Some 2,000 demonstrators gathered outside Israel's Ministry of Defense late Monday to protest the military's violent raid on an aid flotilla that attempted to break the country's years-long siege on the Gaza Strip.
Approximately 100 Tel Aviv and border police officers were present and one left-wing activist, Matan Cohen, was arrested. A few dozen right-wing Israelis staged a counter-protest, but police kept them from interfering in the leftists' demonstration.
Haggai Matar, a left-wing activist and member of the Coalition Against the Siege, told The Huffington Post that the demonstrations were an expression of anger and shock about an Israeli navy raid that left at least 10 activists dead and dozens injured a day earlier. Israel's military has conceded that the raid took place in international waters, but continues to accuse activists of instigating the violence, which also injured soldiers.
"[The flotilla] has been demonized from the get-go," Matar said. "It was portrayed as illegitimate Turkish involvement in our politics or as provocation or, we've heard today more than ever before, that the flotilla was organized by Hezbollah and Hamas and Al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad ... But we never thought we'd end up with such a terrible act of the [IDF] boarding and shooting and killing so many civilians."
The flotilla, organized by the Free Gaza Movement, an international initiative that has sent ships to Gaza in the past, consisted of six ships, 700 activists, and 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid.
Uri Avnery, the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement and a former Knesset member, explained that "Many Israeli citizens are shocked by this crime. It was a massacre committed in international waters, and we demand a full and independent investigation."
Avnery added that the raid damaged "Israel's credibility as a peace partner" as well as called into question Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to resolving his country's ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
Knesset Member Dov Khenin (Hadash), who was the only government official present at the Tel Aviv protest, remarked, "It's important to be here today to demonstrate that there is a different voice in Israel. The activities of the government don't reflect all of us."
Khenin alleged that Israel's current administration is extremely right wing and is intent on making war.
That image could complicate US-mediated Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks. Already, in light of Monday's events, Netanyahu cancelled a visit to the White House scheduled for Wednesday, following a telephone call with US President Barack Obama.
Demonstrators gathered in Jerusalem and Haifa in parallel with Tel Aviv. Protests were held on college campuses in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Beer Sheva. Left-wing activists gathered in Ashdod on Monday afternoon as Palestinian-Israelis protested in Umm Al-Fahm.
Right-wing groups appeared at several demonstrations late Monday, and held their own in front of the embassy of Turkey, which withdrew its envoy to Tel Aviv in the aftermath of the flotilla assault. A few dozen rightists also gathered near the Defense Ministry protest, including some affiliated with the radical Kahanist movement, but others who simply believed the leftists should tone down their criticism.
Draped in an Israeli flag and wearing a T-shirt reading "I Love Israel," counter-protestor Yaakov Naftali remarked that he was there to support the army. "[Left-wing activists] say it's a terror organization and it's not," he said.
Standing between hundreds of left-wing demonstrators and a handful of right-wing counter-protesters, Naftali said he found both sides too extreme. "The situation is Gaza is bad," Naftali said, adding that while he is opposed to the siege, which began in 2006 and has been called a humanitarian crisis by Amnesty International and other observers, he believes Israel is acting out of necessity.
Naftali also feels that the soldiers who raided the flotilla were acting in self-defense.
Many Israelis agree, according to Matar, the protest leader. "It's very difficult to go against [Israel's] mainstream media, which has definitely aligned with the IDF spokesperson saying [activists on the flotilla] attacked [Israeli] soldiers who meant nobody any harm."
The protests, Matar said, are "trying to offer an alternative." Pointing to condemnation of Israel's attack on the flotilla by both France and the UK, he concluded that the international community, unlike Israelis, are increasingly listening to that alternative.
"People are starting to see Israel for what it is. Israel is not a liberal democratic state protecting itself, wanting to reach peace at any cost," Matar said. "That image is being cracked and we hope that will have an effect in terms of international pressure on Israel to end the siege and the occupation."
George Hale contributed to this report.