Exactly thirty-seven years ago, on 30th March 1976, the people of Palestine rose up against Israel's occupation of their land. After 28 years of living under curfews and restrictions on movement; oppression, terror and racism; impoverishment; seeing their land stolen from them and villages demolished inside the Zionist state as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, they'd had enough.
The uprising took the shape of an all-out strike and massive public demonstrations in Israel, during which the security forces killed and terrorised the indigenous Palestinian population. The Israelis used live ammunition against the demonstrators and killed Khadija Shawahna, Raja Abu Rayya, Khader Khalayla, Khair Ahmed Yasin, Muhsen Taha, and Ra'afat Ali Zuhdi. Dozens more were wounded and three hundred were arrested.
What sparked-off the uprising? The Israeli authorities confiscated more than 5,000 acres of land belonging to the villagers of Arraba, Sakhnin, Dair Hanna, Arab Alsawaed and other areas to give to Jewish settlements as part of the government's plan to Judaise Galilee. This was the straw that broke the camel's back, because it is worth noting that between the creation of Israel on Palestinian land in 1948 and 1972 the Israeli government stole more than a quarter of a million acres of Arab land in Galilee and the Triangle alone, a cluster of Arab villages adjacent to the 1949 armistice line. This was in addition to the vast tracts of land taken by the Israelis after massacring Palestinians and ethnically cleansing historic Palestine in 1948.
What became known as the Land Day uprising did not take place at random; it was the result of the collective suffering of the Palestinians in their land occupied by mainly European Jews since the establishment of the state of Israel. When the Palestinians living under Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip joined in, Land Day became a national Palestinian event, a symbol of the people's unity inside the historic land and in the diaspora.
Land is at the core of the conflict with the Israeli state. Palestine is located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It is bordered by Syria and Jordan to the east, Lebanon and parts of Syria to the north, and Egypt and the Gulf of Aqaba to the south. Historic Palestine's total area is 27,009 square kilometres. Despite its relatively small size it can be divided into four distinct areas, each with its own topography, climate, flora and fauna: The plains area is concentrated along the coast and makes up 17 per cent of the total area; the Negev Desert to the south covers almost 50 per cent of the land; hills and mountains account for 28 per cent; the balance is known as the Jordan Valley, or Alghour, about 5 per cent of Palestine's total area.
The British Mandate divided Palestine into six administrative districts in 1939:
- Galilee Province in the far north of Palestine close to the Lebanese border with Nazareth at its centre. It has five districts: Acre, Bisan, Nazareth, Safad, and Tabaria. The population of each district in 1945 was around 231,000 people over an area of almost 700,000 acres, or 10.4 per cent of Palestine.
- Haifa Province focused on the city of Haifa and the surrounding area. Covering around 255,000 acres it represents 3.8 per cent of Palestine with a population in 1945 of 242,630 Palestinians.
- Nablus Province's three districts were Nablus itself, Jenin and Tulkarem, with a total area of more than 800,000 acres representing 12.1 per cent of Palestine. The population in 1945 was 232,220.
- Jerusalem Province covered Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron and Ramallah with an area of more than 1 million acres, around 16 per cent of Palestine and a population of 384,880.
- Lod Province centred on Jaffa with the districts of Jaffa and Ramle. Mainly in the plains, its area was 300,000 acres, that's 4.5 per cent of Palestine, and a population of 501,070 in 1948.
- The final province was Gaza along the south-west coast and including the Negev Desert which, on its own, made up half of the total area of Palestine. With two main administrative districts centred on Gaza City and Ber Shiva, it covered almost 3.5 million acres with, in 1945, a population of just 190,880.
Despite Israel's ethnic cleansing, Galilee preserved its Arab majority, although it is the area where the government concentrated its Judaisation policy to impose a Jewish identity. In early 1975 Israel announced a plan to Judaise Galilee called the "Galilee development 2020" project. This is one of the most menacing of Israeli plans, and includes the proposed construction of eight industrial zones in Galilee necessitating the confiscation of 5,000 acres of Arab land. The government justifies this by calling undeveloped Arab-owned land "neglected land" so that it can build on it. With this objective in mind, Israel has sought to isolate its Arab minority citizens from their surroundings and land within the so-called Green (Armistice) Line.
In 1947, the UN resolution to partition Palestine allocated 54 per cent of the land to Jews who owned around 6 per cent of historic Palestine. Today, "Israeli- Arabs" represent 20 per cent of Israel's population but have just 2 per cent of the land on which Israel was established. The process of Judaising Galilee was, and still is, one of the goals of the Zionist movement: first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion put it thus: "Settlement itself is what decides whether we have to fight for Galilee or not."
Accordingly, in 1948 Israel targeted and occupied a lot of land in the Galilee area, building 350 settlements there. The government justified this by arguing that the land was owned by "absentees" – in fact, Palestinians who had been driven away at gunpoint – although the Judaisation process was not confined to such land; it also took property used by the British Mandate authorities, estimated at between half and three-quarters of a million acres. This was still not enough for the Israelis, who started to take over land still occupied by its owners.
Since 1948, the Israelis have issued several laws to give a veneer of legality for their control over Palestinian land, including the Absentees' Property Laws, through which they have been able to confiscate a further 250,000 acres of the most fertile Arab land.
Under the governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu, numerous other laws have been passed to limit the Israeli-Arab rights to their land and impose a "Jewish identity" on Palestine. There has been a systematic policy to Judaise place names and religious sites, including mosques and churches. Judaisation has been concentrated in Galilee and the Negev Desert, and latterly occupied Jerusalem.
Land Day is thus a very important commemoration for Palestinians seeking to remain connected to their land, and holds great significance for those inside Israel – around 1.5 million people – as well as in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There are 5.5 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN in countries neighbouring Palestine and millions more in the global diaspora. The land issue will remain at the core of the conflict with Israel; Land Day, 30th March, serves as an opportunity for Palestinians the world over to reaffirm their commitment to free their land from occupation and return to build their lives there.
This article is a translation which first appeared on Al Jazeera net, 23 March 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.