A sea of bodies jumped up and down to the beat of Israeli dance music. Tiny Israeli flags flapped in the sky.
On July 13, an Israel solidarity event organized by Stand With Us and the Israeli American Council (IAC) drew between 1,200 and 2,000 people — depending on who’s counting — who showed up in front of the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood to demonstrate their support for Israel.
Across the street, on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard, some 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered for a counter-protest.
At around 5:30 p.m., 90 minutes into the pro-Israel rally, violence overshadowed the festive atmosphere when a clash broke out between pro-Israel demonstrators and a group of pro-Palestinian men driving a pickup truck eastward on Wilshire, where Israel demonstrators lined the north-facing sidewalk.
According to eyewitnesses, everything started innocently enough.
“Cars were going very slowly on Wilshire, most of them had Jewish flags and music playing, and it was almost in a way like a festival — we were responding to them and singing with them, and it was very relaxed,” eyewitness and Beth Jacob Congregation member Batia Zimmerman said in an interview with the Journal. “Once in a while, a [pro-]Palestinian car would drive by, and we would yell at each other — we’d say, ‘Am Yisra’el Chai’ — and they’d look at us, and they’d yell something at us” but nothing more.
“And there is one car, and it’s a truck, they have a large Palestinian flag hanging out of their car, so of course, somebody [on the pro-Israel side] was boiling … something angered them [the pro-Palestinians in the truck] and … in a split second this happened, they all jumped out of their car waving … sticks and lunging at us.”
“When police became aware of the situation, they came to the front line. Security came in and got smacked two to three times with a wooden pole, and everybody was screaming and running and people were moving back,” Barry Poltorak, an off-duty Los Angeles County deputy sheriff who witnessed the incident, said in an in-person interview minutes after the incident occurred. “I moved up to back up the security guy.”
Jennifer Sabet, who identified herself in an email to the Journal as a “46-year-old Jewish woman, pro-Zionist,” said she witnessed the pro-Israel side starting the fight after someone grabbed a Palestinian flag from the truck and began stomping on it.
“The reason the [pro-]Palestinian men got out of their truck in the first place was in direct response to a pro-Israel supporter running up to their vehicle on Wilshire and taking one of their flags from out of their hands, and throwing it on the asphalt, repeatedly stomping up and down on it in front of them,” Sabet wrote in an email.
Amid the chaos, the pro-Palestinian men returned to their vehicle. According to Poltorak, a law enforcement official grabbed the back of the pickup truck.
“When [the pickup truck] … gained speed, the police officer could no longer hang on,” Poltorak said.
The officer ordered the men to stop, but they kept driving, and the officer fired at the truck, he said.
Shortly after the incident, authorities pulled over the pickup truck and arrested four pro-Palestinian demonstrators, Mostadafa Gamaleldin Hafez, 19; Haddah Mustapha Kreidieh, 41; Mohammed Said Elkhatib, 35; and Fadi Ali Obeidallah, 38; who now face charges of assault with a deadly weapon, according to a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department news release. Authorities released the men on July 14 after they each posted a $30,000 bond, the release said.
Meanwhile, the still-to-be-identified Federal Protective Services (FPS) officer who fired his weapon has been put on paid leave as a result of his action. His firearm has also been taken into custody.
“An FPS law enforcement officer on-site attempted to stop the four male suspects who were attempting to flee the scene in a vehicle, and discharged one round from his service weapon,” FPS spokesperson Jacqueline Yost said in a statement.
FPS requested an ambulance for a girl who allegedly was struck by the four males, Yost said. There were no other serious injuries, witnesses said.
As for the gunshot, Edmon Rodman, a Jewish Journal contributor who was at the rally, said he was surprised by the officer’s decision to fire, “given how close the crowd was.”
“The people around didn’t have any strong reaction. I am not sure if they understood what had just happened,” he said in an email.
The pro-Israel rally took place as violence was escalating in the weeklong conflict between Israel and Hamas-run Gaza in the wake of the killing of three Israeli teens and one Arab boy. Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in response to missiles from Gaza. As of early this week, more than 100 Palestinians have died as a result of the operation. Israel has suffered only one casualty, attesting to the effectiveness of the country’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.
At the rally, many high-profile speakers addressed the crowd. Israeli actress Noa Tishby directly addressed Israel’s critics who have pointed to the imbalance in casualties. “What is a ‘proportionate response’ to [hundreds of] rockets being launched on you?” she said.
Lihi Shaar, the aunt of one of the teens whose murder sparked the current conflict, spoke to the crowd, as did Israel Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel; Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz; L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer; Simon Wiesenthal Center dean and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier and other leaders from the Los Angeles community. StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein served as moderator of a speakers’ program.
Attendees crowded the lawn at the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Veteran Avenue, and many stood on platforms to see above the crowd and catch glimpses of the speakers.
A festive tone was struck, as well, by musicians brought in by the IAC, one of the co-organizers of the event. When the DJs spun high-energy music, which blared from large speakers next to their booth, the crowd went wild: At times, the day resembled a dance party more than a community rally in the face of war.
Pro-Israel demonstrators lined the edge of the north-facing sidewalk, their bodies pressed up against banners, hands holding high their pro-Israel signs. At times, they appeared engaged in a competition with the counter-protest across the street over who could chant the loudest.
After the fight that led to the gunshot, several law enforcement agencies worked together to shut down Wilshire Boulevard from Sepulveda Boulevard to Gayley Avenue.
Dozens of law enforcement personnel, including some wearing riot gear, arrived on the scene after the incident, but the rallies did not end right away. Authorities escorted the Israeli rally to the Federal Building parking lot, but not before law enforcement broke up a much smaller scuffle that erupted on Veteran Avenue, across the street from the parking lot where authorities were escorting pro-Israel demonstrators to their cars.
Authorities cleared out both rallies by 7 p.m.
Because the incident occurred as the pro-Israel rally’s speakers program already was underway, many event organizers did not know about the fight until after the rally was over. The sound of the gunshot was drowned out by the music, the speakers’ amplified voices, and the cheering and chanting of the crowd.
Community members from across the city attended the rally.
Aimy Zodieru, a paralegal and a member of Nessah Synagogue, said the State of Israel faces tough choices in determining how to respond to the rocket fire from Gaza.
“I think what they’re doing is the best decision they can make, considering the circumstances in Gaza. I just feel really badly for the families in Sderot and the innocent civilians in Gaza,” she said, wearing a tiny
Israeli flag tucked behind each ear.
Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe also attended the rally. During a phone interview, Wolpe said that the fight shows how polarizing the conflict can be, even thousands of miles away from the action.
“It’s just frightening, and this is in the most peaceful possible setting — in Westwood, in Los Angeles,” he told the Journal.