On May 15 each year, Palestinians commemorate what they call Al-Nakba – “the Catastrophe”. It is a day in which Palestinians remember that with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, around three quarters of a million Palestinians fled their homes; some through the fog of war, others by ordered expulsion.
Most of the Palestinian population worldwide are refugees from 1948 and the 1967 war. The vast majority of the population of Gaza are refugees. This is the reason why Al-Nakba is such an important part of Palestinian identity.
This weekend saw a very different annual protest. Emboldened by the Arab-Spring, thousands of Palestinians marched on Israeli borders and checkpoints in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. The Israeli army opened fire on protesters, leaving twelve dead and hundreds injured. One Palestinian journalist was shot in the chest at the Gaza border.
Video footage quickly emerged online of the protesters crossing the border with Syria:
A refugee from Syria even managed to travel all the way to Tel-Aviv after breaking through the border. Meanwhile, one refugee on the Lebanese border carried his grandmother, expelled from Israel in 1948, telling reporters: “I will take my grandmother back to her home”.
In the West Bank, over a thousand Palestinians marched on the Qalandiya checkpoint which cuts off Ramallah from occupied East Jerusalem at the separation barrier, five kilometres into the Palestinian territories. As this video shows, the protesters were confronted by plain clothes, masked security forces:
According to the Swedish Christian peace activist, Petter Lydén, who shot the footage, the protesters:
“Were demonstrating peacefully outside Ramallah on the West Bank. They were met by heavily armed Israeli forces who stopped the demonstration with endless rounds of tear gas and rubber coated steel bullets. Suddenly Israeli army and police made a surprise attack, injuring and arresting several people. Police in plain clothes wielding pistols while talking the arrested to waiting cars.”
Undercover policing was shown to have gone even further when Washington Post published a series of photos of the protests; including an Israeli officer dressed as a Palestinian woman forcing his way into a car. The Israelis call these agents “mistaravim.
The protests were not limited to outside Israel’s borders. In defiance of Israel’s ‘anti-Nakba Law’, some two thousand Palestinians marched through the city of Jaffa in northern Israel. Smaller protests near the Lebanese border went viral after Kobi Bachar, deputy commander of the Galilee District Police, was filmed slapping a female Palestinian lawyer, Maisa Arshid, across the face:
What this unexpected level of protest means for Israel is now the hottest topic as the country regroups. Non-violent protest itself is not new to the occupied territories. For many years, the towns of Bi’lin, Ni’lin and Nabi Saleh among others are all well-known focal points for popular peaceful marches against the construction of Israel’s separation barrier through their land.
While Israel previously could respond to these more localised protests by detaining local leaders, or deploying tear gas, rubber bullets and ‘the skunk’ it now clear that Israel is facing a completely new, far larger, dilemma.
Israel’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, warned that:
“We are just at the start of this matter and it could be that we’ll face far more complex challenges.”
Karin Laub writes for the Associated Press:
“Palestinian activists are calling it a preview of new tactics to pressure Israel and win world support for statehood: Masses of marchers, galvanized by the Arab Spring and brought together by Facebook, descending on borders and military posts — and daring Israeli soldiers to shoot.
“It could prove more problematic for Israel than the suicide bombings and other deadly violence of the past.”
The Israeli army has said it is developing a new doctrine which will incorporate how to deal with marches on borders and across the West Bank. But it is not yet clear if they will succeed in suppressing a mass peaceful uprising where so many Arab states have failed.
As Netanyahu’s right-wing government attempt to make political headway out of the protests, US analyst, Mitchell Plitnick offers five lessons which Israel must urgently learn after Sunday’s clashes, including basic acceptance of the dual narratives that Israelis and Palestinians share.
However, the most succinct and hopeful repost to Netanyahu from within Israel comes in today’s Haaretz Editorial, which reassures:
“The events of Nakba Day are neither a “reminder” nor a “threat,” and they certainly aren’t an attempt to destroy the State of Israel. Rather, they reflect the Palestinians’ fundamental historical demand for an independent state with recognized sovereignty, within whose framework the refugee problem, too, can be solved.”