On 30 March, Palestinians around the world will commemorate Land Day. It marks a day in 1976, when Israeli security forces shot dead six Palestinians and injured around 100 more, as they protested against Israeli expropriation of Arab-owned land in the country’s north.
Israel had announced plans to expropriate thousands of acres of Palestinian land for “security and settlement purposes”. A general strike and marches were organised in Palestinian towns within Israel. Attempts to block the protests by imposing a curfew failed, and Palestinians within Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in refugee communities elsewhere in the Middle East, all turned out to demonstrate in solidarity.
The Palestinians who died that day were not those living in the occupied territories, but citizens of Israel. Land Day serves as a reminder that these citizens – who now number over 1.6 million people, or 20.5 percent of the population – still exist. They face a raft of discriminatory legislation that essentially reduces them to the status of second class citizens. More than 50 laws discriminate against Palestinians in Israel. Among these is a law allowing Jews who lost property in East Jerusalem and the West Bank during 1948 war to reclaim it, but not giving the same right to Arab Israelis who lost property in West Jerusalem or other areas during the same war.
Across the world, and particularly in this conflict, land is a singularly vexed and emotional issue. The expropriation of Palestinian land continues unabated in Israel, on both sides of the “Green Line”. In recent years, international attention has focused primarily on settlements in the West Bank. These settlements, which are on occupied land, are in clear violation of international law – although the radical settlers, with their own emotional attachment to land, maintain that they have the God-given right to build anywhere in Israel. The continued expansion of settlements, however, is making the possibility of a viable Palestinian state ever smaller.
Yet such activity is not limited to the West Bank. The real flashpoints in this year’s Land Day events (which have already got underway) are the Naqab and Jerusalem. In 2011, the US academic and UN investigator, Richard Falk, described the situation in East Jerusalem as “ethnic cleansing”. He said that the “continued pattern of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem combined with the forcible eviction of long-residing Palestinians are creating an intolerable situation” in the part of the city previously controlled by Jordan.
Just as settlement expansion in the West Bank has the aim of undermining the possibility of a Palestinian state, so land-grabbing within Israel points to a deep-seated discomfort with the mere existence of Arab citizens. Back in 1976, a month after the bloodshed of Land Day, an internal government paper which became known as the Keonig Memorandum was leaked to the press. It included several recommendations to ensure Israel’s “long-term Jewish national interests”, which included “the possibility of diluting existing Arab population concentrations”.
Thirty seven years later, the language has been toned down, but the sentiment remains; ministers in Israel today are comfortable speaking about “population transfers” of Arab citizens, which essentially means forced displacement. The state prevents Arab towns and villages from expanding, meaning that the younger generation has no option but to relocate. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel described the situation thus: “In Arab towns and villages, the restrictive planning policies that limit residential building and prevent development continued, leaving many Arab citizens of Israel without viable housing options.” In general, Palestinian areas receive significantly less per capita funding for health and education than Jewish areas.
The continued commemoration of Land Day signifies several things. Firstly and most obviously, it symbolises the Palestinian struggle for land. Secondly, it is a reminder of the existence and plight of Palestinians in Israel, who are legally citizens of the state, but are treated as inferiors. And thirdly, it has come to demonstrate the unity of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.
Land is a crucial issue, both practically and emotionally, that has come to be inextricably tied to freedom and equality. That Land Day tends to be marked by violent clashes between protesters and security forces is a sad indictment of the lack of progress made over the last four decades.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.