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Quiet Arab ‘March of the Dead’ Delivers Loud Message to Israeli Society

18:00 Aug 6 2023 Habima Square (כיכר הבימה), Tel Aviv (תל־אביב-יפו , تل أبيب - يافا )

Quiet Arab ‘March of the Dead’ Delivers Loud Message to Israeli Society Quiet Arab ‘March of the Dead’ Delivers Loud Message to Israeli Society Quiet Arab ‘March of the Dead’ Delivers Loud Message to Israeli Society Quiet Arab ‘March of the Dead’ Delivers Loud Message to Israeli Society
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Sabree and her two sons, one of whom is holding up a photograph of Jihad Hammoud, murdered while out running in October 2021. Credit: Linda Dayan Published by Haaretz

Arab protesters sitting next to prop coffins as they stage a mock funeral march in a demonstration against the government's failure to address spiraling gun violence in the community, in Tel Aviv on Sunday. Credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS Published by Haaretz

Hagai Ilani with a sign reading “Israel’s government: Don’t stand on the blood of your citizens.” Credit: Linda Dayan Published by Haaretz

Some of the thousands of demonstrators gathering at Habima Square on Sunday evening. Credit: Linda Dayan Published by Haaretz
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Thousands of Arab and Jewish protesters came together on Sunday night in Tel Aviv to call on the government to combat the spiraling violence that has claimed 141 lives so far this year in the Arab community. ‘We’re citizens of Israel, we shouldn’t be so afraid to go out,’ says one demonstrator

by Linda Dayan for Haaretz
Aug 7, 2023 4:08 pm IDT

Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, an impressive crowd had gathered in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square on Sunday evening. On the side, a group of mostly teenage girls were wearing white robes over their clothing – recalling both the red Handmaids’ outfits seen at pro-democracy protests and burial shrouds. They carried signs in Arabic and Hebrew with slogans such as “Life,” “20 percent of citizens are 72 percent of murders” and “We pay taxes, not protection money.”

The protesters were getting into formation for the March of the Dead, a protest led by civil society organizations in the Arab community against the government’s inaction at spiraling violence in the Arab community. As of Sunday, 141 members of the Arab community have been murdered this year.

At the square, young men sat beside prop coffins as an organizer gave marchers instructions in Arabic through a megaphone.

Nagham Nasrallah, who works with the Arab-Jewish nongovernmental organization AJEEC (which also helped organize the event), is from Kalansua in central Israel’s Triangle region – an area that has been reeling from the violence. “I came because I wanted our scream, as the Arab community, to reach everyone in Israeli society,” she said. “We want to say that we’re a community with an inclusive and loving culture, and that we’re not a violent culture. It’s important that the entire Israeli society sees that.”

She added: “I want all the guns in the Arab community to be confiscated, all the violence to cease immediately. I want everyone who thinks they’re immune to the consequences of dealing with guns or working with crime organizations to have the law enforced upon them. I want the police to enforce the law for everyone – for crime organizations and anyone who wants to bring violence into the Arab community.”

Not far from her stood Sabree with her husband and two young children from Kafr Eilabun, northern Israel. “We’re a social-democratic country, but we feel like we have no security,” she said. “Our children feel unprotected. Kids are being killed left and right, and there’s no law enforcement. We want to live in peace, we want security – for us and our children. We’re citizens of Israel, we shouldn’t be so afraid to go out.”

She was holding a picture of Jihad Hammoud, a 33-year-old man who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in October 2021 while out running with friends. “He was supposed to get married this year,” Sabree said. “All he did was work out outside, and he was killed, he was shot to death. We’re a democratic country, a country of rule of law, and this is what happens.

“I’m a citizen in this country, like any other,” she added. “Just as there is law enforcement in any other place, they can enforce the law among the Arab community. We’re not second-class citizens.”

As the protest neared its start time, more and more Hebrew filled the air among the thousands of demonstrators. Very few Jewish lawmakers or even ex-politicians joined, among them Labor Party chair Merav Michaeli and former MKs Rabbi Micahel Melchior, Yair Golan and Mossi Raz.

Some of the Jewish participants were wearing the black T-shirts of the pro-democracy protest groups and anti-occupation bloc, but others were wearing white in solidarity. A handful brought along the Israeli flags that are emblematic of the Saturday night protests, but most left them at home.

Hagai Ilani from Netivot showed up in solidarity, wearing a small white kippa and with a sign reading “Israel’s government: Don’t stand on the blood of your citizens.”

“I think this is something you have to take part in, to protest against this violence that’s running rampant. There is a fear – or suspicion – that the person who heads the police these days is kind of enjoying this situation,” he said, referring to Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister and head of the extremist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party.

“As a religious man, as a Jewish man with values,” Ilani continued, “I think what’s happening is a very big hilul hashem, a major embarrassment, that these things are happening under our watch. Of course, the greatest shame is on the crime organizations, but our responsibility as a society is to eradicate this phenomenon. If, God forbid, my neighbor in the Jewish community is killed or something happens involving crime gangs, I have someone to call on – I talk to the police. I expect that they’d protect me. And I expect them to do the same in the Arab community.”

Rising death count

The procession was unlike Tel Aviv’s other protests over the past eight months. Those who brought along earplugs – a necessity for the weekly Kaplan Street demonstrations – needn’t have. The March of the Dead was quiet and subdued, letting the signs and banners speak for themselves. Someone held a printed sign with the number of Arabs murdered this year, but the final two digits were taped on after the fact: the count had risen since the sign was made.

Thousands marched down Ibn Gabirol Street: women of all ages in hijabs; men in the garb of initiated Druze; teens with dyed hair and piercings; a man whose shirt declared him to be a Paratroopers veteran; older women offering each other water in Hebrew; a little boy whining to his exhausted father in Arabic.

At the Tel Aviv Museum of Art courtyard where the procession ended, the dozens of prop coffins were laid out. A small crowd gathered around a tall man who was wearing the long black thobe and Sunnah cap of pious Muslims. He was holding large photographs of a preschool-age boy who bore a striking resemblance to the little girl clinging to the side of the man’s black robe.

An older Jewish woman asked him who it was. He explained in Hebrew that his son Ammar Hujayrat, barely 4, had been killed while having fun on a playground 18 months ago.

He recounted how the last thing his son had said to him was that he was angry at his father; that the gunmen were found and jailed, but served such a short sentence that they were already out of prison.

“I’m always reliving what happened,” he said, noting that another son, Omar, who is a year younger than Ammar was, looks just like him and is always asking for his big brother. His composure started to crack and, like everyone gathered around him, he began to cry. After a beat, a Jewish man leaped from the crowd to embrace him. At first the man looked taken aback, but then grasped him.

There was nothing quite so dramatic on the stage. There were speeches from activists, celebrities, mayors, bereaved parents – the Arab lawmakers who wove through the audience came as guests. The audience was well-trained from years of protests, knowing when to chant “shame, shame!” as another of the Netanyahu government’s misdeeds was mentioned.

But then former Likud lawmaker and Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit took the stage. His messages – that the Likud party once saw itself as a champion of civil rights; the evils of the judicial overhaul – were not well received. “He’s a good speaker,” puzzled one attendee, “why did he come with the completely wrong speech?”

A group of young Arab adults started booing him, a call that became much louder when Sheetrit boomed into the microphone that so few Arabs come to the Saturday night protests and must start doing so. “Join in! Learn! Draft to the army!” he called, to displeasure so loud that his insistence on remaining onstage seemed like a remarkable display of overconfidence.

As the crowd thinned and the event ended, the attendees filed out of the museum’s courtyard. “A lot more people came than I expected,” said a man in Hebrew, in a shirt reading “Arab lives matter.” “I thought we’d get a few hundred.” The woman he was with agreed.

The buses from Israel’s Arab periphery had been bolstered by many members of Jewish Israel’s democratic movement, who helped amplify the voices of those screaming out – albeit quietly – for an end to the killings.
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