June 1, 1998
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
“Long live Palestine!” chanted hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in demonstrations across the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip May 14. The protests were marking al nakba (the catastrophe) – the founding of the state of Israel 50 years earlier and the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homeland. Israeli soldiers attacked the demonstrations, killing at least five Palestinians and injuring hundreds. Protests and confrontations continued for several days.
The 50-year anniversary was also a flashpoint for the growing polarization within the Israeli ruling class between those calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to withdraw from a portion of the occupied territories and others who are pushing to extend Israeli settlements deeper into the Palestinian region.
Israeli troops were put on high alert May 14, with tanks and armored personnel carriers deployed along the Gaza border. They opened fire on protesters with live ammunition, rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades, batons, and mounted cops.
The actions, called as a “million person march,” drew residents from throughout West Bank and Gaza. Manara Square in Ramallah was the site of the day’s largest event, where tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered for an address from Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) head Yasser Arafat. “50 Years of Steadfastness and Resistance” and “Freedom for prisoners in Israeli jails” were among the signs in the crowd there.
Some of the biggest face-offs took place in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their capital. Marchers there tried to pass through a main shopping strip, but were blocked by Israeli riot cops. Uniformed school girls chanted at the cops, “PLO! Israel No!” and “With soul, with blood we will redeem you, Palestine! Jerusalem is Arab! Freedom and national unity!” As a detachment of police moved against the crowd, they were pelted with stones. Police responded by firing a salvo of plastic bullets.
The same day on the steps of the National Palace Hotel, Israeli mounted police and other cops attacked Palestinians who were observing a moment of silence in memory of their fellow patriots killed by Zionist troops.
The Israeli army sealed off all Palestinian areas in Gaza and the West Bank during the demonstrations to prevent travel in either direction. One group of women tried to return to their home towns and villages, which are now within the Israeli borders, and held up placards listing 400 Palestinian villages demolished as part of the founding of Israel in 1948.
In the weeks leading up to the May 14, 1948, declaration of the state of Israel, 200,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes in what became Israeli territory. In the war that followed, more than half a million more were dispossessed. The 133,000 Palestinians who remained within the Israeli borders were reduced to second-class status. Eleven minutes after the declaration of the Zionist state, Washington recognized the government. Nearly two decades later, Tel Aviv made another land grab, seizing the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, as well as the Golan Heights from Syria in a six-day war in 1967.
Israeli aggression condemned
The Palestinian Authority (PA) immediately issued a statement condemning the government assault on the Palestinians’ 50th anniversary protests. “Confronting our peaceful march with live ammunition and the awful crime of killing our people in cold blood will never prevent us of continuing our struggle to get the cancer of the occupation… out of our land.”
The Israeli aggression also drew international attention. Iranian foreign minister Kaman Kharrazi spoke out against the killings, likening them to the measures used to establish the Israeli state.
The South African Foreign Affairs Department released a statement of condemnation May 15, saying, “The existence of Israeli settlers with an accompanying military presence in Palestinian areas such as Gaza, Bethlehem, and Hebron can only serve to heighten the risk of confrontation…. This in turn emphasizes the need for a speedy Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian land as envisaged under the Oslo accords.”
Under those accords signed in 1995 by Tel Aviv and the PLO, the Israeli government was supposed to make three pullouts from occupied territories within approximately two years of the agreement, leaving Palestinians with up to 91 percent of the land in the West Bank. But so far the PA fully controls less than 3 percent of those lands, in scattered patches. Another 24 percent is administratively run by the Palestinian Authority, but is subordinate to Israeli military command.
In Lebanon thousands of Palestinian refugees joined protest actions beginning May 14. In Baddawi and al Bared refugee camps located in the northern city Tripoli, people demonstrated inside the camps. Students also rallied, releasing helium balloons carrying names of many Palestinian towns and villages overrun by the Zionist government of Israel.
Recent “peace negotiations” between Israeli and Palestinian officials brokered by Washington have not resulted in any pullbacks of Israeli troops. A rumor was circulated and picked up in some big-business press that Netanyahu agreed to withdraw his forces from 13 percent of the West Bank, provided it was agreed to be the final pullback. The Palestinian Authority rejected any agreement that excluded the further handover of land to Palestinian control. Netanyahu and James Rubin, spokesman for U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright, both quickly held press conferences denying the rumor. U.S. officials had earlier proposed a 13 percent troop withdrawal at meeting in Washington, to be followed by another pullback. Tel Aviv rejected that offer, claiming that any withdrawal exceeding 9 percent posed “security risks.”
In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, U.S. vice president Albert Gore declared, “America stands by Israel, now and forever…. Our special relationship is indestructible…. It doesn’t depend on the peace process. It transcends the peace process.”
Gore lauded the establishment of the Zionists state as a “miracle… [that] grew democracy in the desert.” Gore then announced plans to increase U.S. military aid to Israel, which now stands at $1.8 billion a year.
Meanwhile, several opposition parties submitted no confidence motions against Netanyahu to the Israeli parliament. These include the Labor, Meretz, and Hadash parties, all of whom accuse the premier of botching up “peace” talks and not accepting the 13 percent pullout. At the same time, rightist politicians in Israel have threatened to topple the regime if any pullout beyond 9 percent is considered.