Easing struggle over land, one village at a time

Peacemaker: An Israeli official's decision to return 250 acres confiscated long ago to a small Arab village is seen as a sign of a growing recognition of Arab rights inside Israel.

April 09, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KFAR QASSEM, Israel -- People in this Arab village say their injury didn't end on Oct. 29, 1956, when Israeli border troops massacred 49 men, women and children and forever burned the name Kfar Qassem into the list of gruesome grievances in the Israeli-Arab conflict.

They also saw part of their historic agricultural land eaten away, first for a security zone and later for a neighboring Jewish town to erect a large high-tech industrial park that provides this Israeli-Arab village with few jobs and no tax revenue.

But now Natan Sharansky, a government minister who gained world fame as a human-rights champion in the former Soviet Union, has decided to return 250 acres to the village to build its own industrial area.

"As a Zionist, I believe that if you want your country to be strong, you must be interested [in seeing] that there will be equal opportunities for everybody, that there will be no big gaps," says Sharansky.

And Sharansky's decision is just one act in the reversal of what Israeli Arabs say is a decades-long trend of encroachment on their ancestral land -- inside Israel and the occupied territories -- to accommodate Israel's absorption of immigrants and growing economy.

But it's coupled with other recent moves that signal a growing recognition of Arab rights inside Israel -- and a worry among some Jews that the fundamental principles of Zionism are being weakened.

Israel's Supreme Court recently ruled that an Arab family could acquire property and move into a home in Katzir, a new community developed by the Jewish Agency and intended for Jews.

"Katzir is one link in a chain, and Kfar Qassem is another," says Joseph Ginat, a Haifa University professor who headed the committee that first recommended that Kfar Qassem land be returned. "The chain is that Israel is a democratic country. -- You have Jews and Arabs and we have to live together."

In other action on land rights welcomed by human rights groups, Israel's high court last month reversed, at least temporarily, the eviction of hundreds of West Bank cave-dwellers who had been routed from farmland that was to be used as a military firing range.

The struggle over land is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. While Israel and the Palestinians negotiate over the future of the West Bank and Gaza, a decades-long dispute simmers inside Israel itself.

Every year at the end of March, Israeli Arabs hold a general strike to mark the deaths in 1976 of six Arabs who were shot while demonstrating against government land expropriations. This year's "Land Day" was marred by violence in the Galilee town of Sakhnin.

Of the area inside Israel, 93 percent is state-controlled -- 17 percent is owned by the Jewish National Fund, resulting from donations from the Zionists who bought it; the other 76 percent includes property confiscated during the British mandate or taken over from absentee owners and the Muslim Waqf charity.

The combination of government policies and a high Arab birthrate has shrunk per capita land holdings among Arabs from 8 acres per person in 1950 to one-eighth of an acre today, according to Mohamed Zidan, who heads a national committee of Arab mayors.

As a result, Arabs complain that their villages have nowhere to expand and that the price of residential property has skyrocketed.

Kfar Qassem's story fuses the conflict over land with a legacy of bloodshed.

It sits in a swath of territory close to the West Bank, called the Triangle, that was ceded to Israel by Jordan's King Abdullah after the 1948 war.

This arrangement didn't prevent terror attacks from Jordan into Israel during the 1950s, keeping tension high and setting the scene for the tragedy that occurred here in 1956 on the eve of the second Israeli-Arab war.

Israeli authorities ordered all Arab villages near the West Bank put under a curfew that began at 5 p.m. Violators were to be shot.

Israeli border guards got the order at 3: 30 p.m., giving no time to warn villagers coming home in late afternoon from jobs or work in the fields.

Ismail Ekab Badir, then almost 16, was returning with a cart after selling vegetables in the nearby town of Petah Tiqwa.

At the entrance to Kfar Qassem, he saw a group of villagers on bicycles. Facing them were three soldiers, who asked the group where they were from.

"Kfar Qassem," they replied.

"Where have you been?" the soldiers asked.

"At work."

The soldiers started firing. All 13 Arabs fell. Soon afterward, another group of villagers arrived, and the soldiers "finished them off" as well, Badir recalls.

Badir crawled away and hid, badly wounded. Three days later, he says, he came out of hiding. "My whole body was bleeding" from wounds in both legs, hand and chest, he says.

Badir was taken to a hospital, where doctors amputated the lower part of his right leg.

Suppressed by Israeli military censorship, news of the massacre did not become known to the Israeli public for six weeks. Eventually, eight soldiers were convicted in the deaths, but none served more than 3 1/2 years in jail.

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