March 30, 1976 was a transformative moment in Palestinian history. On that day, Palestinian citizens of Israel organized and implemented a nation-wide strike to protest the Israeli government’s plans to confiscate thousands of acres of Palestinian-owned land in the Galilee region. The confiscations were designed to provide for the expansion of the Jewish population in the Galilee—since Israeli leaders were concerned that the composition of the region had remained overwhelmingly Arab.
Confiscations were nothing new. In the three decades between the founding of their state in 1948 and 1976, Israel had seized 1,500,000 acres of Palestinian owned land—about 1/3 of the land mass of the State of Israel—much of it from Palestinians who had been expelled in 1948. But it was this effort to Judaize the Galilee that proved to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The Arabs said “enough” and had the organizational wherewithal to act.
The strike, which was called “Day in Defense of the Land,” was planned as a peaceful demonstration of Palestinian resolve and was restricted to the all-Arab villages and towns. It was a success in terms of participation since in both its planning and execution it involved tens of thousands—workers, shopkeepers, and students, men and women, alike.
The success was muted, however by the violence used by the Israeli police against the demonstrators, as part of their effort to stifle any and all forms of Arab resistance. After declaring protests illegal and attempting to place curfews on Arab towns and villages, Israeli forces brutally responded to the country-wide mobilization, killing six and injuring over 100 Arab citizens. Since that day, on every following March 30th, Palestinians world-wide have commemorated the theft of land and the deaths of the demonstrators with Land Day events.
Every March 30th, Palestinians world-wide have commemorated the theft of land and the deaths of the demonstrators with Land Day events.
The impact of Land Day was important on several levels. In the first place, Arabs and Palestinians in the diaspora became aware of and inspired by their brethren in Israel. Before the 1976 events, these Palestinians were either unknown or dismissed by the broader Arab World. The poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Zayyad and Sameh al Qassem was known by some, but the reality of the community from which they had emerged was not.
Witnessing their steadfastness, the level of organization they demonstrated, and the genius of their tactics proved inspirational to many Arabs. In one fell swoop, the Palestinian citizens in Israel went from being unknown to being respected as an integral part of the Palestinian community. In succeeding years, Land Day commemorations spread from Israel to the territories occupied in 1967, the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, and Palestinian communities across the globe.
Not only had the rest of the Arab World been cut off from the community inside Israel, the Palestinian Arabs of Israel had also been cut off from their compatriots. Israel had made a determined effort to erase their culture and attachment to their Arab heritage. They were forced to study Hebrew and learn an Israeli version of their history. In this way Israel had hoped to mold them into a submissive community. Land Day, and the region’s reaction to it, strengthened their Palestinian identity and their feeling of connection to their broader nation.
Land Day also served, in other more concrete ways, to further empower and embolden the Palestinian citizens of Israel. While maintaining that as citizens of the state they deserved justice and equality, Land Day accelerated their identification as part of the Palestinian community. They were the indigenous inhabitants of that land and the remnant of the Palestinian nation that had been dispossessed and dispersed among the nations. And so they saw their defense of the land as an action on behalf of their entire people.
This had long been a theme of the Palestinian poets in Israel. They wrote of their deep roots and love of the land. They lamented the hundreds of Palestinian villages that had been destroyed by Israel and spoke longingly of their refugee compatriots who sought to return. While their poetry was known throughout the community in Israel and had helped to shape the consciousness of a generation, the political empowerment of the Palestinians in Israel had been inhibited by a combination of state repression and the difficulties they experienced as a traditional and oppressed people who had been forced to adapt to the Israeli system and transform themselves into a modern political force. Land Day changed that.
Israel had banned the creation of Arab political parties and for two decades applied a notorious system of repressive laws to regulate Arab political activity. It was significant that the first effort at creating a political party was called “al Ard” (”The Land”). In short order, Israel banned the party and expelled its founders. During this period the only political vehicle available to the Palestinian citizens of Israel was Rakah. Though officially Communist, Rakah had become the substitute nationalist party for the Arab population. It was through Rakah that Tawfiq Zayyad had been elected to the Knesset and Mayor of Nazareth. And it was Zayyad and his party that provided a major organizational impetus for Land Day.
As Land Day 2017 has made clear, as the repression continues, so does the resistance.
Today, the Palestinian Arabs in Israel have continued to politically mature. They have formed a number of political entities that have coalesced into the “Joint List.” They now have 13 seats in Israel’s Knesset and with increased voter mobilization are poised to increase their numbers to 15 in the next election. As they have become more of a political force, Israel has stepped up its policies of repression, land confiscation, and Judaization. There are new Israeli efforts to remove Palestinian bedouin from the Negev and from areas around what they call “Greater Jerusalem”—to make way for more Jewish settlements. And the same policies they used to colonize the land in Israel are being used more extensively in the West Bank. It was no accident that on this Land Day, the Netanyahu government announced the building of a major new settlement in the occupied land. But as Land Day 2017 has made clear, as the repression continues, so does the resistance.
With hope for a two-state solution all but extinguished, the future trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to be best captured by the spirit of Land Day. It is the continued resistance of an occupied indigenous people fighting for justice and rights against an aggressive and repressive occupier.
Soon the Palestinians will be the majority population in the land of Israel/Palestine. Israel is digging a deep hole for itself and as the cycle of repression and resistance continues, the outcome of this conflict will be decided either by a transformation of political culture of the occupier or an end of the resistance of the occupied. I, for one, don’t see the Palestinians surrendering.
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