x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Hizbollah marshals largest protest

Nasrallah says Israel will fail as it did in 2006 offensive.

BEIRUT // Tens of thousands of Lebanese Hizbollah supporters stood under pouring rain yesterday to protest against Israel's air assault on the Gaza Strip, now into its third day. The protesters thronged a huge square and nearby streets in the militant group's stronghold south of Beirut, carrying Palestinian, Lebanese and yellow Hizbollah flags and banners supporting the Palestinian people.

The rally was by far the largest protest in the Arab world, where outrage over Israel's air strikes continued into a third day. The massive rally was called for by the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who in a speech on Sunday urged crowds in the Arab and Islamic world to rise up in support of Gaza and declared yesterday a day of mourning and solidarity with Gaza. Addressing the crowds yesterday through a large screen from an unknown location, Sheikh Nasrallah urged Palestinians to unite and sought to boost morale. "Israel's air force will fail to destroy the will of the [Palestinian] fighters firing rockets ? and the residents of [Israeli] settlements 20 and 40km away from Gaza will remain either outside their settlements or in shelters," he said.

"Death to Israel," and "At your service, Gaza!" many in the crowd shouted. Sheikh Nasrallah warned Israel that any ground offensive will result in many losses for the Israelis and said Israel will fail as it did when it fought Hizbollah guerrillas in a month-long air and ground offensive in 2006. The overwhelming Israeli bombing campaign, the deadliest against Palestinians in decades, had killed 325 people by yesterday.

In the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon, around 3,000 people also staged a demonstration, many of them chanting slogans in which they insulted the rulers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for perceived complicity with Israel. In Egypt, which has been particularly criticised for joining Israel in closing its borders with Gaza, thousands of people rallied, calling for the active intervention of Arab armies to protect the Palestinians.

In Iraq, about 1,000 backers of Muqtada al Sadr, the anti-US Shiite cleric, staged a protest in eastern Baghdad. "No, no to Israel," they shouted as they burnt Israeli and US flags. Thousands of Iranians, joined by high-ranking officials and military commanders, shouted "Down with USA" and "Down with Israel" in Tehran yesterday. Many carried banners reading "Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth" and "We should all rise and destroy Israel".

Witnesses said Saudi police fired rubber bullets to break up a pro-Palestinian protest yesterday, injuring up to eight people, but a government official denied the report. Residents said between 200 and 300 people took part in the march in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing Eastern Province. Many protesters held pictures of Palestinians wounded in Israel's military offensive against the Gaza Strip. At least three witnesses said they saw riot police fire rubber bullets after demonstrators clashed with security forces in the al Qatif area.

However, an interior ministry spokesman, Mansour al Turki, said there had been no protest. Greek riot police fired tear gas to repel protesters hurling rocks at the Israeli Embassy in Athens yesterday during a rally against the Jewish state's assault on Gaza. About 300 Greek and Arab protesters waving Palestinian flags gathered outside the embassy north of the city centre for one of several rallies or demonstrations planned during the evening.

* Associated Press, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse