Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 April 2003
Issue No. 632
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'The freedom to take our land'

Three decades on, Land Day continues to conjure up heightened bitterness. This year, Palestinians' anger was directed at Israel, US aggression on Iraq and the ineffectual Arab governments. Jonathan Cook reports from Sakhnin


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Monday's Land Day marches turned into demonstrations against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq
As a tide of Palestinian protest -- from Nazareth to Bethlehem and Gaza -- was unleashed at the weekend against the war, a suicide bomber slipped into the coastal town of Netanya and detonated himself at the entrance to a café, hurting 58 diners and passers-by. According to Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility, the injuries inflicted by the explosives strapped to 19-year- old Rami Ranam were "a gift" to the Iraqi people.

The bombing occurred on Land Day, an annual event observed across much of the Middle East to commemorate the fatal shootings of six Palestinian citizens of Israel by the security services in 1976, during demonstrations against government attempts to confiscate huge swaths of Arab- owned land in the Galilee.

This year Land Day marches merged into rallies sweeping the globe against the American and British invasion of Iraq. The year before, Land Day became the main channel for venting anger at Israel's invasion of the West Bank and the trail of carnage left in its wake.

For this year's 27th anniversary of Land Day the leadership of Israel's one million Palestinian citizens called a general strike to protest at the continuing attacks on the minority, including economic cuts designed to hit Arab citizens hardest, and the Israeli army's "bloody escalation of aggression" against the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.

Rallies were held in Kafr Qassem, where 18 houses were recently demolished, and in parts of the Negev, where tens of thousands of Bedouin farmers are facing an Israeli government plan to herd them off their lands into new urban reservations. In the Negev volunteers planted olive trees and cleared roads to some of the least accessible Bedouin villages, which Israel has refused to provide with services for many decades.

But the biggest protest occurred in Sakhnin, the town where Land Day originated. Thousands from across the Galilee poured on to its streets last Sunday, their angry chants directed equally against the Israeli government, the American and British forces invading Iraq, and the ineffectual Arab governments.

"We protest against the Israeli security policy [in the occupied territories] and the US aggression in Iraq. The two aggressions are linked," Sakhnin's mayor, Mustafa Abu-Raya, told a large crowd outside the town's cemetery, where a monument stands to the protesters killed in 1976.

This year, like the two previous years, the marchers kept close to the centre of Sakhnin and away from the entrance to the town where three years ago they massed to protest against the expansion of a complex of military armaments factories, known as Raphael, built on the town's former lands.

The army base's perimeter fence has been moved to the very edge of Sakhnin's homes, including a section only metres from the junior school.

The weapons programmes being developed there are blamed by many for an increase in local cancer rates.

In March 2000, police shot dozens of rounds of rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas at the demonstrators, injuring 18 people. Six months later the violent scenes were repeated as the Palestinian minority came out to protest against Israel's killing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza at the start of the Intifada. Two Sakhnin youths were shot dead by police, along with 11 others in different parts of the Galilee.

"Israel's lesson to us was clear," said one of Sunday's veteran marchers, Ali Zbeidat. "We have no right to defend our town and our futures -- not if we want to stay alive."

Five decades of violence and intimidation against Sakhnin have achieved the desired result: the town has been stripped of its lands except for the ground on which the homes of its 25,000 inhabitants are built. Today, tens of thousands of dunums (a dunum is a quarter of an acre) belonging to Sakhnin and its two neighbouring villages of Arrabe and Deir Hanna are in state hands.

Sakhnin's traumatic history is worth recounting, though its experience is little different from that of the dozens of other Arab communities in Israel.

The campaign to take its lands began from the moment of Israel's birth in 1948. During the period of military government imposed on the minority in the state's first two decades, a wide ring of land around Sakhnin was declared off-limits by the army, although many farmers defied the order by tending their olive and date groves, and grazing cattle and sheep. Some 5,400 dunums were taken for the Raphael military base in 1964.

The government hoped to confiscate Sakhnin's lands on the pretext that they were not being cultivated; in the late 1960s Israel raised the stakes by planting landmines in the surrounding fields. According to the mayor, Abu-Raya, more than 20 farmers were killed in the next few years. Ali Zbeidat's brother Hassan lost both his legs in 1970, at the age of 13, when he stepped on a mine as he went to feed the family's cows.

In 1976, frustrated by the farmers' refusal to abandon their lands, the army declared some 25,000 dunums "Firing Range No 9". The Arab leadership responded by declaring a general strike -- the first in the minority's history. To break the protests, the Israeli government sent soldiers and police into Sakhnin where they were met by stone-throwing youths. The clashes led to the killing of the six demonstrators.

The price exacted from Sakhnin was paid not just in blood but in more land thefts, though the legal and bureaucratic methods became more sophisticated. Some of the military zones around Sakhnin were lifted so that a new settlement building programme could begin.

Since the mid-1950s Israel had been trying largely unsuccessfully to "Judaise" the Galilee by developing immigration absorption towns like Upper Nazareth and Karmiel. They remained unpopular backwaters from which Jewish immigrants tried to escape as soon as they could afford to leave.

So in the early 1980s the government decided to recruit what it hoped would be a more reliable group: middle-class, mainly Ashkenazi Jews. It start building small luxury estates similar to those in the West Bank and Gaza that would attract Jews who wanted a better quality of life, to escape the noisy and polluted cities of the coastal plain.

As in the occupied territories, these settlements were to be built on hilltops overlooking Arab towns and villages. In the planners' thinking, such locations provided a double benefit: the elevation offered settlers protection in what was seen as hostile territory, and it ensured that Jews could be recruited, sometimes unwittingly, to spy on their Arab neighbours.

Arabs who tried to till their fields or plant crops would be seen and reported to the authorities.

Today Sakhnin, Arrabe and Deir Hanna are encircled by these "mitzpim" (lookout) communities. From the western road entering Sakhnin, each is visible on the crest of a series of hills running eastwards: first Yuvalim, followed by Ash'har, then Ishbal, Maale Z'vi, Lotem and Hararit.

During the 1980s the small communities that pepper this part of the Lower Galilee were conglomerated into the Misgav regional council. Slowly the lands confiscated by the state during the 1960s and 1970s from Sakhnin passed into the jurisdiction of Misgav council.

Now, Sakhnin's 25,000 inhabitants control just under 10,000 dunums. In stark contrast, the 15,000 inhabitants of Misgav have control of 180,000 dunums, including Sakhnin's former farming lands.

Ali Zbeidat is one of the many Arab victims of the skewed priorities of Israel's Judaisation programme.

His house can be reached by a short drive along the pot-holed backstreets of Sakhnin and a final stretch of dirt track to the Khalit Sahker (Rock Valley) district. His home is built on one dunum of his father's lands on the town's north-western edge; six other brothers share the remaining five dunums.

Although the other brothers want to start building houses so their sons can provide a home for their wives and new families, only Ali has dared to build himself a home on the land.

He returned to Sakhnin in 1994, after seven years living in the Netherlands where he had married a Dutch woman, Therese, and had two daughters, Dina and Awda. He planned to build a home for his family on his return only to find that his father's fields had been transferred from Sakhnin's jurisdiction to Misgav's in his absence.

He sent letters to Misgav requesting approval for a change from agricultural to building use. If it approved the change, he would then be able to apply to the Israel Lands Administration, the state body controlling 93 per cent of all land in Israel, for a 49-year lease on the land so that he could build a house.

Misgav rejected his requests. Even though his plot of land is surrounded by homes that were given land leases and building approval in the 1980s before Misgav took control away from Sakhnin, Misgav insisted on the Zbeidats' land remaining for agricultural use.

For four years he and his family lived in one of his brothers' homes until Ali bought a caravan in 1998 and moved it on to the family's fields. Misgav immediately issued a $1,500 fine.

Like thousands of other Arab citizens in Israel, Zbeidat eventually decided that he had little choice but to start work on building an illegal house and in March 1999 laid the foundation stone.

The Misgav council office that issues land permits is built on a ridge (confiscated from Sakhnin) that overlooks Zbeidat's olive grove. Within weeks of starting building, inspectors had issued him with a notice demanding he demolish the house within 72 hours. If he failed to do so, they threatened to do it and then bill him for the cost of destruction.

Lawyers advised Zbeidat to occupy the house even though it was far from finished so that Misgav's hand would be stayed. The council took him to court in autumn 1999 where a judge gave him a year to try to arrange a permit, fined him and jailed him until the fine was paid.

His house still stands three years later but not because of a change of heart by Misgav or the courts. As the year-long deadline was about to expire, Israel was plunged into the ethnic violence of the Intifada both inside Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories. The shooting dead of 13 Arab citizens by police has left a legacy of mutual distrust and fear.

For much of the past two and a half years council officials have been loath to enter Arab communities, and the police wary of inflaming tempers again by implementing demolition orders.

However, the signs are that the softly-softly strategy of the police in the aftermath of the Intifada is coming to an abrupt end, to be replaced by a renewed policy of aggressive enforcement, particularly of house demolitions.

A planning document for the northern region which was published in September 2001 aims to step up the process of Judaising the Galilee. Its little more than 50 per cent of the region's population -- are a demographic "problem".

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has announced 14 new settlements will be built to attract some 350,000 Jews to the Galilee and Negev in the next few years. And a huge road, the Trans-Israel Highway, is being built to make journey times to the country's mostly Jewish-populated centre much faster.

"The creation of more space for Jewish immigrants will require correspondingly less space for us," said Zbeidat. "We must be imprisoned in our ghetto towns so the Jews have the freedom to take our land."

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