Saturday, February 13, 2010; 2:44 AM
JERUSALEM -- Israel's battered pro-peace camp is showing signs of life with a weekly Jerusalem protest by a motley collection of anarchists, intellectuals and radical rabbis, but they face a public increasingly hostile to their point of view.
Activists have gathered each Friday since November in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah to protest the eviction of Palestinians from their homes to make room for Jewish settlers. The demonstrations have become a rallying cry for the shrunken left as well as freedom of speech advocates who say their country has become increasingly intolerant of dissent since waging a bruising winter war in Gaza.
Activists point to a recent campaign vilifying a prominent human rights campaigner, arrests of protesters and attempts by government officials and right-wing groups to halt international funding of Israeli organizations they deemed disloyal.
"It's about time the left in Israel protest against the way the right-wing is kidnapping our future and our life," said Israeli author David Grossman, a leading dove, at a recent protest.
"People feel they can no longer be silent," added Grossman, whose son was killed in Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
In the latest protest Friday, some 250 demonstrators assembled by a road blowing on shrieking whistles and loudly banging on drums. "You have no shame!" they chanted.
Several police officers watched warily across the road, backed by riot police wielding batons and assault rifles.
The weekly demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah began after Israeli police evicted Palestinian families from the flash point neighborhood and allowed Jewish settlers to move into their homes. They gained momentum after police began arresting protesters and the activists added freedom of speech to their causes.
Numbers swelled as protest videos spread on YouTube and Facebook. Anarchists mingled with rabbis, veteran activists, former politicians whose left-wing views have edged out of the mainstream and prominent Israelis like Moshe Halbertal, who helped draft the Israeli army's code of ethics.
While the peace protests are the largest in years, turnout has hovered at 200 to 400 - highlighting their dramatic fall in popularity from the days when the left could command the appearance of hundreds of thousands of people in support of their policies.
Anger over the evictions inspired Holocaust survivor and veteran activist Max Moray, 84, to join a recent protest after years of shirking them. Ariel Gommershtadt, 26, who helped disperse a peace rally when he was an army conscript, found himself proudly joining a recent Sheikh Jarrah demonstration.
Israel's left-wing activists have diverse backgrounds but broadly support the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem - territories Israel seized in the 1967 Mideast war - and the evacuation of Jewish settlers from those areas.
The left was devastated by the failure of peace efforts in the 1990s and the eruption in 2000 of violence between Israel and the Palestinians that included suicide bombings targeting civilians.
The cause was further set back last winter when the two sides fought a three-week war in the Gaza Strip that left 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
Today, polls show solid public support for the hawkish government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If elections were held today Netanyahu's Likud Party would go from 27 seats to 35 seats in the 120-member parliament, according to a survey published in the Haaretz daily last week.
In contrast, Meretz, the flagship party of Israel's left, clings to three seats. The Labor Party, the center-left movement that dominated Israeli politics for decades, joined Netanyahu's rightist coalition as a junior member.
A U.N.-sponsored report last year that accused Israel of committing war crimes during last year's winter offensive in Gaza fueled a backlash against left-wing activists. Israel's government shunned the U.N. commission, headed by jurist Richard Goldstone, that drafted the report and many accused the rights groups that testified of damaging the country's image.
"In Israel today there is a rage against Goldstone and his report that I have rarely seen," analyst Yossi Klein Halevi said.
This month, a hard-line group published newspaper and billboard ads carrying a crude caricature and criticism of ex-lawmaker Noami Chazan, head of an organization that funded groups that testified to the U.N. commission.
Before Chazan was targeted by the hard-line ad campaign, she described the Sheikh Jarrah protests as "the struggle for the future of democratic rights in (Israel)" in one of her regular columns in the English-language daily, The Jerusalem Post. The paper ran the ad attacking her and her column was dropped after she threatened legal action.
"Today it is against Naomi Chazan," she said in an Israel Radio interview, "but tomorrow it will be against every citizen who expresses his opinion."