace” in English. But even if nationalist slogans were chanted by an unrepresentative few, the over-reaction of the police in attacking a crowd of people who were armed only with their convictions, can in no way be justified. Rather than maintaining law and order, they undermined it.
The Government could not cope politically with this first joint Israeli-Palestinian mass demonstration in support of peaceful co-existence. It is also abundantly clear that the police were unable to cope with it either psychologically or emotionally.
Even after the demonstration finished, police literally chased anything that moved. One poor Italian woman who had remained indoors lost an eye due to the use of water cannon on a third floor window of the Pilgrim hotel. A tear gas grenade was thrown at the entrance of the National Palace Hotel where many foreign visitors were staying. The end result was that dozens were wounded and many required hospital treatment. Fifty were arrested.
If the spirit of the Old Israel asserted itself at the beginning of the afternoon with its emphasis on dialogue and reconciliation, then by its end, I witnessed the hallmark of a New Israel — tear gas, clubs, rubber bullets and water cannon turned against fellow Jews as well as Arabs.
Even so, olive branches were waved by thousands of Palestinians last Shabbat. It was a pity that Dr Kopelowitz and his colleagues were not there either to see them or to grasp them.
Jewish Chronicle 5 January 1990