Israeli efforts to defuse 'Land Day' tensions fail as clashes erupt at checkpoint

Some Palestinian protesters threw rocks at Israeli soldiers amid Land Day commemorations of the 1976 killing of six Palestinian citizens of Israel. Israeli forces responded with tear gas.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Palestinian protesters shout during a protest marking Land Day, near the border between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip on March 30. Israeli security forces fired rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades to break up groups of Palestinian stone-throwers on Friday as annual Land Day rallies turned violent.

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 Despite Israeli efforts to block unrest, soldiers clashed with Palestinian protesters at a key checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank today as Palestinians turned out en masse in Israel and the West Bank to mark Land Day.

The day commemorates the 1976 killing of six Palestinian citizens of Israel by Israeli soldiers as they protested against expropriation of their land in northern Israel. To mark Land Day this year, Palestinian activists called for a “Global March to Jerusalem.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports Israeli forces were put on high alert early today. All checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank were closed for 24 hours and additional troops were deployed along the borders with Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria. Protesters at the Qalandia checkpoint threw rocks at soldiers stationed there, who responded with stun grenades and tear gas.

Lebanon announced it was ratcheting up its security in its south, setting up checkpoints in the area and blocking efforts to march to the border. The protest has been rerouted to end elsewhere, Haaretz reports.

Last May, thousands of Palestinians gathered in the West Bank, Gaza, and along the borders with Lebanon and Syria – with some of them attempting to cross into Israel – to commemorate Nakba Day, which marks Israel’s creation in 1948. Several were killed as they tried to cross the border. Israel’s precautions today are an attempt to avert the bloody clashes that left 12 dead and hundreds injured, Agence France-Presse reports.

By midday, Israeli forces had released tear gas into the crowds at Qalandia checkpoint, according to a Guardian correspondent on site who has been providing regular updates to a liveblog. She writes:

Palestinian boys have started arriving at the blockades. Jabai, 19, has come from Nablus to join the protest. "Today is different than any other Friday demonstration," he says. "Many more people are coming.”

And what of organisers' hopes that the demonstrations will be peaceful? "No, we want to throw stones and break things", says Jabai, highlighting the difference between Palestinian activists and the frustrated youth who come to demonstrate anger. The first rocks are already being thrown at the Israeli watchtower.

And later:

A procession of hundreds of Palestinians bearing orange flags, drumming and whistling, is pouring down the Jerusalem road from Ramallah towards Qalandiya. They have been met by armoured Israeli vehicles blasting high-pitch sirens.

Jawaal, the Palestinian mobile network provider, has pitched a tent a few hundred metres up the road from Qalandiya giving away branded baseball caps and water to protesters.

Palestinians have commemorated Land Day every year since 1976, when, defying a curfew, residents of several Arab villages in Israel turned out in protest. In the ensuing clashes, about 100 were wounded and hundreds arrested, according to an opinion article in Haaretz by Palestinians Sam Bahour, a West Bank resident, and Fida Jiryis, who lives in an Arab village in the Galilee.

Thirty-six years later, the situation is as dire as ever. Racism and discrimination, in their rawest forms, are rampant in Israel, and are often more insidious than physical violence. Legislation aimed at ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Israel is part of public discourse. Israeli ministers do not shy away from promoting “population transfers” of Palestinian citizens − code for forced displacement.

The message is clear: Israel has failed, abysmally, in realizing its oft-cried role as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” with such discriminatory policies, and a culture of antagonism and neglect vis-a-vis a fifth of its citizens. The original Land Day marked a pivotal point in terms of how Palestinians in Israel − living victims of Israel’s violent establishment − viewed their relations with the state. Today, with no resolution in sight to the historic injustices inflicted upon them, Palestinians in Israel and elsewhere use this day to remember and redouble their efforts for emancipation.

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