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Bill to memorialize Kafr Qasim massacre toppled as Arab MKs trade accusations

Doomed Joint List proposal would have seen state take responsibility for event; Meretz minister accuses opposition party of exploiting incident to embarrass coalition’s Arabs

Meretz MK Issawi Frej, left, speaks during a plenum session at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 23, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Meretz MK Issawi Frej, left, speaks during a plenum session at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 23, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset struck down a proposal on Wednesday that would have seen the state formally accept responsibility for the 1956 Kafr Qasim massacre, as Arab Israeli parliamentarians traded accusations over the matter.

The bill, proposed by the opposition’s Arab-majority Joint List party, never had any real chance of passing, and was seen by Arab MKs in the coalition as a tool wielded by the Joint List to attack them.

“The change government, the unity government, the supposed Jewish-Arab government, toppled the bill to memorialize the Kafr Qasim massacre,” fumed Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman following the debate. The bill fell by a margin of 93-12 with no abstentions.

During the massacre, Border Police officers killed 48 Arab Israeli men, women and children for violating a wartime curfew near Kafr Qasim. The Supreme Court later ruled that although the officers were merely following orders, the draconian directive to shoot all violators was blatantly immoral and illegal. The policemen received prison terms but were all quickly pardoned.

Touma-Sliman’s bill would have seen the state formally accept “full moral responsibility for the massacre” and mandate an hour of instruction on the incident in Israeli schools. It would also require that the state work to publicize any remaining classified documents relevant to the massacre.

Many of the coalition’s left-wing members — especially from the Islamist Ra’am and left-wing Meretz parties — have supported such bills in the past. With both the coalition and much of the opposition firmly against the bill, the Arab coalition members were granted freedom from coalition discipline to vote as they wished.

Arab Israeli coalition members accused the Joint List of exploiting the painful historical event for political gain.

“You want to turn our pain into internal politics,” said Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej from the Knesset plenum, gesturing at the Joint List parliamentarians.

MK Aida Touma-Sliman leads a Status of Women and Gender Equality Committee meeting at the Knesset on November 21, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Frej, an Arab Israeli member of the Meretz party, is a Kafr Qasim resident. “You’re exploiting our pain for a few votes,” he added in a choked voice.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Touma-Sleiman called back at Frej.

Arab Israeli parliamentarians regularly propose the law near the massacre’s October 29 anniversary. But the Knesset has repeatedly rejected proposals to acknowledge state responsibility for the crime, with some Jewish MKs saying that the state has already done enough.

Recognizing the fragile nature of the coalition, the Arab Joint List bloc has repeatedly put forward bills that embarrass Ra’am and Meretz, which joined the current diverse Israeli government.

The proposed legislation often aligns with those parties’ values and priorities, making it difficult for them to submit to coalition discipline — and explain their votes to their electorate. The hard-right Religious Zionism party has used a similar strategy to widen the gaps on the coalition’s right flank.

“This time, the coalition has within it parliamentarians who submitted the bill in previous administrations. But their coalition toppled the bill and continues to deny the massacre,” Joint List chief Ayman Odeh said in a statement following the vote, referring to Meretz and Ra’am.

The Kfar Qasim massacre was a pivotal event in the relationship between Israel’s Arab citizens and the young Israeli state. On October 29, 1956, the first day of the Suez Crisis, a curfew was placed on Arab villages near the Green Line, which served as the effective border with Jordan, due to fears of unrest. Border Police officers were directed to shoot to kill anyone violating the curfew.

Many locals had not heard of the curfew, and later that evening, the Border Police shot and killed 48 men, women and children who were outside. Almost all of them were from Kafr Qasim and one of the female victims had been pregnant.

The Israeli Supreme Court later convicted and sentenced several members of the Border Police for the killings. While they had been following orders, the court ruled, it should have been clear to the officers that the orders were patently illegal. Ultimately, the officers’ sentences were reduced and none spent more than a few years in prison.

In Kafr Qasim, memories of those killed in the massacre remain very much alive. A monument in the city center commemorates the dead, and a yearly march of mourning has been a ritual for decades.

Sayed Abdelwahed Issa, a leader of Kafr Qasim’s Popular Committee whose grandfather was killed in the 1955 massacre, speaks at a ceremony commemorating the event on Thursday October 29, 2020 (courtesy)

A number of former Israeli government officials have joined the commemoration over the years. In 2014, Reuven Rivlin became the first sitting president to participate in the annual memorial service, during which he condemned the massacre.

“The criminal killing that took place in your village is an irregular and dark chapter in the history of the relationship between Arabs and Jews living here,” Rivlin said at the time. “A terrible crime was committed here, illegal orders… were given here. We must look directly at what happened. It is our duty to teach this difficult incident and to draw lessons.”

Last year, the Knesset debated a similar bill proposed by Touma-Suleiman that would have conferred “full state recognition” on the event and added mandatory instruction about the massacre into school curricula. The bill was struck down by the Knesset with 51 against and 21 in favor. The Joint List voted in favor, joined by a smattering of parliamentarians from Meretz and Blue and White. Shas, Likud and Yamina MKs opposed the measure.

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