Israeli Arab Lawmakers Clash Over Bill to Recognize Kafr Qasem Massacre

Meretz's Esawi Freige accuses Joint List lawmakers of 'exploiting our pain for a few votes' after the coalition and Joint List of Arab parties fail to reach an agreement on the legislation

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige is escorted from the Knesset podium, on Wednesday.
Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige is escorted from the Knesset podium, on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Arab Knesset members clashed Wednesday after the Joint List of mainly Arab parties submitted a bill to officially recognize and introduce into the school curriculum the 1956 Kafr Qasem massacre, in which Border Police killed 43 unarmed Arab citizens at the start of Israel's war with Egypt.

There have been talks between coalition representatives and the Joint List’s Hadash faction in recent days, with the aim of delaying the vote and agreeing on an outline. This would help spare coalition parties like Meretz and the United Arab List – which would be expected to vote for the bill on ideological grounds – the embarrassment of voting for an opposition party's bill.

However, the sides were unable to reach an agreement, and the bill was ultimately voted down, with 93 MKs voting against it.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige, a Meretz MK and resident of Kafr Qasem, accused the Joint List and its MK Aida Touma-Suleiman, who submitted the bill, of "exploiting our pain for a few votes.”

Freige, who submitted a similar bill in the past, said: “This is very sad for me as someone who comes from a family that was bereaved by the massacre. I grew up with this pain. The desire to get the state to acknowledge its responsibility is something that has been with me my whole life. It is the most important subject to me in my activity as a public servant.”

Later in his remarks, he shouted at the Joint List members: "I ask you, forget 'left' and 'right,' let's make this into a draft for the education committee." But, he said, they are insisting on voting on a bill likely to be shot down instead, "because you want to turn our pain into internal politics." He then shouted at Touma-Suleiman to "shut up."

Later in his remarks, he shouted, “Leave the massacre aside, it won’t do you any good. We are in the government, and we will advance a bill," referring to the likelihood of the coalition to vote against it. "Shame on you.” An emotional Freige descended the podium with the aid of Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, and went home.

Speaking at the Knesset podium, Touma-Suleiman said, “This government declares itself a government of change, Jewish and Arab. If it is everything it says it is, it must pass this law.”

Touma-Suleiman said that “recognition is a necessary stage on the way to setting things right, it is the truth that applies to the massacre in Kafr Qasem, to the Nakba and to the ability to build a common future. The path to reconciliation with Arab citizens and with all the Palestinian people runs through recognition of the crimes of the past.”

UAL MKs voted for the bill, but only in coordination with the coalition when it was clear it would not pass. Most of the Meretz MKs left the hall during the vote, except for Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and Ali Salalha, who voted in favor.

The Kafr Qasem massacre occurred on the first day of the Sinai Campaign on October 29, 1956. Forty-three men, women and children were shot to death by members of a Border Police unit. The bill called for “moral recognition of the Kafr Qasem massacre,” an hour of class time devoted to the subject in schools, access to documents and other steps. “This bill proposes that the State of Israel officially recognize its responsibility for the massacre, and that educational and other measures be taken so that lessons are learned from it,” it said.

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