How the 1956 massacre has shaped the Palestinian struggle for civil rights.
Kafr Qasim is an Arab village in territory that was annexed by Israel following the 1949 Israeli-Jordanian armistice agreement, and was under strict military rule until 1966. Fifty-nine years ago today, on October 29th, 1956, a group of peasants from Kafr Qasim returned to the village from their fields, unaware that their village was under curfew. Forty-seven of them were executed by the Israeli Border Patrol troops, in a massacre that would become a formative political myth for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. For the next two decades the anniversary of the massacre would be the most important date on their political calendar.
What shaped the memory of the Kafr Qasim massacre as an exceptional case was the political status of the victims as Israeli citizens.
The emergence of Kafr Qasim as a major political myth is not as self-evident as it appears to be, because during the same years Israel killed thousands of other Palestinians whose deaths remained outside of the canonic political memory. What shaped the memory of the Kafr Qasim massacre as an exceptional case was the political status of the victims as Israeli citizens.
In 1956 the Green Line was still in the process of becoming a socio-political border and the choice of Arab leaders in Israel to turn the event into a formative, watershed moment in the state’s political development reflected an emerging outlook, according to which it is possible to turn the nominal citizenship of the Palestinians in Israel into a tangible set of civil rights. It was exactly because the massacre in Kafr Qasim undermined this outlook by targeting Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, that it became necessary to make it a symbol of civil struggle. Paradoxically, the massacre became a milestone in the construction of Israeli civic consciousness among the Palestinians in Israel.
Killing Palestinians as a method of controlling their movement was common at the time. The historian Benny Morris estimated that in the years from 1949 to 1956, between 2,700 and 5,000 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli Defense Forces, police, and civilians along Israel’s newly created borders—most of them unarmed refugees who tried either to return home or to harvest their crops. Nor was the massacre of Kafr Qasim the incident with the single largest number of casualties in the 1950s. Almost exactly three years prior to the Kafr Qasim massacre, Israeli troops attacked the village of Qibya in the West Bank—only six miles away from Kafr Qasim—and killed sixty-nine Palestinian villagers, most of them women and children. Even though the documented order to commit a massacre in Qibya was much clearer and more explicit than in the case of Kafr Qasim, the remembrance of the massacre did not become a mobilizing myth among Palestinians in Israel.
The massacre in Kafr Qasim was also not the only one committed in the very same period. It occurred only a few hours before Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip in what became known as the Suez War. According to a UN report, on November 3rd, during the conquest of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces killed 275 Palestinians. According to the same UN report, on November 12th Israeli military forces killed 110 Palestinians in Rafah after the fighting was already over. The author of the UN report, R. F. Bayard, chairman of the Egyptian-Israeli Mixed Armistice Commission (UN observers), stated that among the victims in both events in the Gaza Strip “a good number of persons have been shot down in cold blood for no apparent reason.”
Even while Knesset members of the Arab-Jewish Israeli Communist Party were aware of the Rafah event and tried to initiate a discussion about it in the Knesset, their efforts were ultimately unsuccesseful. Regarding the massacre in Kafr Qasim, however, they were much more determined to make it public knowledge, against the government’s attempt to block information. Al-Ittihad, the Communist Party’s newspaper in Arabic, gave much less attention to the killing in the Gaza Strip. During the first decade after 1956, al-Ittihad did link the Suez War and the Kafr Qasim massacre in its commemorative rhetoric, including a reference to both events in the main headlines on their anniversaries, but references to the specific massacres in the Gaza Strip were brief and uncommon. These massacres did not become a subject of commemoration by themselves, nor were they grouped with the massacre of Kafr Qasim to constitute one episode (“the massacres of autumn 1956,” for example, in the same way that the series of expulsions in 1948 is remembered as one event, the Nakba).
Interestingly, when representatives of eleven Arab states submitted a letter to the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1956, they protested the “inhuman treatment of the Arabs who live in Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula. Hundreds of Arab men, women, and children have been ruthlessly murdered in cold blood.” In this protest the various 1956 massacres constituted a single episode. Similarly, al-Difa’, a Palestinian newspaper published then in Jordanian-ruled East Jerusalem, reported on the Communist protest in the Knesset against the Rafah events and mentioned the massacre in Kafr Qasim as a side note in the same report. Later on, the newspaper reported briefly on the Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s announcement in the Knesset about the Kafr Qasim massacre.
The commemoration of the Kafr Qasim massacre as an episode in the struggle for civil rights was the beginning of a process.
The selection of Kafr Qasim from a series of concurrent massacres and the endurance of its commemoration are related to the political status of the victims and those who commemorated them outside Kafr Qasim—Israeli citizens—unlike the victims of the massacres in the Gaza Strip or in Qibya. Similarly, what distinguished the Kafr Qasim victims from the thousands of Palestinians who were killed while trying to cross the armistice line is that the victims were Israeli citizens, who were on their way home from work, not refugees on their way back home who tried to cross a recently-created international border.
As historian Shira Robinson has pointed out, in the first years of the state’s existence citizenship became a “category of exclusion” that enabled Israel to legalize Palestinian expulsion and prevent Palestinian return. When the Citizenship Law was legislated in 1952, its parameters were shaped to a large extent by the motivation to exclude the maximum number of Arabs from citizenship, while keeping a universalistic language and the appearance of a liberal inclusive citizenship. In these formative years, not having an Israeli ID card or Israeli citizenship significantly increased the likelihood that a Palestinian would be deported beyond the state’s borders. This policy divided Palestinians between those who did not have ID cards (and later citizenship), and therefore were likely to be exiled or remain in exile, and a minority who received Israeli ID cards and were allowed to stay and, in some cases, even allowed returning after expulsion.
Therefore, while Palestinian writers in Israel frequently analyzed the massacre of Kafr Qasim in the wider context of the Arab struggle against colonialism, classifying violence against Palestinians as a violation of civil rights was even more frequent. This emphasis on citizenship was also highly compatible with the ideology of the Communist Party, the dominant voice of Arab opposition in Israel at the time of the Kafr Qasim massacre. For example, Tawfiq Tubi, a prominent Palestinian communist leader, and a Member of Knesset who was the first to articulate the political lessons of the massacre, described it as an extreme expression of the violation of civil rights, such as land confiscations and administrative detentions. Later on, the commemoration of the Kafr Qasim massacre focused on the insultingly inadequate punishment of the perpetrators and on the demand that the state would take full responsibility for the massacre—a demand which comes from within the discursive boundaries of Israeli citizenship. This emphasis on citizenship has been the most rational path for protecting Palestinians from further expulsion or arbitrary killing.
The commemoration of the Kafr Qasim massacre as an episode in the struggle for civil rights was the beginning of a process. In the years since then, the selection of events into the canonic political calendar and of martyrs into the imagined pantheon, frequently have been shaped by the need to foreground Israeli citizenship and underscore specifically those massacres and killings that have violated the legal protections from state violence that citizenship ought to confer. Over the past two decades, under the growing frustration regarding the likelihood of achieving civil equality, this commemoration has gained a stronger Palestinian national character, especially in the commemoration of the Nakba, Land Day, and the victims of October 2000—and yet the commemoration of Kafr Qasim still stands out in its “Israeli orientation.” It is the only event to which Israeli ministers have been invited and have attended (in 1997 and 1999), and in 2014 the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, even took part in a memorial ceremony in Kafr Qasim. This exceptionalism is, in part, a result of the circumstances that shaped the massacre’s remembrance in the late 1950s.
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