Conflict & Justice

March by Arabs in Israel falls short of expectations


International peace activists hold the Palestinian flag during the commemoration of Land Day in Qalandia, which lies between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 30, 2012.


Abbas Momani

JERUSALEM — Thousands of Arabs marched on Friday to protest against Israeli expropriation of Arab lands and the “judaziation” of Jerusalem, though the Land Day demonstrations, which were billed both the Global March on Jerusalem and the Million Man March, fell far short of organizer’s hopes.

A 20-year-old protester was killed in Gaza and about 20,000 people participated in protests in Lebanon and in Jordan, but Israel’s borders remained quiet and only about 50 Palestinians were arrested throughout the country, most of whom were released the same day.

In Jerusalem, the traditional Friday prayers at El Aksa mosque took place without incident, though the closure of the West Bank and a prohibition on entry to the mosque’s promenade by men younger than 40 left the Old City somewhat empty on an unusually chill and blustery day.

In the days leading up to the much touted protest, local media outlets in Hebrew and Arabic had indicated that the march’s organization was in disarray. Israeli and West Bank Palestinians, who had initially planned a non-violent protest to commemorate the day in 1976 when six Israeli Arabs were killed by Galilee police during a rally against the expropriation of private lands, apparently felt sidelined by foreign elements.

Among these were international non-governmental organizations favoring a boycott of Israel and the Iranian government, which, according to Arab sources funded the participation of an “Asian” contingent to the marches.

Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority shared a common goal of avoiding any major conflict.

A group that eventually grew to about 50 men, all prevented from acceding to the esplanade, gathered at an impromptu prayer quorum outside one of the gates, following a muezzin who called out prayers and a sermon from the alleyway where they collected by a line of about eight riot policemen. Nadim Rishek, a 30 year-old Jerusalemite, who like many held his own prayer rug, was angry about not being able to reach the mosque.

“Peace is one big lie,” he said. “The Israeli government — I don’t want to say the Israeli people, but they voted for this government — does not want peace."

The muezzin reassured the gathered men that their prayers were “as if we were inside the mosque.”

Sharif Salhab, 26, and Naim Abu Guma, 38, both owners of shops selling touristic souvenirs, also expressed frustration, saying “people have just come to pray. You cannot keep people out of the house of God. Of course they are angry and they hate the police. But no one is planning any violence.”

In fact, the alleyways and narrow paths of the ancient city felt placid throughout Friday, and groups of tourists wandered freely about, following the cries of their microphone-equipped guides, who at midday sounded much like multilingual echoes of the muezzins.

Eulalia and Jordi Mallik, a couple from Barcelona celebrating the husband’s 57th birthday, had followed almost the precise path of the Global March on Jerusalem, crossing from Amman to Jerusalem over the Allenby Bridge border crossing late Thursday night, but remained entirely unaware of the event on their first day in the Old City.

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“It seems quiet and very pretty,” Eulalia said. “I feel no fear at all. It makes strange impression to see all these armed policemen, but it feels completely different being here from what you’d expect seeing news reports of a place in conflict.”

At around 1:30 p.m., men started streaming out of the mosques. Faraj Sublahan, 60, complained that the area of the mosques looked more like a “military base than a place for prayer.” His friend Hussein Shab, 55, said “this is occupation. The situation is completely abnormal. You can press one wrong button, and …The war is at an open door all the time.”

Both men bitterly criticized both the Israeli and Palestinian governments, with Shab saying that “all the leaders just want to sit on their comfortable chairs and do nothing for the people. If they just let us Jews and Arabs get on with our lives, we would live together fine like we always have.”

Sublahan, a father of five, remonstrated against bureaucratic impediments he faces at the hands of Israeli authorities, including his inability renew his ID card since 2001 and the fact that Jerusalem’s municipality has refused to grant him permission to add a necessary floor to his home, leaving him cramped and roofless.

“Things were better before these right-wing governments,” he said, referring specifically to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but added that all regional leaders “are just garbage. Trash. None of them care if their people suffer. They want position and money.”

About an hour after the end of prayers the atmosphere outside Damascus Gate, spilling over into al-Zahara street in East Jerusalem, was markedly more tense, with Israeli mounted police rushing a gathered crowd of several hundred, shoving demonstrators toward buildings and sometimes taking Palestinian flags from their hands. At least one protester and one photographer received bloody head wounds from police batons, though the crowd itself remained not-violent.

A number of Israeli leftists stood in solidarity on the sidelines, largely quiet, one wielding a sign with the words “Jerusalem’s City Hall is a Racist Organization.”

Police threw stun grenades and some of the Arab protesters shouted Hebrew-language slogans at the police, like “Go home, go back to Russia!” or “Democratic Occupation.”

As at the Qalandia crossing between Jerusalem and Ramallah, a few trash containers and tires were set on fire, but within a few hours the crowds had peacefully dispersed and regular Friday commerce took their place.

The bananas and onions that had been thrown from their crates were swept up, the usual kofta stands took their usual corners, and everything from strange fuzzy peach-like decorative balls to Swiss chocolates were again on sale for 10 shekels a piece.

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