Washington, DC [US]: Demonstrators from across the country, with over 2,90,000 people in attendance, gathered in Washington, DC, for the ‘March for Israel,’ denouncing antisemitism and calling for the release of Israeli hostages, CNN reported.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed the crowd through a live video feed, emphasising unity in supporting those held by Hamas and the right of every Jew to live safely. Herzog said they are united ‘to march for the babies, the boys and girls, women and men viciously held hostage by Hamas; to march for the right of every Jew to live proudly and safely in America, in Israel and all around the world.’
The event, considered the largest pro-Israel gathering in the US since October 7, prompted unprecedented security measures designated as a ‘Level 1’ event by the Department of Homeland Security.
Sara Blau, a University of Maryland student, expressed her support for Israel and attended the march wearing a T-shirt featuring a photo of Israeli soldier Omer Neutra, who was kidnapped by Hamas.
‘We were very good friends,’ said Blau, who attended the march wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Neutra’s photo. ‘Everyone loves him. He’s funny. He’s kind, charismatic. He’s a natural-born leader and everyone’s being impacted really heavily by this.’
Blau said she wanted to join the march ‘to show my support for Israel. I’m a proud Zionist, a proud Jew and I wanted to be here to support my community,’ according to CNN.
The Homeland Security Department has deemed the march a ‘Level 1’ security event – the highest possible level – when considering national importance, potential threats and the resources needed to ensure public safety, CNN cited law enforcement sources as saying.
Donell Harvin, a former DC chief of homeland security and intelligence, said that such intense security is unprecedented for a march or protest in Washington.
‘There has never been a First Amendment event in DC that has been designated as a … Level 1 event,’ Harvin told CNN, adding, ‘Those designations are reserved for high-profile events such as the Super Bowl, and World Series.’
The Level 1 designation allows the federal government to fill possible gaps in local security, including explosive detection, cyber risk assessments, and venue screening. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said the National Guard will be on site to assist local police.
At the rally, Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Herzog, asked the crowd to raise its voice as Israel continues its operation in Gaza, saying that Israel must finish the war because ‘there is simply no other choice for a nation that values life,’ The Times of Israel reported.
‘We are witnessing mass rallies around the globe vilifying Israel, glorifying Hamas and celebrating the murder of Jews. We are witnessing Jewish students assaulted and silenced on college campuses. We are witnessing Jewish demonstrators attacked, and in some cases killed,’ he said, adding, ‘The dark demons of antisemitism have been unleashed.’
Herzog continued saying, ‘My friends and my brothers and sisters, we are a grieving nation, yet united and determined. And together with you – through our shared voices, values and strength – together we will defeat evil and we will prevail.’
The march, organised by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, aimed to demonstrate American support for Israel.
The rally comes in the context of escalating tensions between Israel and Hamas, with Hamas launching a coordinated attack on Israel on October 7, resulting in casualties of approximately 1,200 people and kidnappings of about 200 hostages.
Israel retaliated with airstrikes on Gaza, leading to civilian casualties and drawing international attention.
Over 11,000 people have been killed, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, drawing from sources in Hamas-controlled Gaza. A UNICEF spokesperson says the organisation’s figures have historically matched those of the Hamas-controlled health ministry, according to CNN.
Protests, both in support of Israel and advocating for a ceasefire, have taken place in the vicinity of the Capitol.
While many leaders have called for a humanitarian pause in fighting so that the Palestinian civilians can be moved to safety, Israel has firmly rejected the notion as long as Hamas keeps holding hostages. However, Israel has agreed to four-hour, daily pauses in military operations in Gaza to allow for evacuations, CNN reported.