Thousands of Israelis gathered at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night to march in a protest, led by the Arab community, against the controversial nation-state law.
It was the second demonstration against the legislation in as many weeks, with last week’s gathering, led by the Druze community, drawing at least 50,000 people.
Many of the protesters at Saturday’s protest carried Palestinian flags, in defiance of a request by the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, which organized the demonstration, not to wave the flags at the event.
Protesters were marching approximately a kilometer from Rabin Square to the Tel Aviv Museum Square, where a rally was scheduled to take place under the banner: “No to the nation-state law, yes to equality.”
Organizers of the protest had urged participants not to wave Palestinian flags as to not deter Jewish Israelis from attending the protest march in solidarity. But despite the request, dozens of activists from the Arab Knesset party Balad — one of the three factions in the Knesset’s 13-MK Joint (Arab) List arty — were seen waving Palestinian flags at the demonstration, as were marchers in the streets en route to the rally. Balad had harshly criticized the request not to carry the Palestinian flag.
Other protesters carried signs in Hebrew and Arabic demanding: “Justice and equality now” and others calling the law “apartheid.”
The head of the Joint (Arab) List, Ayman Odeh, told Ynet before the protest that “thousands of Arabs and Jews are making their way to Tel Aviv with a democratic and ethical message [against] the nation-state law. A democratic state must be a state for all its citizens.”
The Arab Higher Monitoring Committee had organized some 300 buses for the event, filled with participants from at least 26 non-governmental organizations, a majority of them left-wing.
No high-profile politicians or figures were set to participate at the rally.
Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay, head of the Zionist Union, said that while he backed efforts to amend the nation-state law, he would not attend the protest since he said it would include Palestinian nationalist elements.
“I can’t go to a protest where they are calling for the ‘right of return,” he told Hadashot. “I can go to a protest that calls for equal rights,” he added.
Israel has long insisted that the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, as defined by the Palestinians, is a non-starter in peace negotiations. The UN categorizes as refugees not just those Palestinians who were displaced or expelled from their homes in 1947 and 1948, but also all of their descendants. No other refugee population is treated as such, and so the Palestinian refugee population increases each year, and now numbers in the millions, while the rest of the world’s decreases.
As a consequence, accepting the “right of return” would mean millions of Palestinians being allowed to enter Israel, ending Israel’s majority Jewish status.
The nation-state law, passed by the Knesset July 19, for the first time enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” and says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” It also defines Arabic as a language bearing a “special” status, effectively downgrading it from its de facto status as Israel’s second official language.
The Arab Higher Monitoring Committee was among a group of Arab Israeli organizations that petitioned the High Court of Justice against the law earlier this week.
Their petition said the law passed by the Knesset last month denied Palestinian national rights and was “colonialist,” “racist,” and “massively harmful to fundamental human rights.”
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued the new law merely enshrines the country’s existing character, and that Israel’s democratic nature and provisions for equality are already anchored in existing legislation.
But critics, both at home and abroad, say it undermines Israel’s commitment to equality for all its citizens outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
It has prompted particular outrage from Israel’s Druze minority, whose members say the law’s provisions render them second-class citizens. Last week, at least 50,000 Israelis attended the Druze-led demonstration against the law in Rabin Square.
The legislation was passed as one of the so-called Basic Laws, which, similar to a constitution, underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.
Several other petitions against the law have also been filed to the High Court, demanding it be overturned on constitutional grounds.
Druze leaders, including three MKs, were first to demand the High Court strike down the “extremist” legislation, saying it anchored discrimination against minorities in Israeli law.
Two Bedouin former IDF officers also called on the High Court to either change the formulation of the law so it applies equally to all Israelis or abolish it completely.
Netanyahu has been trying to placate the Druze with a package of benefits, but efforts to negotiate this have stalled.