Palestinian protester in traffic at Qalandia checkpoint for the annual Land Day protest, March 30, 2013. (Photo: Team Palestina Facebook)
Last year Palestinians protested in thousands to mark Land Day, an annual commemoration of six killed during a 1976 march against land expropriations in the Galilee, but this year’s protests failed to capture the same momentum. Along with the main march in Sakhnin, the location of the first Land Day demonstration, Palestinian grievances were contained to the expected sites of hot conflict—Qalandia checkpoint and Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem—with the unforeseen addition of the Beit Safafa neighborhood in Southwest Jerusalem.
While each of the annual days of protest in the Palestinian activist calendar mark some form of oppression by Israeli authorities, Land Day is the only action to specifically originate from Palestinian citizens of Israel. During the first Intifada the protest struck a chord with West Bank Palestinians when four were killed marching in 1988, and three in 1989. Since that time Land Day has shifted into a special occasion where all Palestinians—Israeli citizens, West Bank, Gaza, refugees and diaspora—can unite under a single banner. Yet last year both protestors and the Israeli authorities were suprised by the tens of thousands who turned out. The Israeli response was jarring to watch, reflecting a tint of the U.S. civil rights movement as water cannons pelted back protesters. Equally alarming in Gaza, Hamas police used force against protesters in order to keep them from reaching the barrier with Israel.
Journalists stand behind the Israeli military at Qalandia checkpoint. (Photo: Allison Deger/Mondoweiss)
In the afternoon hours at Qalandia, the main artery between Jerusalem and Ramallah, journalists and Israeli border police outnumbered the scant protesters that lingered between cars. On a normal day, Qalandia is a man-made traffic jam nightmare. The ingredients of chaos are the presence of an overbuilt refugee camp, one traffic circle for cars both exiting and entering the West Bank, and roadblocks and the checkpoint itself. Today the bumper-to-bumper traffic created a deep barrier between protesters carrying Palestinian flags and throwing stones, and the Israeli border police.
Behind the border police milled journalists and a few Western tourists, waiting for masses of demonstrators that never showed. Russia Today, whose live coverage last year included video feed from multiple locations across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, even dispatched a crew from Moscow to cover the expected repeat of an outpouring of political frustration. However, the crowds—and the injuries (over 150 at Qalandia alone, and one death)—of last year’s protests never came to the West Bank.
When I arrived at 11:30 am, other journalists described flash bangs lobbed into the media fray by Israeli border authorities even before the protesters had arrived. Later tear gas canisters were rolled into the journalist bay and fired into the open traffic.
Smaller demonstrations outside Ramallah took place in al-Ram, where protesters burned tires and border police fired tear gas in response, and in Jayyus with tree planting. Further south in the West Bank a memorial was held near Bethlehem, attended by Mustafa Barghouti (the subject of a controversial incident in last year’s Land Day protest during which he experienced a head injury).
Elsewhere in E1, site of the twice short-lived protest village Bab al Shams, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad symbolically planted a tree. During Bab al-Shams’s most recent re-construction that coincided with President Barack Obama’s visit to the region a number of officials from different political parties lent their support—including Barghouti who was a staple to the encampment and the first arrested during the raid last week. By comparison, Fayyad never visited the camp while it was functional and did not comment on the arrest and detention of the inhabitants and organizers.
Outside of the official Land Day protest in Sakhnin in Northern Israel, the largest demonstrations took place in Jerusalem. On Salah al-Din Street, which links the Old City to Sheikh Jarrah, hundreds marched peacefully alongside 100 border police, and Israeli police. “Unfortunately the Israelis tried to stop the demonstration even though no stones were thrown,” said Muath al-Khatib, a photojournalist for Watan, a Palestinian news service.
I talked to al-Khatib on the steps of the Damascus Gate around 3 pm, after most of the day’s uprisings had subsided. “Lately things are unpredictable, really. Sometimes it [demonstrations] becomes really powerful, sometimes it is nothing,” he continued.
In the morning Al-Khatib started work stationed at the Damascus Gate until he received a phone call that the march had surprisingly commenced blocks away. Such a change of plans is routine for Palestinian protests, a hallmark of the lack of political unity and fragmentation of those who are most willing to take to the streets. Al-Khatib then re-grouped and chased the demonstration. He said the marches were likely smaller this year than last because many Palestinians feel burnt out after weeks of protests for noted hunger striker Samer Issawi who has surpassed 250 days of fast. Yet al-Khatib still finds Land Day to be an important action for the Palestinian cause. “Our land is occupied, we must demonstrate to free our land.”
“Last week they viciously attacked two journalists,” he continued, shifting to concerns working as a Palestinian journalist for a locally based agency. Two Fridays ago al-Khatib was photographing clashes near Al Aqsa Mosque when he said border police fired on journalists. Even more, in the past few weeks some of al-Khatib’s friends were detained while working. Pulling out both his Watan press credentials and a Palestinian Authority media card al-Khatib proceeded, “This is what we are now afraid of, even though the journalists have Arab credentials, they still get arrested.”
Beit Safafa. (Photo: Wafa Images/Team Palestina Facebook)
Al-Khatib was the first to tell me about a protest in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa where a land confiscation is already underway. Beit Safafa was an unlikely spot for one of the country’s largest demonstrations. Around 200 protested a settler road slated for construction in the center of the village, splitting it in half. Weeks ago Friday protests began in this Palestinian middle class community in Southwest Jerusalem. Yet only recently have the marches reached national attention. (Alex Kane reported on the mounting pressure from Beit Safafa.)
This community has a rather unique reputation. It is clean with quiet streets, and the flurry of Israeli shoppers that visit the neighborhood—especially on the Sabbath—pin Beit Safafa as a model for uneventful friendships between Israelis and Palestinians. But interpersonal relationships are not the cause of this conflict. The Israeli government plans to build a road in the neighborhood that will surely economically devastate half the town, rendering it to the same obscure fate as every other Palestinian village that has had a wall or a fence cut through it.
Despite the unpredictable rise of Beit Safafa to the center of Land Day, the neighborhood is undergoing the same experiences that caused the first Land Day demonstrations. Beit Safafa has now officially plucked itself into the national narrative of loss of land and the fight to keep it. And while the demonstrations were small today, it is hardly an indicator that dissidence will continue to lull.
Tensions are still high over hunger striker Samer Issawi and the young people who lost their lives in demonstrations against his incarceration. Likewise President Obama’s goodwill visit failed to promise a new horizon for ending the occupation through negotiations. Perhaps the lack of mobilization for Land Day speaks to an overall disillusionment with passé structures of resistance, and even a formal protest seems like a tactic for an era long ago.