Interior Minister Arye Dery wielded pressure in Acre, to rid the seaside city of a memorial to the Palestinian author and playwright Ghassan Kanafani, a week after the prime minister and interior minister intervened to foil the appointment of the Israeli Arab Raja Zaatry as deputy mayor of Haifa. The memorial was taken down last week.
Kanafani had been born in Acre but left the city with his family for Lebanon in 1948.
Like many from the Palestinian intelligentsia at the time, Kanafani turned to politics and in the early 1960s, joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, becoming its spokesman. He was killed on July 8, 1972 in Beirut, when his car blew up. Also killed in the same incident was his nephew Lamis Kanafani, 17. The Popular Front accused Israel of carrying out the assassination in response to Palestinian terror attacks, including by the Popular Front.
In Palestinian circles, Kanafani is well known as a journalist and playwright of international stature. Some of his works have been translated into Hebrew, including the well-known “Return to Haifa,” which was also adapted into a play at the Cameri theater.
The memorial to Kanafani in Acre, a mixed Jewish-Arab city in northern Israel, had been set up by local activists in a corner of the Muslim cemetery in honor of the man and works. Soon after its establishment, the Interior Ministry contacted the city’s Waqf (Muslim religious trust) committee, which is in charge of the Muslim cemetery, demanding that the memorial be removed immediately. Dery also tweeted the demand, adding that Kanafani had been a member of the terrorist organization, Popular Front, which had carried out the attack on the Lod airport in the 1970s. “There shall be no memorials to terrorists in Israel,” Dery tweeted.
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Following a direct request from the religious affairs bureau of the Interior Ministry, the Waqf trustees committee decided to remove the memorial rather than clash with the ministry over it. The religious affairs bureau sent a clear message that failure to comply could result in punitive measures, including budgetary ones. The committee also said that it had talked with Kanafani’s relatives, some of whom still live in Acre, and they prefer that the memorial be removed rather than get into conflict with the Israeli authorities, leading to gratuitous tensions in the city.
Samir Salam, a relative of Kanafani’s, confirmed that the memorial had been removed and would be moved to the garden of a relative in the city. The family understands the sensitivity, and doesn’t want to whip up tensions in Acre resulting in bulldozers entering the cemetery to raze the memorial, he said. So they consulted with Kanafani’s close relatives overseas about moving the memorial to a private garden, rather than a public space. The family also preferred that the memorial be in a place where relatives live, rather than in a graveyard, he said.
The memorial was removed at the beginning of the week without incident, but some activists in the city expressed disappointment over what they called immediate capitulation to the Interior Ministry and the lack of a legal and public struggle.
Ahmad Odeh, Acre city council member and one of the people behind the memorial’s establishment, told Haaretz that Kanafani is popular as a playwright, and the fact that he was active in “this or that” organization doesn’t make him a terrorist. “There is no Palestinian intellectual uprooted from his home in 1948 who didn’t join one of the Palestinian organizations operating in Lebanon or Jordan, or anywhere else,” Odeh said. “The interior minister’s intervention is crass and we would expect the Waqf committee, and the family too, to fight the decision… a person like Kanafani is a symbol for the entire Palestinian people, not only his kin.”
Meanwhile, Knesset member Aida Touma Sliman of the Joint List and a resident of Acre herself, complained about Dery to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, claiming the minister didn’t have the authority to make any such decision or to set the boundaries of freedom of expression based on his own world view.