Palestinian dilemmas go beyond land on 'Land Day'

Bassem Aly , Saturday 30 Mar 2013

Palestinians marked Land Day amid rising tensions with Israel over illegal settlements, fate of Palestinian prisoners, access to Al-Aqsa, and Palestinian constants in stalled peace process

Land Day
A protester holds a Palestinian flag during a protest marking Land Day in the northern Gaza Strip March 30, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Palestinians will commemorate on Saturday Land Day, held on an annual basis to mark the killing of six demonstrators by Israeli soldiers during a huge protest in 1976 condemning the confiscation of 14,000 acres of Palestinian land in the Galilee.

Last year, the same day, saw the eruption of fierce clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leading to the injury of at least 121 with one Palestinian shot dead.

To pre-empt new violent confrontations, Israel has deployed “thousands of police reinforcements” in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, "to prevent disorder," a police spokeswoman told AFP.

The security measures were adopted "following information that groups of Palestinians were ready to engage in violent demonstrations."

"Very often the mere presence of these forces acts as a deterrent and, in case of violent demonstrations, the security forces who have taken up positions in the field have an advantage over troublemakers," Israel’s army radio quoted an officer as saying.

Israel restricts Al-Aqsa

Land Day is traditionally also a focus for other Palestinian grievances, including access to and control over the Jerusalem-located Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam. Israel's recurrent violations against the mosque have historically been a major source of tension and anger among Palestinians.

On 15 March, Israeli police forces renewed prior restrictions on Muslim Palestinians who seek to enter Al-Aqsa Mosques for Friday prayers, with Israeli officers citing "intelligence information" that Palestinians may engage in “acts of riot” on site.

Still in force, the order allows only Palestinians carrying Israeli identity cards and above 50 years old to enter the mosque. Palestinians who cannot meet these criteria are barred from praying in the mosque, women an exception.

On 3 March, an Israeli officer attacked Palestinian female students inside the mosque and desecrated a copy of the Holy Quran, according to Al-Aqsa Foundation for Endowment and Heritage.

The girls' account suggests that the officer tried to chase them away to prevent them from reciting the Quran. When they refused, the officer kicked and walked on a copy of the Quran.

A number of men and women gathered near the Mughrabi Gate to condemn the crime, chanting "God is great." Three days later, clashes erupted in Jerusalem after eight Jewish settlers entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque under the protection of Israeli police.

The settlers prayed in front of the mosque before clashes broke out with Palestinian Muslims, a guard at the mosque told Egypt's state news agency MENA.

"Israeli authorities allow military troops, settlers and even tourists to enter Al-Aqsa, which provokes the feelings of Muslims praying in the mosque," the guard added.

A Palestinian man was shot during the clashes and transferred to a clinic. Also, an Israeli soldier removed a Palestinian woman's veil after she prevented a settler from photographing her.

‘Samer Issawi is dying‘

These tensions came ahead of US President Barack Obama's three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories that began 20 March. Also charging the atmosphere is the case of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails protesting prison conditions and indefinite detention with hunger strikes.

The mother of Samer Issawi, a Palestinian detainee on hunger striker for 252 days in Israeli prison, addressed a letter to Obama a day ahead of his planned visit to the region.

"I, Mrs Laila Tareq Issawi, the mother of Samer, who is on hunger strike in the Israeli occupation prisons, call on you to immediately intervene to save my son’s life which is under threat as I am writing these words, to keep your hands blood free after Netanyahu has stained his with Samer’s blood,” she said in the letter.

Issawi was released as part of an Egypt-brokered prisoner swap between Hamas and Israeli authorities in October 2011 that led to the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Issawi was rearrested in July of last year under Israel’s so-called "administrative detention" law. The law, which has been in place since the end of the British Mandate in Palestine in 1948, allows for the arrest of Palestinians if they are deemed a "threat" to Israel's national security.

Issawi's supporters published a message from Samer on the 209th day of his hunger strike in an Israeli prison. Issawi stated that his health had deteriorated dramatically, asserting that he was now “hanging between life and death.”

“Do not be afraid for my heart if it stops; don’t fear for my hands if they’re paralysed. I am still alive now, and tomorrow, and after death, because Jerusalem is in my blood, in my devotion, and in my faith,” Issawi said.

There are almost 2,500 hunger-striking Palestinians in Israeli prisons engaging in unprecedented coordinated action.

The peace process?

Soon after he was elected four years ago, Barack Obama delivered a speech at Cairo University during which he declared his support for a two-state solution and the freezing of all Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

For six months, Obama attempted to persuade the Israelis to halt settlement building to pave the way for US-brokered Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rejection of the Palestinian right of return, his continuation of settlement building, and the gradual waning of US calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict resulted in negotiations grinding to a halt.

November 2012’s vote on recognising Palestine as a non-member state at the UN triggered an aggressive response from Netanyahu who revealed plans to build 2,610 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem and tenders for 1,048 units in the West Bank.

Reuters reported in January that Netanyahu allowed a “record level” of settlement construction in 2012, approving the construction of 6,676 housing units, compared with 1,607 in 2011 and “several hundreds” in 2010.  

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