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Jewish Journal

Hague Protest Mideast Conflict

by Toby Axelrod

February 26, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Bridgit Kessler, front, mourns the death of her daughter by a Palestinian suicide bomber during a protest Monday, Feb. 23, 2004, at The Hague. Photo by Toby Axelrod/JTA

Bridgit Kessler, front, mourns the death of her daughter by a Palestinian suicide bomber during a protest Monday, Feb. 23, 2004, at The Hague. Photo by Toby Axelrod/JTA

Holland turned into a staging ground for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week, as demonstrators converged on The Hague to talk about Israel's security barrier and Palestinian terrorism.

As the International Court of Justice held hearings on the West Bank security fence, thousands of Israel supporters from across Europe, Israel and the United States gathered in the streets outside The Hague's Peace Palace.

On Monday, the same square used by about 3,000 pro-Israel demonstrators later became the site of a pro-Palestinian demonstration of slightly smaller size. For the most part, Dutch police managed to keep the twogroups apart, but the police's efforts did not temper demonstrators' vehemence toward each other -- and for theircause.

"I came because of the suicide bombings," said Derya Yalimcan, 30, a Turkish student who came with adelegation of students from Germany to support Israel's cause. "You can't do anything about it and you feel helpless. What else can we do besides come to this demonstration?"

To make their argument more poignant, the demonstrators brought with them an Israeli bus mangled in the Jan. 29 Jerusalem suicide bombing, in which 11 people were killed just around the corner from the Israeli prime minister's official residence. Demonstrators said a hush fell over the crowd when the flatbed truck bearing the shattered bus rolled in.

In a disturbingly familiar image, 10 members of Zaka, the ultra-Orthodox rescue and recovery service that collects victims' body parts after terrorist attacks in Israel, stood around the bus in their yellow work suits. Iris Boker, director of Zaka in Europe, said the bus had such a strong effect that it would probably be sent to other demonstrations, rather than be returned to Israel. She said there were several requests from U.S. groups to use the bus.

On Monday, unlike on Sunday -- when Zaka volunteers in Jerusalem had to clean up after another suicide bombing in the Israeli capital killed eight -- the Zaka volunteers at The Hague served a purely cosmetic purpose: They came to Europe to help convey a graphic understanding of the impact of terrorism in Israel.

Miri Avitan came to the demonstration at The Hague with a photo of her son, Assaf, who was killed at his 15th birthday party in a suicide bombing in December 2001.

"He was celebrating his birthday with his friends, and all his friends died," Avitan said.

Bridgit Kessler's daughter, Gila, was killed in a suicide bombing on June 19, 2002.

"That was the day I died," said her mother, who has three other children. "I don't want to have to wake up one day and they should tell me one of my kids has died."

Much of the funding and logistical support for the pro-Israel rallies came from the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helped organize delegations of students to come to The Hague from Israel, France, England, Germany, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands. Hundreds also came from the United States.

"After the lessons of Durban and Johannesburg, one cannot leave the street to the Palestinian propaganda," Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, said, referring to the virulently anti-Israel demonstrations at the U.N. conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, in the summer of 2001.

The bulk of the activity outside The Hague occurred Monday, with a series of marches and news conferences on both sides.

On Tuesday, a pro-Israel Dutch lobbying group, the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, held "alternative hearings" at The Hague's former City Hall to provide a counterpoint to the official court hearing on the fence.

Flanked at the event by two E.U. Parliament members, about 20 victims and relatives of Israeli terrorism victims, including Druse and Arabs, spoke at a packed news conference about shattered bodies and shattered lives -- and about peace.

Arnold Roth, 52, who with his wife created a foundation in memory of their daughter, Malka, who was killed in the suicide bombing at Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant in August 2001, said he was shocked to be asked by reporters whether the suffering of Palestinians is not the same as his suffering.

"When my daughter was murdered, her cell phone was returned to us," said Roth, a member of a group called Israeli Families for Peace. "On it she wrote the words, 'It is wrong to speak ill of others.' But that isn't what they [the parents of Palestinian terrorists] are teaching their children."

At Palestinian counterdemonstrations at The Hague, protesters assembled bearing Palestinian flags, signs calling for the ''end of occupation" and pictures of Palestinians killed during the current intifada.

Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset who is close to Yasser Arafat, spoke at the Palestinian demonstration.

"People who are here are putting the occupation into the important international scene," he said. "If you are against the wall, you are pro-life."

The Palestinian demonstration was disbursed prematurely by Dutch police. An Israeli television reporter said he saw some Palestinian participants trying to physically attack nearby pro-Israel demonstrators.

According to Ronny Naftaniel, director of the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, a pro-Israel Dutch group, said Dutch police reported that several demonstrators were carrying signs comparing the Star of David to the swastika, which is illegal in Holland.

Shelley Klein, advocacy director at Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization of America, said the demonstrators outside the Peace Palace were not as bad as during the U.N. conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, in the summer of 2001, which turned into an occasion for unrestrained Israel-bashing.

The United States and Israel boycotted that event in protest. They did not attend hearing either. The United States said the International Court was not the right forum to decide a political issue, and Israel said it would not attend because it does not recognize the court's jurisdiction in the matter of the fence.

Testimony against the fence came from the Palestinian representative to the United Nations, Nasser al-Kidwa, and several other Palestinian lawyers who spoke uninterrupted for about three hours; South Africa's deputy foreign minister, and representatives from Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, among others.

Outside, some pro-Israel demonstrators said that while they did not support construction of Israel's security barrier, they wanted to draw attention to the reason for it -- terrorism.

"It is not an Israeli fence; it is a Hamas fence; it is an Islamic Jihad fence," said Joel Kaplan, president of B'nai B'rith International and representative of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said, "The issue is not whether or not you support the route of the fence, the issue is the Court of Justice is not the proper place to determine the peace process."

Wexler was joined by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). Both are members of the House International Relations Committee. Chabot said, "The people who ought to be on trial today are the people who are training children to aspire to be suicide bombers, not people who build fences to protect innocent lives."

Alan Sermonetta, 37, came to The Hague with a group of about 100 Jews from Rome.

"I want the wall not to separate two states but just for security," Sermonetta said.

A contingent of students from Yeshiva University in New York carried a large banner and danced the hora in two groups, men and women.

Derya Yalimcan, 30, a Turkish student from Germany, said he came to protest the hearings, because Israel is one of Turkey's few allies in the Middle East.

"I came because of the suicide bombings," he said. "You can't do anything about it, and you feel helpless. What else can we do besides come to this demonstration?"

Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York, president of Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, said he was disappointed that the pro-Israel demonstrators seemed unwilling to shout.

"Don't be afraid; raise your voices," he urged.

Alongside the Jewish supporters of Israel, Christians for Israel held their own pro-Israel march. More than 1,000 participants carried photographs of Israeli terrorism victims.

Thys Bovernkamp from Holland held up a card for someone who was killed in Sunday's suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

"I don't know the name, only the number -- 928," he said.

JTA correspondent Rachel Levy at The Hague contributed to this report.

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