Protests grow during the bloodiest week

TEL AVIV – Like many others, I have stopped counting the victims, Palestinian and Israeli. But from March 4 to 10 alone, at least 146 Palestinians and 42 Israelis have died because of the Israeli rulers’ refusal to withdraw from all occupied Arab territories and to evacuate the Jewish settlements there, as demanded by the U.N. Security Council and international law.

The soaring casualties followed the latest intrusions of Israeli elite troops with heavy tanks and helicopter gunships into refugee camps in the Palestinian West Bank. Over 100 Palestinians were killed. Several Israeli army and police personnel were also killed and many more wounded by the stiff resistance of armed Palestinians. The Israeli intruders also heavily damaged almost every home in the camps. In the Tulkarm refugee camp alone, all males aged 15 to 55 were ordered to assemble on a square. There, occupation officers made Nazi-type “selections.” While many were released, some 600 others were shackled and abducted, half- naked, to detention camps in Israel. Israel claimed “the Palestinian terrorists voluntarily surrendered to the Israeli troops.”

Suicide attacks by Palestinian fighters followed these provocations, causing many civilian deaths. These were followed by new retaliations by Israeli military forces.

Sharon declared, “We will fight with all our might ... until the defeated Palestinians will beg us to cease fire”.

Sharon is now under mounting pressure from the ever-growing Israeli forces protesting his iron-fist policy, demanding withdrawal from the occupied territories and evacuation of the settlements in exchange for an end to the bloodshed and a renewed hope for peace. He is also pressed by the growing demands from the European Union states and – although late and to a lesser degree – by the White House.

The wide international acceptance of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace initiative made Sharon feel he should slacken the reins a bit. He announced that President Arafat’s “house arrest” in his Ramallah headquarters would be partially relieved. Sharon even announced he might consider the Saudi initiative in one way or another.

But Israel’s peace forces will not fall for Sharon’s show of yielding to domestic and international pressures. The mass demonstrations, the solidarity with the Palestinian people – now coordinated and organized by a broad peace coalition of all major peace groups – are gaining strength daily. Now a person must decide which action to join on any day of the week.

On March 9, I participated in the solidarity climb on the rocky Carmel Mountain above the military prison near Atlith, demanding the release of army reserve officers and men jailed for refusing to serve in the occupied territories. From that hill, one can look into the prison yard and the prisoners’ living quarters. Huge banners demanded their release, as well as “Get out of the territories, let’s return home to ourselves.”

When I have participated in past solidarity climbs, there were usually 100 or 200 hard-core activists. This time it was totally different; climbers numbered about 500 or 600. This climb was also witnessed by thousands of Israeli visitors who spent the sunny weekend in the Carmel Mountain Nature Reserves, the picturesque mountain road to which starts just opposite the military prison. For the first time, Israel’s mass media and press had to cover it.