Al-Ahram Weekly – 4 April 2002
Protests and general strikes have been staged by Palestinians on 30 March each year since 1976, when Israeli security forces killed six demonstrators in the Galilee town of Sakhnin as they protested against the government’s theft of huge swaths of Arab land.
In the subsequent 26 years, Land Day, or Yawm Al-Ard as it is known in Arabic, has grown into a regional event commemorated by Arabs in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
But Sakhnin, the scene of the first land strike, has remained the traditional focus of Land Day activities, often attracting crowds of more than 60,000.
Many among Israel’s one-million-strong Palestinian minority were hoping that they would spark protests across the Middle East against the Israeli army’s attack on the West Bank city of Ramallah and the invasion of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s compound.
But the Higher Monitoring Committee, the Arab leadership in Israel comprised of national and local politicians, was largely caught off-guard by the rapid escalation of the military assault and the public’s mounting outrage in response.
Several weeks earlier, and for the first time in the history of Land Day, the committee cancelled the mass protest in Sakhnin, arranging instead a smaller demonstration in the Negev.
Leaders of the Palestinian community were said to be concerned that a single large demonstration might result in violent clashes with Israeli security forces. There had been reports in the Israeli press that the police were training special units to deal with expected riots.
Hashem Mahameed, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset (MK), admitted that there had been “something wrong” with the planning of this year’s event. He said, “There was a feeling that we should keep a low profile so as not to offer Israel an excuse to victimise us and kill our young people.”
Many in the committee were fearful that a confrontation with the security forces would lead to a repeat of October 2000, when police shot dead 13 Palestinian citizens and injured hundreds more.
The rights of Israel’s Palestinian minority to speak out against the occupation have been steadily eroded during the Intifada.
Most Palestinian Knesset members (MKs) are under investigation for incitement, while the most prominent, Azmi Bishara, is on trial for sedition. The leader of the Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, is also banned from leaving the country.
This week, a man from the Palestinian town of Umm Al-Fahm was arrested in Tel Aviv by police after appearing on a television show on Sunday during which he praised Palestinian attacks against Israel.
These infringements, combined with polls showing that a large number of Jews accept the idea of “transferring” Israeli Arabs out of the country, have left the Palestinian minority feeling very vulnerable.
The rally in the Negev, at a Bedouin village, was supplemented at the last minute by two other official demonstrations in the Galilee: one in Sakhnin on Friday and the other in Kfar Kana on Land Day itself.
At Kfar Kana, 12,000 people waving Palestinian flags and raising pictures of the Palestinian leader chanted “Arafat, all your people are with you” and “Greetings from Kana to proud Ramallah, proud Gaza.” Kfar Kana, a few miles north of Nazareth, was well away from possible clash points with police.
There was less support from Jewish peace groups than last year, when a sizable contingent attended the event in Sakhnin. But a group of radical Jews from the Tayush (“Coexistence”) organisation attended Kfar Kana, and peace demonstrators staged small protests in Haifa and Carmel.
The event at the village in the northern Negev, close to Beersheva, attracted several thousand protesters. The remoteness of the site — and the fact that the village is not signposted or shown on maps — deterred many others from participating.
The choice of location was defended by the political leadership on the grounds that the Bedouin face the worst discrimination in Israel, with 70,000 of them living in villages that the state refuses to provide with basic services.
There has been a wave of recent attacks on Bedouin rights in the Negev, including a few weeks ago the use of Israeli planes to spray toxic chemicals over a large area of crops.
Although highlighting the plight of the Bedouin was a worthy aim, it ensured that the protest remained a low-key affair that attracted only demonstrators who could find space on one of the official buses.
The failure to harness the public mood of anger resulted in a spate of unofficial Land Day protests.
In Nazareth, home to more Palestinians in Israel than any other population centre and where no event had been organised, groups of youths took to the streets, some wearing kaffiyah (Palestinian scarf) to conceal their faces.
They threw stones at the police station in the centre of town provoking police in riot gear to run out in two sweeps and arrest more than 20 stone- throwers.
A protest tent was also erected on the city’s main thoroughfare and was still operating this week. All cars travelling through the centre, including those driven by Jews, some of whom are flying Israeli flags from the window in advance of Independence Day celebrations in May, had to pass youths waving Palestinian flags.
Ziad Awaisi, one of the people who erected the tent, said it would remain in place until the Israeli army withdrew from Palestinian cities. “We are going to stay here and make people aware of what is really going on,” he said.
Similar tents were starting to be put up in other towns, including Haifa and Kfar Kana.
In a belated attempt to capture the popular mood, five Arab MKs staged a demonstration outside Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office in Jerusalem last Sunday.
They then drove on to Qalandiya, the main checkpoint by which the Israeli army has enforced its closure of Ramallah. Ahmed Tibi and a soldier came close to blows when the MKs were prevented from passing through.
“We showed our diplomatic passports but the soldiers just refused us entry,” he said. “We were determined to reach President Arafat’s office so that we could show our support. We would have become part of a human shield if we had gotten through.”
Another, much larger demonstration at Qalandiya was due to be held on Wednesday. The Higher Monitoring Committee was also planning a series of mass protests in the Galilee, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem at the weekend.
Al-Ahram Weekly – 4 April 2002