Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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One land, one people

By Graham Usher

On 30 March 1976 thousands from the Palestinian minority in Israel protested Israeli government plans to expropriate 60,000 dunams of Arab owned land in the Galilee. In the resulting confrontations with Israeli police, six Palestinians were killed, hundreds wounded and hundreds jailed. In the intervening 24 years, those events have become consecrated in the Palestinian memory as Land Day.

It is now not so much a Palestinian anniversary as an Arab one, commemorated annually among Palestinians not only in Israel, but also in the occupied territories, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. And it is remembered for two reasons. After years of military rule and political docility, Land Day 1976 was the first mass resistance by Palestinians inside Israel against the explicitly Zionist policy of internal colonialisation, a systematic process of expropriation that had reduced Palestinian land ownership from around 94 per cent of all territory in pre-1948 Palestine to less than three per cent in Israel.

The second reason was that after years of quiet ostracism by the PLO and the Arab states, Land Day reaffirmed the Palestinian minority in Israel as an inseparable part of the Palestinian and Arab nation. "We became pan-Arab again," says Hanna Swaid, mayor of the Palestinian village of Eilaboun.

On 30 March 2000, Swaid assembled again with several thousands of his people in the Galilee town of Sakhnin, site of some of the fiercest clashes in 1976 and burial ground of three of the six who died. But he was not there to mourn their passing. He was in Sakhnin to continue their struggle.

"Before 1976, Israel's confiscation policies against us were 'direct,' similar to those they use today against the Palestinians in the West Bank," said Swaid. "After 1976, the confiscation policies in Israel became 'indirect.' We lose our lands now because the Israeli government needs them for 'military zones', 'nature reserves' and highways." But -- he implies -- it is the same theft.

Among the thefts Palestinians in Israel are currently facing are Israeli government's plans to build a Trans-Israel highway between the Galilee and Negev on 20,000 dunams of land, 17,000 of them Arab owned. There are designs to forcibly resettle 60,000 of Israel's remaining 120,000 Bedouin from their 'unrecognised villages' in the Negev to concentrate them demographically in three new townships. And there is the ongoing land confiscation to build military bases in Galilee, including -- a few kilometres from where the march is assembling -- at the western edge of Sakhnin.

"Sakhnin is a municipality has 25,000 Arabs on 9,000 dunams," says Swaid. "The Jewish Misgav Regional Council next door has 15,000 Jews and Arabs on 180,000 dunams. But the Ministry of Defence has decided to build its base at Sakhnin."

While Palestinians gathered in Sakhnin to protest such 'indirect' confiscation, Palestinians in the occupied territories were marching against the more 'direct' expropriations embodied by Jewish settlements in or near Nablus, Hebron, Ramallah, Gaza and Ras Al-Amud in Jerusalem. There is a subtle dialectic between the protests. While Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have increasingly 'adopted' Land Day as their own, Palestinians in Israel are acquiring certain of their compatriots' modes of struggle.

Israeli Arab youths hurl stones at police officers during a Land Day demonstration last week in the northern village of Sakhnin
(photo: AP)

As the marchers at Sakhnin climbed through the gorgeous Galilee countryside of cypress trees and eroded stone hills, several hundred of the younger members peeled off to throw stones at the contested military base. Camouflaged behind bushes, Israeli riot police fired back with tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets. The youths responded by burning the bushes. It was a thoroughly Intifada-like confrontation that continued for four hours, leaving a toll of one Palestinian woman dead from tear gas inhalation and 18 others wounded.

"This is new," observed Asad Ghenam, a Palestinian political scientist at Haifa University and participant on the march. "Historically after 1976 Land Day protests in Israel were peaceful. But in the last two or three years the youths have adopted a much more confrontational stance."

It is not the only new development. Another is the absolute primacy given to Palestinian nationalism over all other identities at the Sakhnin and other Land Day demonstrations. Thus, while the Sakhnin march was supported by sizeable contingents from Israel's Communist and Islamist movements, it was led by a gigantic Palestinian flag. It is a national identification utterly at one with the popular Palestinian mood, says Ghanem.

Last November, he conducted a poll on the self-definition of the Palestinian minority in Israel. Contrary to many projections that Palestinians in Israel were becoming more "Israelised," he found that 67 per cent defined themselves either as "Israeli Palestinian Arabs" or "Palestinian Arabs," and that only 11 per cent defined themselves as "Israeli Arabs," the dominant nomenclature used in Israeli society.

Ghanem puts the growing Palestinianism down to disillusionment with the Israeli government of Ehud Barak. Swaid concurs. "Before the [1999] elections, Barak promised us equality and 95 per cent of Palestinian Arabs in Israel voted for him," he says. "But in terms of economic and territorial discrimination, Barak is no better than Netanyahu".

But there are deeper, more historical reasons behind the identification. One is the growing recognition among Palestinians in Israel (about 47 per cent according Ghanem's survey) that the struggle for political and civic equality can only go so far in a state that is ethnically structured to ensure the dominance of the Jewish majority.

The other is that as the prospect recedes of a viable Palestinian state emerging in the West Bank and Gaza, the struggle of these two parts of the Palestinian people against their common dispossession -- 'direct' or 'indirect' -- becomes increasingly similar. And so does the aspiration, which is increasingly less for a separate Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one than for one binational state based on political, territorial and economic equality between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

At least that was what the Palestinian youths appeared to be fighting for at Sakhnin, if the content of their leaders' speeches was any measure. "Our roots are deeper here than the roots of the olive trees," said one. "We are not a transitory phenomena on this land. We are Palestine, and Palestine is us." It was sentiment that could have as easily been heard in Gaza, Jerusalem or Sidon -- all one people because Palestine remains one land.

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