In the Southwest corner of Union Square, under the gaze of the park’s statue of Mahatma Ghandi, demonstrators lined up on Thursday evening to protest the violent crackdown by Israeli forces that have poured into Palestinian territory to search for three Israeli teenagers who disappeared two weeks ago. So far, Israeli soldiers have killed six Palestinians and arrested at least 371 others in their search for the missing boys, who Israel says were kidnapped from a West Bank settlement by members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The demonstration was organized by the New York chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that advocates for divestment strategies to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territory.
Jewish Voice for Peace member Pam Sporn said that group organized the event in order to give context to people in the United States about what’s happening in Palestine.
“Israel’s reaction, by seizing on these abductions, is totally out of proportion when I think of the kind of violence that is being reigned down on the Palestinians right now,” she said. “And I think it could be in response to the unity between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.”
Many of the demonstrators in Union Square said they believed Israel was using the kidnapping as a pretext for driving a wedge between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas which has had 64 of the social welfare operations it maintains in the West Bank shut down by the Israelis according to Time.com. The two Palestinian factions agreed in April to set aside their differences and form a unity government, which caused Israel to abruptly suspend its peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
Almost immediately after the teens went missing on June 12, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Hamas and said the kidnappings were the result of “ bringing a terrorist organization into the government.” So far, besides releasing the names of two men affiliated with Hamas that Israel claims are responsible, Israeli authorities have not revealed any evidence that Hamas is behind the kidnappings.
Jewish Voice for Peace member Tami Gold, who returned from Palestine a few days after the three boys went missing, said the Israeli response was so rapid that it almost seemed like they “were waiting for something like this to happen.” However, she said that she was shocked by the hostility average Israelis showed to the Palestinians.
“On my last day there I went to the Wailing Wall,” she said. “I heard terrible chants. They sounded very much like prayers. It was something like: “kill 1,000 Arabs.” They were saying it in English and in Hebrew. It was startling to see people in a religious context talk about killing.”
Some of the protestors with Gold carried signs depicting human silhouettes around the names of Palestinians recently killed by Israeli defense forces, including Nadeem Nuwara, the 17-year-old Palestinian who’s death by a mysterious bullet during a demonstration in May was recorded by a closed circuit television camera. Another sign depicted Mohammed Dudeen, the 15-year-old boy who was shot and killed last Friday during a clash with Israeli forces.
“We from Jewish Voice for Peace felt it was important to immediately get out here and say that the violence has to stop. People in the U.S. may have heard about the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers but they’re not learning about the violence coming from the Israelis,” said Sporn. “And they’re not learning about the hundreds of Palestinian children who are in detention in Israeli jails. They’re not hearing about the Palestinian hunger strikers who are being held without charge and without trial.”
Shahar Azani, consul for media affairs at the Israeli Embassy in New York, told The Indypendent that there was no comparison between the abduction of the three teenagers and the incarceration of Palestinians within the Israeli judicial system. He urged Jewish Voice for Peace to stop preaching politics and to loudly condemn the kidnappings.
“Why mention it when you have kids who were just abducted if you’re a humanitarian organization that claims to care about human beings?” He said. “Here’s a challenge: Don’t try to dilute the message. Come out and say abduction by terrorists is wrong.”
In a statement posted on its website, Jewish Voice for Peace states that it “condemns the kidnapping of Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach, the Israeli, West Bank teens abducted by, as yet, unidentified individuals while returning home from school.” However, the statement also condemns “the collective punishment being imposed on Palestinians as a response to the kidnapping of the three Israeli West Bank teenagers.”
Speaking at the protest in Union Square, Jewish Voice for Peace Member Candace Graff said, “I think it’s important that we made a fuss. I don’t know if this is going to change anything, but we handed out 500 flyers and maybe 15 people read them and thought about it for more than one second.”