During the days leading up to 1958 May 1 (International Workers’ Day) Rally, the atmosphere in Nazareth and its surroundings was tense. As in previous years, the police banned the Communist Party from holding its traditional May 1 Rally. However, unlike previous years, in the lead up to the rally, the police took exceptional measures, arresting some 350 party activists and other Arab citizens. The charges against the detainees varied from illegal gathering to violence against police officers. Some individuals were exiled or placed under administrative restrictions, while others faced trial in military courts.
Prior to the planned rally, security forces set up checkpoints outside Nazareth and increased police presence in the city. On May 1, local activists were arrested based on claims that they were gathering illegally. When additional activists from the surrounding villages attempted to enter Nazareth, they were blocked by security forces. Against this backdrop, other May 1 rallies organized by the General Organization of Workers in Israel (“Hahistadrut Haklalit”) and the Israeli Workers Party (“Mapai”) were legally taking place in the city. These events did not disturb the police, and the police did not intervene. These differences in attitude by the Israeli police was another manifestation of the government’s discriminatory policy towards Palestinian citizens of Israel during the Military Rule era (1948-1966).
For many years, the Israeli government enacted various measures to curb the Communist Party in Israel, an organization with an Arab majority among its members. The government regularly banned demonstrations, rallies, and parades, particularly on May 1. The sweeping bans on assemblies and associations were purely political and did not concern security issues at all, as displayed by documents and protocols from the period. These measures primarily focused on areas where Arab citizens lived, such as the Triangle (“HaMeshulash”) and the Nazareth region.
Even today, extensive historical records regarding the actions police and Shin Bet took to suppress the Communist Party and Arab civil society remain classified. Yet from the documents that are available, it is clear that a majority of the Israeli government supported the attack on the Communists. On November 1, 1953, David Ben-Gurion emphatically stated that: “since 1936 the Communist Party has been officially working with the Mufti”, referring to Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the Palestinian Muslim leader considered to be one of the founders of the Palestinian nationalist movement and a loud opponent of Zionism. At the beginning of that year, Ben-Gurion also contemplated whether he could outlaw the Communist Party: “Can Israel’s laws allow the appearance [of] their newspapers, their presence in the Knesset? They tell me it means building internment camps. If that what it takes – we’ll do it; If we need to shoot at people – we’ll shoot”, he told Mapai members at the party’s political committee meeting.
Attempts to limit the Communist Party’s political activity resulted in violent clashes between police and party activists. In March 1950, the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee convened to discuss the police conduct, following a series of instances where protesters were severely wounded during Party demonstrations. The police claimed that the activists were responsible for initiating the violence. At the meeting, a discussion emerged about the basic right to protest in Israel. Abba Hushi, a Knesset Member from Mapai said, “The government determines the policies of the police. And the government [knows] which demonstration is acceptable and which is not acceptable.” Even though Hushi’s rational was criticized by some, his position definitely influenced the government’s attitude towards the Communist Party throughout the Military Rule era.
When Israel’s Military Rule over Arab citizens was disbanded, the measures to control the Communist Party took on a different form: less restrictions on movement, overt orders and arrests, and more surveillance and clandestine activity. However, Party activists were still prohibited from holding demonstrations and marches. On May 1, 1970, about four years after the abolition of the Military Rule, the familiar scenario repeated itself: The police banned the party activists from marching in Nazareth. However, the party nevertheless decided to hold the traditional rally. The Communist rally was small compared to the other festive gatherings taking place around the country that day; however, police representatives were made sure to be present at the Communist rally and report on it. Their mundane reporting was nothing more than a list of speakers. Surprisingly enough, it turned out that when the police refrain from using force, demonstrations end peacefully. As described in the police report, approximately 1,500 people participated in the Communist Party’s May 1 Rally and quietly dispersed when it ended. No unusual incidents were recorded.