Hundreds of Arab Israelis gathered Thursday in the central Arab city of Kafr Qasim to commemorate a 1956 massacre in which Border Police officers shot and killed dozens of residents.
Participants marched through the town, which lies a half-hour drive from Tel Aviv on the border with the West Bank, to lay wreaths on the tombs of those killed, as well as on a monument to their memory in the center of the city.
“We’ve come out to say that we haven’t forgotten, nor have we forgiven. The memory moves from one generation to the next. It is the memory of sumud, of steadfastness, of putting roots into our forefathers’ lands,” said Hadash parliamentarian Yousef Jabareen, who participated in the ceremony.
On October 29, 1956, the first day of the Suez Crisis, members of the Border Police were directed to shoot to kill anyone violating a curfew that was placed on Kafr Qasim.
Many locals had not learned of the curfew, and later that evening, the Border Police shot and killed 48 men, women and children. Almost all of them were from Kafr Qasim and one of the female victims had been pregnant.
A court later convicted and sentenced several members of the Border Police. While they had been following orders, the court ruled, a “black flag fluttered above them,” signaling that 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.
The yearly march has become a ritual in Kafr Qasim, where memories of those killed in the massacre remain very much alive.
“It is a memory etched into the minds of every Qasimite,” Sayyed Abdelwahid Issa, who directs Kafr Qasim’s Popular Committee, told The Times of Israel by phone. “Children when they grow up learn to respect and revere the 29th of October.”
While the memorial activities normally draw thousands and involve hours of activities and lectures, Thursday’s ceremony was smaller and shorter so as to avoid coronavirus infections associated with mass gatherings. Municipality officials also sought to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing requirements.
Issa’s grandfather — his mother’s father — was one of those killed in the massacre. But he said that the commemoration was not only about those whom he called “Kafr Qasim’s martyrs.”
“For us, today is a day of life. Of the 48 who were killed, 33 were married. Recently, we tracked them all down. Their descendants now number 4,964, and I am one of them. Just imagine,” Issa said, choking up.
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, where 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 topped by a black flag were given here. We must look directly at what happened. It is our duty to teach this difficult incident and to draw lessons.”
The Knesset has often rejected proposed legislation that would acknowledge state responsibility for the crime.
On Wednesday night, the Knesset debated a bill proposed by Joint List MK Aida Touma-Suleiman that would have conferred “full state recognition” on the event and added mandatory instruction about the massacre into school curricula.
“All of these demands share one thing in common: that recognizing the harm is a necessary stage in its repair,” Touma-Suleiman said.
Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) rejected Touma-Suleiman’s claim that the massacre was absent from Israeli educational materials, pointing out that schoolchildren study the incident in civics classes on illegal army orders.
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.
The Times of Israel reached out to a number of parliamentarians who had opposed the measure but did not receive responses to requests for comment.