Despite expectations of widespread rioting here in the occupied West Bank and Arab towns inside Israel to mark "Land Day," protests by militant Palestinian nationalists did not extend beyond scattered rock-throwing clashes and peaceful protest marches.
The West Bank was paralyzed by a general strike, as were some towns in the heavily Arab populated region of the lower Galilee in Israel proper, and scores of arrests were reported. But there were none of the violent clashes that in the past two weeks have left six Palestinian youths dead by gunfire, one Israeli soldier killed by an Arab grenade attack and scores wounded on both sides.
Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, making an inspection tour of West Bank security precautions, smiled and said, "It's quiet," as he passed through the nearly deserted streets of El Bireh where the dismissal on March 18 of the town's mayor, Ibrahim Tawil, triggered the current wave of protests. A week later, the mayors of Nablus and Ramallah were also deposed by the military government, fueling the protests.
More than one thousand Israeli Arabs led by the radical "Sons of the Villages," marched peacefully near Taybeh in the Galilee. Another 3,000 conducted a protest march from Beir Hanna to Sachnine, also in the Galilee, but police described the demonstration as orderly.
The lack of confrontation in today's demonstrations--which commemorated a 1976 Israeli Arab protest over land confiscation that left six Arabs dead--showed the Israeli security forces' ability to control the area with the threat of a massive show of force by the Army and a stern warning by the Cabinet on Sunday that no disturbances would be tolerated, despite the momentum the protests had gained during the previous week.
Streets in all major West Bank towns were heavily patrolled by red-bereted Israeli paratroopers and experienced border police units, replacing the young Army recruits and reservists who normally are assigned security duty in the West Bank. Tracked armored personnel carriers with mounted .30-caliber machine guns patrolled some towns. But for the most part, the security forces maintained a relatively low profile, although they turned out quickly to disperse gatherings of youths.
The streets of this city of 60,000 were deserted most of the day, and virtually every shop was closed as soldiers with heavy bolt-cutting shears moved from store to store to force open the shutters. As soon as the soldiers passed, along with an accompanying truck-drawn generator and acetylene torch, many shopkeepers scurried behind them to close again and then quickly move out of sight.
In Jenin, the West Bank's northernmost town, Palestinian youths threw rocks at shops whose owners had pulled their shutters only half closed during the morning. This led to scuffling with Israeli troops, but no injuries were reported.
However, near the Kalandis refugee camp in East Jerusalem, two soldiers were injured when they were pelted by rocks. In the Jerusalem suburb of Shuofat, Palestinian youths stoned an Israeli bus and the driver dispersed them by firing into the air, an Army command spokesman said.
In the Galilee village of Jaljulia, five residents and five Israeli policemen were slightly injured in a clash at a road barricade built with rocks and burning tires. Police reported 40 arrests. In nearby Kfar Kassim, 14 youths were arrested when police attempted to disperse a demonstration.
In many small rural villages in the West Bank and in Galilee, youths who had stayed out of school set afire gasoline-soaked tires whose heavy black clouds of smoke appeared to be intended to draw the attention of security forces or settlers, but the protests were largely ignored.
In one hamlet, Taqa, about 150 youths, most under 10 years old, appeared to be disappointed when the occupants of one of the few automobiles to pass through identified themselves as foreign journalists. Asking the visitors if they were Jewish, the apparently bored youths did not wait for an answer and began pelting the car with rocks.
When asked about the absence of the expected organized rallies and demonstrations, a Palestinian source in East Jerusalem who is closely identified with the Palestine Liberation Organization said, "What can we do in the face of the Israeli Army when they announce in advance that no protest will be allowed?"
He said he believed protests of a spontaneous nature would resume when the military presence in the West Bank towns is reduced, and when the demonstrations are no longer expected.
The "Land Day" strike in Galilee was only partially successful, with nine out of 21 municipal councils observing the call by the Rakah (Communist) Party, whose membership is primarily Arab, for a strike to protest the firing of the West Bank mayors and the security forces' crackdown in the occupied territory. However, in Nazareth nearly all the stores were closed.
Benjamin Gur-Areyh, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's adviser for Arab affairs, said the Communists called for the strike in an effort to regain some of the popular support they lost in the parliamentary elections last June 30. Gur-Areyh said the low-key demonstrations had proved that the Communists "live with illusions."
Sharon, accompanied by Menachem Milson, civil administrator of the occupation government, also visited Nablus, Ramallah and Jericho. In Jericho, he met with Jamal Khalaf, the city's mayor.
While in Nablus, Sharon told reporters that he expects life in the West Bank to return to normal as a result of the current security measures.
"What is going on now here are vital and necessary steps to free the majority of the population from the pressures of the terrorist organizations, with their headquarters in Beirut but their representatives here," Sharon said.
Washington Post correspondent Edward Cody also contributed to this report.