A mixed group of Israeli, Palestinian and overseas protesters, wearing Barack Obama and Martin Luther King masks, clashed with the army and Jewish settlers in Hebron earlier today as they marched down a street off limits to Palestinians in protest at the occupation, and timed to coincide with Barack Obama’s visit.
As the American president landed 60km away at Ben-Gurion airport, the group of about 25 protesters shouting, “one, two, three, four occupation no more”, most of them wearing black T-shirts that carried Luther King’s famous civil rights slogan, “I have a dream,” walked down Shuhada Street in the West Bank city, waving Palestinian flags.
“We were trying to remind Obama that thanks to the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, a black man like him can be president – he now seems to be on the side of the powerful,” said Yonathan Shapiro, an Israeli who took part in the protest and who was detained by the Israeli army, or IDF, for about 30 minutes before being released.
In total nine of the protesters were held, according to organisers, including two Israelis who were quickly released. Three overseas passport holders and four Palestinians were all also arrested.
The demonstration appeared to catch the IDF off guard, as it marched past a checkpoint on the road just after a patrol of soldiers had left. However, the army was quickly on the scene to stop the marchers about 250 metres down the street. In a statement the IDF, said: “About 50 people gathered in Shuhada Street, and six people were detained. The demonstration was broken up when it crossed into a closed military zone.”
Reaching an intersection, the army and local settlers pressed the protesters back and broke up the demonstration – banners were torn in some circumstances, and at least one female protester was hit in the face, by a man who appeared to be a settler. When asked for comment, he declined to speak to The Independent.
“We are extending an invitation to the president,” said Tamer Atrash, a Palestinian marcher. “We’d like him to come here and visit the museum of apartheid.”
Shuhada Street is particularly controversial. Closed to Palestinians 19 years ago after a settler attacked a mosque, the street used to be the bustling heart of Arab life in the divided city. There are posters dotted around the street informing visitors that the Arab centre is no elsewhere, but the IDF controls the streets.
Before the protest started, at one checkpoint, at least 15 school age boys were being released, apparently after having been held for three hours. Some of the boys looked to be as young as five or six-years-old. They had been rounded up after a rock throwing incident a few days ago.