Nakba protests: The Arab revolution reaches the Palestinian masses

The revolutionary wave sweeping through the Middle East has acquired a new dimension with the eruption of the Palestinian masses along Israel's borders last weekend. Every 15 May, Palestinians commemorate the Nakba (catastrophe) of the declaration of independence of the state of Israel on 15 May 1948. In recent years, protests have been marked by clashes between Israeli security forces and stone-throwing Palestinian youths, but yesterday was the first time the commemorations took on a more widespread and militant character. 

The creation of the State of Israel was accompanied by violence, terror and the forcible expulsion of one and a half million Palestinians from their homes and lands, transforming those Palestinians who had fled during the fighting into stateless refugees. The violence still continues, as the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba has shown to the whole world. At least nine people were reported killed and an unknown number wounded when the Israeli army opened fire on the demonstrations.  

Across the West Bank and Gaza, thousands took to the streets, holding old keys to symbolise their dreams of reclaiming the property they lost when Israel was created. The demonstrations were peaceful until they came under attack as they approached checkpoints guarded by Israeli forces. Palestinian protesters marched on three different frontier posts with Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. Two people were killed and more than 100 wounded after Israeli troops opened fire when 200 protesters broke through the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and marched to the centre of the village of Majdal Shams, which has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six Day War.

The protesters showed great courage in crossing a heavily armed border, which is flanked by minefields and patrolled by the UN, Israeli and Syrian forces. This was the first time anyone had breached the border fence. The New York Times reports: “The biggest confrontation took place on the Golan Heights when hundreds of Palestinians living in Syria breached a border fence and crowded into the village of Majdal Shams, waving Palestinian flags. Troops fired on the crowd, killing four of them.”

The local residents greeted the infiltrators like heroes, joining them as they marched towards the main square singing and waving Palestinian flags. The mass breaching of the border with Syria left Israeli security chiefs in a state of utter confusion. For weeks they had been announcing that they were expecting trouble on Sunday and that the Israel Defence Forces were ready. But eyewitnesses in Majdal Shams said only a handful of Israeli soldiers were on duty on Sunday and were taken by surprise when more than 1,000 buses appeared on the Syrian side of the border.

They were clearly not expecting such a massive response and were unprepared for it. The murderous response had all the hallmarks of a panic response.  "I don't think they were really prepared for anything to happen on this side. It took more than an hour for the back-up to come," said Shefaa Abu Jabal, a resident of Majdal Shams. "They crossed into the village and not even one landmine exploded, even though we've learned all of our lives that this place is full of landmines."

There were more killings in Gaza, where thousands of Palestinians marched through a Hamas checkpoint towards the Erez border crossing with Israel. The Independent states that Israeli border guards “opened fire with tank shells and machine-guns”. The Israeli “warning shots” included at least two tank shells and machine-gun fire at open fields close to the protestors. Doctors in Gaza said one person was killed and more than 40 injured in this “incident”.

In the usual hypocritical style, The Independent describes this as “violent clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces”, as if one could place on an equal footing unarmed demonstrators and the Israeli army. At the Kalandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinian youths threw stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli forces who fired tear-gas and rubber bullets. There were clashes too in Hebron, Wallajeh and East Jerusalem.

The New York Times writes:

“‘This is war, we’re defending our country,’ asserted Amjad Abu Taha, a 16-year-old from Bethlehem as he took part along with thousands in the West Bank city of Ramallah near the main military checkpoint to Israel. He held a cigarette in one hand and a rock in the other. Hundreds of Israeli troops using stun guns and tear gas roamed the area. 

“In Gaza, a march toward Israel also resulted in Israeli troops shooting into the crowd and wounding dozens. The Hamas police stopped buses carrying protesters near the main crossing into Israel, but dozens of demonstrators walked on foot and reached a point closer to the Israeli border than they had reached in years. (...) Later, in a separate incident, an 18-year-old Gazan near another part of the border fence was shot and killed by Israeli troops when, the Israeli military says, he was trying to plant an explosive.”

The picture is quite clear: on the one side, Palestinian teenagers armed only with rocks, on the other, Israeli soldiers engaged in violent repression with stun guns, tear gas – and live bullets. In Gaza it is directly admitted that they were “shooting into the crowd and wounding dozens.” Here there is not the slightest pretence about “shooting into the air”. But in order to make the deaths of young Palestinians a bit more acceptable, they say that one of them was “near the border fence” (how near?) and “was trying to plant an explosive” (what explosive?). It is also interesting that Hamas tried (and failed) to stop the protesters from reaching the border.  

Israeli rulers terrified

Benjamin Netanyahu later claimed the Israeli army was acting in “self defence”: “I instructed the Israel Defence Forces to act with maximum restraint but to prevent any infiltration into our borders,” said the Israeli Prime Minister. “Everyone should know that we are determined to protect our borders and our sovereignty.”

In this way, the Israelis are attempting to portray the latest events as an “invasion” and a threat to Israel’s sovereignty. But what kind of an invasion is it when unarmed people cross frontiers that were imposed by force and are defended by violence? And what kind of threat can unarmed men and women pose to heavily armed soldiers?

In some cases the demonstrators threw stones. But the Israeli troops replied with shells from tanks. It is said that they were only “firing in the air”. In that case, they should be severely reprimanded for poor marksmanship, since bullets fired into the air succeeded in killing at least eight people, who were not in the air but definitely on the ground.

An Israeli military spokesman, Captain Barak Raz, said that Israeli troops at the Syrian border “fired only at those infiltrators trying to damage the security barrier and equipment”. So the crime for which people were shot dead was not threatening the lives of Israeli soldiers but only of trying to damage razor wire and barriers erected to keep them out of their own country. For this heinous crime they paid with their lives. On the other hand, some 13 Israeli soldiers were said to have been “lightly wounded” from thrown rocks. 

The Bible tells us David, the little shepherd boy confronted the Philistine giant Goliath with stones flung from a sling. He succeeded in killing the giant. But the present day Goliaths are better armed than their Biblical equivalent, and respond to stones with automatic gunfire. Acutely aware of the David and Goliath story and its implications, the Israeli authorities are always trying to pose as the innocent victims who are merely defending themselves against an evil enemy who is bent on their destruction. That is why Israeli officials have described these events as a "provocation” organized by Iran.

The chief Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, said on Israel radio that he “saw Iran’s fingerprints” in the coordinated confrontations although he offered no evidence. Other Israeli spokesmen blamed Syria. Yoni Ben-Menachem, Israel Radio’s chief Arab affairs analyst, said it seemed likely that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was seeking to divert attention from his troubles caused by popular uprisings there in recent weeks by allowing confrontations on the Golan Heights for the first time in decades. 

“This way Syria makes its contribution to the Nakba day cause and Assad wins points by deflecting the media’s attention from what is happening inside Syria,” he added. This is a lie. Ahmed, a Palestinian refugee from the Yarmouk camp, denied the Israeli army's claims that the event was planned by Iran. “We didn't really plan,” he said. “We got a bit excited and we decided come on, let's do it. We didn't plan to cross. The army said we could stand near the border. The army didn't know. I don't think the Syrian army would have let us in if they knew.”

These lies are a blatant attempt to disguise the murder of unarmed Palestinian protesters as “self defence” against “foreign enemies” (Iran and Syria). In reality, this movement was a reflection of the impact among the Palestinians of the Arab Revolution, which proved that the power of the masses is able to shake the mightiest states and armies. The correct parallel was drawn by The New York Times:

“[...] this is the first year that Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon tried to breach the Israeli military border in marches inspired by recent popular protests around the Arab world. Here too, word about the rallies was spread on social media sites.” (my emphasis, AW)

In order to counteract the image of heavily armed Israeli soldiers shooting down unarmed demonstrators, the Israeli propaganda machine issued reports of an Israeli Arab truck driver allegedly ramming his truck into cars, a bus and pedestrians in Tel Aviv, killing one man and injuring more than a dozen others. The police hastened to describe this incident as “a terrorist attack”. 

We do not know what the cause of the incident in Tel Aviv was. But we do know that the cold-blooded murder of unarmed demonstrators is certainly terrorism, and we note that the hired media never uses this word in relation to the Israeli army. This is yet another example of the hypocrisy and double standards of the so-called free press.

Impotence of leaders

Syria condemned the shootings as "criminal acts" by Israel. But people in the Middle East are now asking how it is that unarmed men and women were able to do what the Syrian army has not been able to accomplish for forty years.

Marches were held in the Jordanian capital and in the Jordan Valley. Five hundred people, many of Palestinian origin, marched in Amman demanding Palestinian sovereignty and the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to territory that is now in Israel.

Hundreds of Lebanese joined by Palestinians from more than nine refugee camps in Lebanon headed toward the border, around the town of Maroun al-Ras, Lebanon, scene of some of the worst fighting in the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. They passed posters that had gone up the past week on highways in Lebanon. “People want to return to Palestine,” they read, in a play on the slogan made famous in Egypt and Tunisia, “People want the fall of the regime.” 

At the Lebanese border Israeli troops shot at hundreds of Palestinians trying to cross, killing four protesters and wounding dozens more, according to Lebanese officials. Though the Lebanese army tried to block them from arriving at the border, some managed to reach it. They placed a Palestinian flag at the fence, and some threw rocks, witnesses said. Israeli soldiers opened fire and at least four were killed and 30 wounded. 

The Independent report states that:

“The worst incident occurred when thousands of protesters, transported to the southern Lebanese village of Maroun Al-Ras by bus, threatened to break down the border fence after hanging flags on the barbed wire. Israeli and Lebanese troops fired warning shots and five people were reported killed.”

Two points must be made about this report. Firstly, the demonstration was opposed by both the Israeli and Lebanese armies. Matthew Cassel, an eyewitness, reported on Twitter: "Lebanese army started shooting in air non-stop. There was a stampede, refugees running away." Secondly, how can “warning shots” kill five people?

Palestinians demonstrated throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The main rally was held in the West Bank city of Ramallah, seat of the so-called Palestinian Authority government, the ramshackle regime that presides over the pathetic Bantustan established by the Oslo Agreement.

Mohammed Elayan, of the Higher National Committee for Commemorating the Nakba, told thousands of people: "The Palestinian people are today more solid in confronting occupation and the policy of ethnic cleansing. The Zionist conspiracy against our people will be destroyed in the face of our steadfastness."

And Ismail Haniyeh, the outgoing Hamas prime minister, told thousands of worshippers at a Gaza mosque that Palestinians would mark Nakba Day this year “with great hope of bringing to an end the Zionist project in Palestine”.

But these are just empty words to satisfy the crowds. The harsh fact is that sixty three years later, the Zionist state remains firmly in control. The leaders have no solution. Neither the rockets of Hamas nor the “negotiations” of the PLO have yielded any positive results.

The Palestinian masses are acutely aware of this and the recent “unity movement”, inspired by the Arab revolution, was in fact a damning criticism of the leadership of both Fatah and Hamas which have led the Palestinian struggle into a blind alley.

Netanyahu responded to the newly formed unity government by declaring that there was “no place... for denying the existence of the State of Israel”. “I regret that there are extremists among Israeli Arabs and in neighbouring countries who have turned the day on which the State of Israel was established, the day on which the Israeli democracy was established, into a day of incitement, violence and rage,” he told cabinet ministers in Jerusalem.

The people who are inciting the Palestinians to violence and rage are Netanyahu and his government who have trampled on the most elementary democratic and human rights of the Palestinians who they treat in the same way that the colonial despots of the past treated all conquered peoples. The Israeli ruling class has now even passed a so-called “Nakba Law” making the commemoration illegal. If you drive people to the point of desperation they will respond with desperate measures.

The Israeli ruling circles are indifferent to suicide bombers and Hammas’ rockets. Indeed, they welcome them. Every rocket that falls on an Israeli village, every bus that is blown up in Jerusalem, provides them with all the ammunition they need to galvanize Israeli public opinion behind the government and the army. But this is something different. The right wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu was so terrified of the Egyptian Revolution that he issued an order to his ministers not to comment on events in Egypt. By their actions last weekend, the Palestinian masses have shown that there is another way forward: the road of mass revolutionary action. These are also the only methods which can divide Israeli society along class lines.


Outside Israeli embassy, Cairo, May 15. Photo: Maggie OsamaOutside Israeli embassy, Cairo, May 15. Photo: Maggie Osama

In Egypt, thousands rallied in Cairo in a Facebook-organized campaign aimed at marching all the way to Gaza. In Egypt’s second city, Alexandria, thousands marched to the Israeli consulate after dawn prayers at one of the main mosques while chanting, “With our souls, with our blood, we redeem you, Palestine.”

Hosni Mubarak, a US stooge, was complicit in the crimes of the Israeli ruling class. In effect, he participated in an Israeli blockade on Gaza by shutting the border. The great majority of Egyptians regard this as a national shame. Following the overthrow of Mubarak the Egyptian people are demanding that Egypt do more to help the Palestinians. One sign read: “The people want the opening of the Rafah crossing – fully and for good.”

“We are demonstrating to show that the Palestinian cause is in the heart of all Muslims,” said Sameh Abu Bakr, an agriculture engineer, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which was decked with red, white, black and green Palestinian flags. “We are here today to show our support for the Palestinian cause,” said Muhammad Abdel-Salam, a 22-year-old activist. “The victory of our revolution will not be complete without the liberation of Palestine,” he told AP.

Thousands of Egyptians had planned to march to the Egypt-Gaza border to stand in solidarity with Palestinians, but Egyptian security forces prevented buses from carrying them.  The army set up checkpoints along the main road leading to the Rafah Border Crossing.  The Egyptian authorities banned the planned march on Gaza, arguing that the timing was “inappropriate”. For these gentlemen the time will never be appropriate. The government deployed army and police forces to prevent demonstrators from crossing the Suez Canal to Sinai, the route they would have to take to reach the Gaza Strip.

Egyptians and Palestinians living in the Sinai staged a protest in the neighbouring city of Al-Arish after Friday prayers, chanting pro-Palestinian slogans and calling on the Egyptian army to allow the demonstrators to continue their march. Mustafa Reda Amin, the secretary-general of a youth alliance that helped oust Mubarak, said organizers contracted 20 buses to take demonstrators to Sinai. But an Egyptian security source said the authorities had decided to restrict entry to Sinai to commercial trucks and residents of the Sinai Peninsula and stepped up security on all access points to Sinai. “We want to prevent large numbers of people from entering Sinai for the day of the Great March,” one source said.

After the army intervention at the Israeli embassy. Photo: Gigi IbrahimAfter the army intervention at the Israeli embassy. Photo: Gigi Ibrahim But the greatest brutality was seen in Cairo, where Egyptian riot police fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters outside the Israeli Embassy. The protesters set fire to an Israeli flag, chanted anti-Israeli slogans and called for the expulsion of Israel's ambassador and the closure of the embassy. According to an eyewitness account by Mostafa Sheshtawy, the demonstration was “very peaceful with the usual chants” until the army attacked it with tear gas and gunfire.  Up to that point there was “no contact between the protesters and the army in any form all day. The whole day session was just the same chants and debates everywhere.”

As night fell, the protests were still peaceful, but some protesters shook the fence and hit it to make a loud noise.

“Suddenly the Army started to shoot in the air, people got scared and ran away for a while then came back chanting even louder. After a while things calmed down and protesters started to chant again in a very peaceful way. An hour later, some individuals removed a small fence from above a small security check right next to the Gate (main fence). People started cheer and things got loud again.

“Those same individuals started chanting, yet they raised their arms as they are trying to say they are peaceful and mean no harm. Then other individuals started removing the main fence – I thought they wanna get in – and started removing everything between the army and them. After they did, they just stood there! NO ONE attacked the army, and no one tried to force themselves in.”

Less than 10 minutes later, the shooting started. The streets were full of tear gas, which left people almost blinded. The infamous CSF (riot police) fired on the crowd with birdshot, the same tactic that was used on 28th January in Tahrir Square and caused many protesters to lose their eyesight. According to the Health Ministry at least 353 people were hurt outside the embassy, mostly from smoke inhalation. A security official said that some protesters sustained bullet wounds and that one protester was in critical condition.

Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The interim military council now running the country has pledged to honour the peace treaty. Of course! Foreign policy is the continuation of home policy. It was naive to expect these reactionary generals to defend the interests of the Palestinian people because they do not defend the interests of the Egyptian people. 

A youth organization, which played a key role in the uprising that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said on its Facebook page that the protest in front of the embassy was “civilized,” and questioned the riot police's use of force in dealing with the demonstrators. The people of Egypt are getting a valuable lesson on the real nature of the army and the “democratic” regime that has seized the reins of power.

A security official said Monday that at least 20 demonstrators were arrested. It was just like old times! It shows that the Revolution that started on 25 January is still far from attaining its most elementary goals. The same generals who served Mubarak are now posing as “democrats” and “patriots”. But they serve the same class interests as the man the people threw out and no real progress can be made until they also are shown the door.

The hypocrisy of the UN

For decades the UN has been passing resolutions demanding the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied territories, but has done absolutely nothing to implement them. Now that ordinary Palestinians have taken direct action to implement these resolutions, they are shot down without mercy.  One might well ask the question: where are the calls for a “no-fly zone” and the need to “protect the civilian population”?

The United Nations continues its hypocritical role of passing resolutions that it has no intention of ever implementing. If such events had occurred in Libya, one can imagine the outcry in the media and the resolutions in the Security Council. But this is not Libya but Israel, which is the main ally of the United States in the Middle East. With the fall of Mubarak, Washington is more firmly attached to Israel than ever, and is prepared to justify all its atrocities against the Palestinians, while cynically talking of peace

The murder of civilians by Israel is met by the “international community” with a deafening silence. Meanwhile, the head of NATO demands the stepping up of the criminal bombardment of Libya with the targeting of the infrastructure, because “otherwise Gaddafi might remain in power”. The fact that the UN resolution neither empowers NATO to bomb non-military targets nor to try to overthrow Gaddafi is irrelevant to these gentlemen. They are hellbent on regime change – in Libya. But they are not so keen on regime change in friendly states like Saudi Arabia or Israel.

The UN peacekeeping force in the border region called for “maximum restraint on all sides in order to prevent any further casualties” and “immediate concrete security steps on the ground” to prevent any further bloodshed. It is always the same story: the violence of an occupying power is put on the same level as the violence utilised by the victims of the occupation; the violence of stone throwing teenagers is equated with the violence of heavily armed troops.

The Palestinian cause cannot be served by futile appeals to the so-called United Nations. Nor can it be advanced by false “peace deals” like the monstrous Oslo Agreement between Arafat and US imperialism. And after six decades it should be clear to all that the bourgeois Arab regimes will always put their own narrow national interests before those of the Palestinians, and therefore will always betray them.

Is there no force in the world that can come to the aid of the Palestinians? Is there nobody they can call a true friend? The Palestinians have many true friends in the world. They are the workers and peasants, the revolutionary youth and women, first in the Arab lands, and secondly throughout the world. The Arab revolution has aroused the sympathy of the world working class. The Palestinian Revolution will gain an even greater sympathy, which must be translated into active support on a world scale.

The Arab Revolution has begun, but it is not finished. And it can never be finished until it has overthrown, not just individual dictators, but the economic and social system upon which dictatorships rest: the capitalist system. The struggle of the Palestinian people for their national liberation can only succeed if it is likened to a consistent struggle of the Arab masses for democracy and social emancipation. The Arab Revolution will triumph as a socialist revolution or it will not triumph at all.

Thawra hatta'l nasr!

Revolution until victory!

London, 16 May, 2011.

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