Protesters On Israel's Left Push Without Protection

Protests over Israeli building projects in East Jerusalem, seized by Israeli forces in the 1967 war, have re-energized the Israeli left wing, with hundreds gathering for the largest demonstrations in years. But the weakness of left-wing parties in the current Israeli government has left the protesters vulnerable. With no political backing or support, dozens of activists have been arrested and a number of NGOs threatened.

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We turn now to news from the Middle East. Israel has long had a vibrant left-wing peace movement. Activists stage frequent rallies for peace with the Palestinians, sometimes joining Palestinian protestors. But this Israeli movement has been threatened lately by the arrest of many of its leaders, and the activists believe a lack of political backing in Israel has left them vulnerable.

Sheera Frenkel has more from Jerusalem.

SHEERA FRENKEL: The Friday protests in Nashaif Jerafni Road(ph) of East Jerusalem has become a rallying point for the Israeli left wing.

(Soundbite of protesting)

FRENKEL: What began as a march by a handful of activists has swelled into a weekly gathering of hundreds. Old men lean on canes next to mohawked teenagers from an anarchist group. In a small park just minutes away from the 1967 green line, they wage their fight against Jewish settlers, who were increasingly moving into neighborhoods like Shistra(ph), that Palestinians see as part of their future state.

The protestors say it is the first time in years that the Israeli left has been galvanized to this degree. Dede Ramez(ph) is a well known peace activist and blogger.

Mr. DEDE RAMEZ (Activist, Blogger): The reason so many people are here because there's a juncture here of basic justice, human rights, peace and civil liberties. It's accessible. It's people's hometown.

FRENKEL: But recently, a police crackdown has targeted organizers off the protest and police are threatening to band groups from holding similar rallies. Nearly 50 activists have been arrested, including figureheads of the left-wing movement, such as Hagai El-Ad, director of the Israeli Association for Civil Rights.

An Israeli police spokesman said the protest was illegal and those arrested had refused calls to disperse. Avnew Imbar(ph), one of the protest organizers, says the crackdown is part of a larger movement to stifle left-wing Israeli groups. He says the lack of political backing from any of the major left-wing parties has left them vulnerable to arrests and police intimidation.

Mr. AVNEW IMBAR: The police have been increasingly telling us that one of the reasons why they are so confident about their ability to keep arresting dozens of people, and sometimes even violently so, is that they feel that we have no backing. When they're there to arrest settlers or right-wing activists, there is entire array of (unintelligible) members and political leaders who are immediately getting to action and support their activists. When we are being arrested, sometimes they release a press release.

FRENKEL: For weeks, Israel's main left-wing parties, Merits and Labor, declined to send representatives to the rallies, due to the presence of what they called radical elements. Recently, some lower ranking left-wing parliamentarians have put in a brief appearance at the demonstrations in Jaif Jarah(ph). The left-wing protestors, says Imbar, are on their own.

Mr. IMBAR: (Unintelligible) is not officially backing. Things are deserting the activists in the camps themselves they are supposedly leaving. And I think that that's a very strong feeling that people here have, that we have been abandoned by the leadership. They're either tired or apathetic and they are simply no-shows.

FRENKEL: Meanwhile, the Israeli right-wing scored a long sought after victory this week, convincing Israeli lawmakers to expunge the criminal records of settlers who were arrested after protesting Israel's 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The left-wing activists have fought their own arrests in court, where they've twice won victories allowing them to continue their protests, as long as they do not disrupt traffic.

Dede Ramez says he'll keep coming to the rallies despite his arrest law week. He sees it as part of a bigger struggle - for the right of the left wing to continue voicing dissent.

Mr. RAMEZ: There's a whole generation of Israel, which is moving its belief and basic democratic values. I'm going to be arrested for as long as it takes.

(Soundbite of protesting)

FRENKEL: That's Ramez just before his arrest at last week's rally. He's singing to police that he won't be silenced.

But this Friday, few of the organizers, including Ramez, attended the protest. The new organizers are keeping a low profile, lest they be targeted. But for now, they say, the protests will go on.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem.

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