The 29th of October 1956 started as a quiet day in the village of Kafr Qasim, then under military rule since it was transferred to Israeli occupation by the Jordanian king in 1949. The villagers, hard-working peasants and workers, went out early to work in the fields and in near-by stone quarries. In the afternoon a unit of the Israeli army came in and informed the village head that they are coming to impose a curfew. They told him to warn the villagers not to get out of their homes. “But what about the people that will come from work, I can’t warn them of the curfew?” he asked. “Don’t worry, I will let them in” answered the soldiers.
Eventually, as farmers came back from their fields and workers from the workshops, the soldiers gathered them in small groups on the entrance to the village. Then the officer ordered to “mow them down” and they were shot dead, their bodies piled in heaps at the side of the road. 49 people were killed in cold blood without any provocation, for violating a curfew order that they was not aware of. 12 of the martyrs were women and girls, 17 children, the youngest of them only 7 years old.
The massacre of Kafr Qasim was not an isolated incident. It was intentionally planned by elements in the Israeli army command as part of a much bigger plan to complete the ethnic cleansing of 1948. The massacre was carried in the first day of October 1956 Tripartite Aggression of Britain, France and Israel against Egypt. Israel hoped that, under the cover of the fog of war, new massacres will cause the Arab Palestinian population to seek refuge and safety beyond the Jordanian border.
Commemorating the Massacre
The people of Kafr Qasim were not even allowed to bury their dead. The army kidnapped at gun-point some men from the nearby village of Jaljulia and forced them to bury the massacre’s victims in Kafr Qasim’s cemetery, while the curfew over the village was extended to 3 whole days. Israeli military censorship prevented any mention of the crime in the press. It required a prolonged struggle, mostly led by the Communist Party, just to publish the shocking facts about what the army did.
In the coming years the military government continued to terrorize the population and prevent the commemoration of the massacre. As we visited Kafr Qasim today, our hosts told us how the army used to force a siege of the village on the anniversary of the massacre. It was even searching homes and confiscating any piece of black cloth in order to prevent any sign of mourning.
Only in 1966, at the 10th anniversary, as the military rule in the 1948 and 49 occupied territories was abolished, could the people of Kafr Qasim for the first time openly and more or less freely commemorate their martyrs, with solidarity delegations coming from all over the country.
60 Years On
I must confess that this year was the first time that I attended the Kafr Qasim massacre commemoration. The local tradition is to start the commemoration march at 8:30 in the morning, an unconventional timing for a public event and a real challenge if you come from far away. As we entered Kafr Qasim this morning it was suspiciously quiet and we almost thought that the event will not really start so early. But when we approached the designated gathering place at 8:40 thousands of people were already marching and we quickly joined them.
We marched to the location of the massacre, at what was once the western entrance of the village but is now at the center of what has become a poverty stricken township. There, near the massacres’ memorial, a mass meeting was held. I was mostly impressed at the way that the whole population is now involved with the commemoration. Men and women of all ages attended, most of them wearing special black T-shirts with the symbol of the 60th anniversary.
Another extraordinary feature of the date was the simultaneous translation of the whole event to the signs language for the deaf. Soon we also understood why the march started so early, as the sun climbed up the sky and the heat became hard to bear.
We heard Kafr Qasim’s Mayor Adel Bdeir, the representative of the grandchildren of the victims, an Islamic Sheikh and Muhammad Barake, the head of the “follow up committee” that represents the whole Palestinian Arab population in the 48 territories. At the end a group of children release to the air 49 green and black helium balloons.
Then there was another march, following the last journey of the martyrs, from the location of the massacre to the cemetery in the East of the village, just near where the Jordanian border used to be. When we went back many people were still coming in all along the main street of the town.
The morning events were just one part of the wider 60th anniversary commemoration. Over the last month there were educational programs about the massacre that involved every pupil in Kafr Qasim’s schools. There were more marches before today and another central mass meeting was set for tonight, with more speakers from out of the town. It was said that in the next anniversaries the commemoration should not be restricted to Kafr Qasim itself.
We met sisters Rim and Roz Amer, friends from the old days in “Ta’ayush” movement and activists in the Kafr Qasim commemoration popular committee. They were collecting evidence from some of the old people that survived the massacre…
They told us about their grandmother, Khamisa Amer, which was with a group of women that went out to pick olives in that fatal day. As they came back in the pickup car the army stopped them. First they took out the three men that were in the car and shoot them. Then they shoot at the group of women inside the car.
When we met Roz and Rim they were interviewing Hana’a Amer, which was 14 years at the time of the massacre and came to help in the olives harvest under the supervision of their grandmother. Hana’a was shot and wounded in her leg and head, her skull was broken, but she stayed alive lying in the pile of corpses. She didn’t understand what was going on, not grasping that all the other women around her were dead. It was her rare luck that the soldiers didn’t notice that she was not dead like the others.
Much later, when the murderers went and other soldiers came to carry the dead, one soldier tried to carry what he thought was Hana’a’s dead body by dragging her from her hand. She cried with pain and eventually was taken to the hospital. I think it was the first time, only after 60 years, that Rim and Roz heard a first-hand report about the conditions in which their grandmother was martyred.
They told us about another interview with a man that was likewise wounded but survived after staying the night under a pile of corpses. He told of his pain as he heard his neighbors approaching one after the other the army checkpoint and being shot dead, and his great agony at not being able to warn them. He told how the soldiers would shoot at any victim that was still not dead. The officer told them to shoot one bullet at each head, not to waste precious ammunition.
The Massacre is Not Over
We visited the museum for the commemoration of the massacre. For the 60th anniversary, the people of Kafr Qasim opened a stunning new section of the museum called “panorama”, where you go through a dark cave and pass by several scenes that represents the stages of the massacre. You can hear the full story there in Arabic, Hebrew or English. It starts with the quiet village life before the massacre and ends with the government’s attempts to cover for the crime.
The people of Kafr Qasim see a special insult in the supposedly “traditional reconciliation treaty” (Sulha in Arabic) that was organized after the massacre. They say it was designed to wash the hands of those responsible to the massacre and forced on the villagers by the coercion of the military government.
Another insult is the trial of the officers and soldiers that initiated and perpetrated the massacre. The highest officer that was sentenced, Colonel Shadmi, was fined a symbolic one cent! Eight lower ranking officers and soldiers were sentenced to prison terms but pardoned after a short period. The responsible officers were all promoted to more important jobs.
In today’s commemoration all speakers drew a straight line from the refusal of the Israeli government to take responsibility for the crime to the continued policy of discrimination against the Arab population, including the continuing confiscation of Kafr Qasim’s land, the inability to get building licenses and the systematic house demolition.
But not only discrimination is continuing, the massacre itself is going on with the intentional killing of Arab citizens of Israel taking part in protest actions in Land Day (1976) and October 2000, and the killing with impunity of dozens of others over the years for all or no reason. And, of course, Israel’s continuing massacre of Arab Palestinians continues on a much wider scale in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza under the deadly siege. It is all one and the same struggle for liberty from the same murderous racist regime.