Paramilitary Attacks Al-Nakba March
- "What a Way to Mark Independence Day"
Paramilitary Police Attack Al-Nakba March
By JONATHAN COOK
Nazareth. It has been a week of adulation from world leaders,
ostentatious displays of military prowess, and street parties. Heads
of state have rubbed shoulders with celebrities to pay homage to the
Jewish state on its 60th birthday, while a million Israelis
reportedly headed off to the country's forests to enjoy the national
pastime: a barbecue.
But this year's Independence Day festivities have concealed as much
as they have revealed. The images of joy and celebration seen by the
world have failed to acknowledge the reality of a deeply divided
Israel, shared by two peoples with conflicting memories and claims
to the land.
They have also served to shield from view the fact that the
Palestinians' dispossession is continuing in both the occupied
territories and inside Israel itself. Far from being a historical
event, Israel's "independence" -- and the ever greater toll it is
inflicting on the Palestinian people -- is very much a live issue.
Away from the cameras, a fifth of the Israeli population -- more
than one million Palestinian citizens -- remembered al-Nakba, the
Catastrophe of 1948 that befell the Palestinian people as the Jewish
state was built on the ruins of their society.
As it has been doing for the past decade, Israel's Palestinian
minority staged an alternative act of commemoration: a procession of
families, many of them refugees from the 1948 war, to one of more
than 400 Palestinian villages erased by Israel in a monumental act
of state vandalism after the fighting. The villages were destroyed
to ensure that the 750,000 Palestinians expelled from the state
under the cover of war never return.
But in a sign of how far Israel still is from coming to terms with
the circumstances of its birth, this year's march was forcibly
broken up by the Israeli police. They clubbed unarmed demonstrators
with batons and fired tear gas and stun grenades into crowds of
families that included young children.
Although most of the refugees from the 1948 war -- numbering in
their millions -- ended up in camps in neighbouring Arab states, a
few remained inside Israel. Today one in four Palestinian citizens
of Israel is either a refugee or descended from one. Not only have
they been denied the right ever to return to their homes, like the
other refugees, but many live tantalisingly close to their former
The destroyed Palestinian villages have either been reinvented as
exclusive Jewish communities or buried under the foliage of national
forestation programmes overseen by the Jewish National Fund and paid
for with charitable donations from American and European Jews.
There have been many Nakba processions held over the past week but
the march across fields close by the city of Nazareth was the only
one whose destination was a former Palestinian village now occupied
The village of Saffuriya was bombed from the air for two hours in
July 1948, in one of the first uses of air power by the new Jewish
state. Most of Saffuriya's 5,000 inhabitants fled northwards towards
Lebanon, where they have spent six decades waiting for justice. But
a small number went south towards Nazareth, where they sought
sanctuary and eventually became Israeli citizens.
Today they live in a neighbourhood of Nazareth called Safafra, after
their destroyed village. They look down into the valley where a
Jewish farming community known as Zippori has been established on
the ruins of their homes.
This year's Nakba procession to Saffuriya was a small act of
defiance by Palestinian citizens in returning to the village, even
if only symbolically and for a few hours. The threat this posed to
Israeli Jews' enduring sense of their own exclusive victimhood was
revealed in the unprovoked violence unleashed against the
defenceless marchers, many of them children.
Like many others, I was there with a child -- my five-month-old
daughter. Fortunately, for her and my sake, we left after she grew
tired from being in the heat for so long, moments before the trouble
When we left, things were entirely peaceful. Nonetheless, as we
drove away, I saw members of a special paramilitary police unit
known as the Yassam appearing on their motorbikes. The Yassam are
effectively a hit squad, known for striking out first and asking
questions later. Trouble invariably follows in their wake.
The events that unfolded that afternoon have been captured on mostly
home-made videos that can be viewed on the internet, including here.
The context for understanding these images is provided below in
accounts from witnesses to the police attack:
Several thousand Palestinians, waving flags and chanting Palestinian
songs, marched towards a forest planted on Saffuriya's lands. Old
people, some of whom remembered fleeing their villages in 1948, were
joined by young families and several dozen sympathetic Israeli Jews.
As the marchers headed towards Saffuriya's spring, sealed off by the
authorities with a metal fence a few years ago to stop the villagers
collecting water, they were greeted with a small counter-
demonstration by right-wing Israeli Jews.
They had taken over the fields on the other side of the main road at
the entrance to what is now the Jewish community of Zippori. They
waved Israeli flags and sang nationalist Hebrew songs, as armed riot
police lined the edge of the road that separated the two
Tareq Shehadeh, head of the Nazareth Culture and Tourism Association
whose parents were expelled from Saffuriya, said: "There were some
50 Jewish demonstrators who had been allowed to take over the
planned destination of our march. Their rights automatically trumped
ours, even though there were thousands of us there and only a
handful of them."
The police had their backs to the Jewish demonstrators while they
faced off with the Palestinian procession. "It was as if they were
telling us: we are here only for the benefit of Jews, not for you,"
said Shehadeh. "It was a reminder, if we needed it, that this is a
Jewish state and we are even less welcome than usual when we meet as
The marchers turned away and headed uphill into the woods, to a
clearing where Palestinian refugees recounted their memories.
When the event ended in late afternoon, the marchers headed back to
the main road and their cars. In the police version, Palestinian
youths blocked the road and threw stones at passing cars, forcing
the police to use force to restore order.
Dozens of marchers were injured, including women and children, and
two Arab Knesset members, Mohammed Barakeh and Wassel Taha, were
bloodied by police batons. Mounted police charged into the crowds,
while stun grenades and tear gas were liberally fired into fields
being crossed by families. Eight youths were arrested.
Shehadeh, who was close to the police when the trouble began, and
many other marchers say they saw the Jewish rightwingers throwing
stones at them from behind the police. A handful of Palestinian
youngsters responded in kind. Others add that the police were
provoked by a young woman waving a Palestinian flag.
"None of the police were interested in stopping the Jews throwing
stones. And even if a few Palestinian youths were reacting, you
chase after them and arrest them, you don't send police on mounted
horseback charging into a crowd of families and fire tear gas and
stun grenades at them. It was totally indiscriminate and reckless."
Clouds of gas enveloped the slowest families as they struggled with
their children to take cover in the forest.
Therese Zbeidat, a Dutch national who was there with her Palestinian
husband Ali and their two teenage daughters, Dina and Awda, called
the experiences of her family and others at the hands of the
"Until then it really was a family occasion. When the police fired
the tear gas, there were a couple near us pushing a stroller down
the stony track towards the road. A thick cloud of gas was coming
towards us. I told the man to leave the stroller and run uphill as
fast as he could with the baby.
"Later I found them with the baby retching, its eyes streaming and
choking. It broke my heart. There were so many families with young
children, and the police charge was just so unprovoked. It started
The 17-year-old boyfriend of Therese Zbeidat's daughter, Awda, was
among those arrested. "It was his first time at any kind of
nationalist event," she said. "He was with his mother, and when we
started running up the hill away from the police on horseback, she
stumbled and fell.
"He went to help her and the next thing a group of about 10 police
were firing tear gas cannisters directly at him. Then they grabbed
him by the keffiyah [scarf] around his neck and pulled him away. All
he was doing was helping his mother!"
Later, Therese and her daughters thought they had made it to safety
only to find themselves in the midst of another charge from a
different direction, this time by police on foot. Awda was knocked
to the ground and kicked in her leg, while Dina was threatened by a
policeman who told her: "I will break your head."
"I've been on several demonstrations before when the police have
turned nasty," said Therese, "but this was unlike anything I've
seen. Those young children, some barely toddlers, amidst all that
chaos crying for their parents what a way to mark Independence
Jafar Farah, head of the political lobbying group Mossawa, who was
there with his two young sons, found them a safe spot in the forest
and rushed downhill to help ferry other children to safety.
The next day he attended a court hearing at which the police
demanded that the eight arrested men be detained for a further seven
days. Three, including a local journalist who had been beaten and
had his camera stolen by police, were freed after the judge watched
video footage of the confrontation taken by marchers.
Farah said of the Independence Day events: "For decades our
community was banned from remembering publicly what happened to us
as a people during the Nakba. Our teachers were sacked for
mentioning it. We were not even supposed to know that we are
"And in addition, the police have regularly used violence against us
to teach us our place. In October 2000, at the start of the
intifada, 13 of our unarmed young men were shot dead for
demonstrating. No one has ever been held accountable.
"Despite all that we started to believe that Israel was finally
mature enough to let us remember our own national tragedy. Families
came to show their children the ruins of the villages so they had an
idea of where they came from. The procession was becoming a large
and prominent event. People felt safe attending.
"But we were wrong, it seems. It looked to me very much like this
attack by the police was planned. I think the authorities were
unhappy about the success of the processions, and wanted them
"They may yet win. What parent will bring their children to the
march next year knowing that they will be attacked by armed police?"
Jonathan Cook is a journalist and writer based in Nazareth, Israel.
His latest book, "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran
and the Plan to Remake the Middle East", is published by Pluto
Press. His website is www.jkcook.net
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