The story of the first Land Day

March 12, 2019

As plans for an international day of action in solidarity with Gaza take shape, Ethan Ackelsberg tells the story of the first Land Day in 1976 that was the inspiration for the Great March of Return that began one year ago.

EACH YEAR, Palestinians commemorate Land Day on March 30, the anniversary of a 1976 general strike against land expropriation in which six unarmed Palestinian protesters were killed by the Israeli military and police, 100 were wounded and hundreds more arrested.

Last year saw the largest mobilization since the original Land Day, with tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Gaza protesting against the blockade and demanding the right to return to their land.

Israel responded to the Great March of Return with an astonishing level of brutality: At least 189 protesters were killed, including 35 children, and the injury count is estimated at more than 23,000.

At the end of February, the UN Human Rights Council released a report that “found reasonable grounds to believe that, in all other cases [outside of two exceptions], the use of live ammunition by Israeli security forces against demonstrators was unlawful.” The report also confirmed that “journalists and medical personnel who were clearly marked as such were shot, as were children, women and persons with disabilities.”

Gathering in Gaza for the huge Land Day march
Gathering in Gaza for the huge Land Day march

These war crimes are committed with the full backing of the United States, which provides Israel with $3.8 billion annually in foreign aid and encouraged Israel’s colonial violence by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem last May.

In response, the BDS National Committee reissued a call for an arms embargo to cut off weapon supplies used to terrorize refugees in the Gaza ghetto, a demand that was also taken up by Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Ahmed Abu Artema, the Gaza journalist whose Facebook post in January 2018 formed the basis for the Great March of Return and who is currently traveling across the U.S. on a speaking tour, has called on international supporters to stand with Gaza on March 30 by holding demonstrations, rallies, teach-ins, panels and other events to spread the demands for an end to the blockade and justice for refugees.

THE BACKDROP to the historic uprising in 1976 was an ongoing process of “Judaizing” the Galilee in northern Israel, one of the few regions that remained majority-Arab after the mass ethnic cleansing of 1948 known as al-Nakba (“the catastrophe”).

Prior to 1976, the Israeli government had been using the Emergency Regulations, a law left over from the British Mandate, to take control of land in the Galilee and hand it over to the Israeli Land Administration (ILA), which would then redistribute it to Jewish settlers under the direction of the Jewish National Fund (JNF).

But it wasn’t until March 1, 1976, that Israel openly declared its intentions in the region, unveiling a program to “develop the Galilee” by confiscating an additional 20,000 dunams (5,000 acres) of land for Jewish settlement. On March 10, Minister of Education Zevulun Hammer expressed his support for the plan in Yediot Ahronot, calling Palestinians in Galilee a “cancer in the heart of the nation.”

The National Committee for the Defense of Arab Lands, which was formed a few years earlier by members of the Communist Party and other left-wing and Palestinian nationalist groups in Israel, had been urging the government to stop its land expropriation plans since 1974. In response to Hammer’s declaration, they changed their tactics and called for a general strike to be held on March 30.

Frightened by the idea of a large-scale revolt against Zionism, Israel tried to crush it with force. A curfew was imposed on Sakhnin, Arrabeh, Deir Hanna, Tur’an, Tamra and Kabul.

In spite of the curfew and threats of retaliation from the Israeli state, Palestinians joined demonstrations across Israel, the Occupied Territories and refugee camps elsewhere in the Middle East. According to Ahmad Masarwa, an organizer interviewed by Ilan Pappé in The Forgotten Palestinians, the Land Day strike was an outpouring not just against land expropriation, but also against broadly miserable conditions, including restricted access to water, education, and health care.

The level of unity was unprecedented for Palestinian citizens of Israel, who had struggled to form a cohesive national bloc under Israeli military rule.

“Both sides understood the significance of the strike,” said Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh, the only physician in Arrabeh at the time. “For the first time we were acting as a national minority, and Israel was very sensitive to anything that suggested we had a national identity or a unified agenda, especially over a key resource like land.”

ISRAEL WOULD not let this go unpunished. It called in tanks, murdering six of the demonstrators: Khayr Muhammad Yasin, Raja Hussein Abu Riya, Khader Abd Khalaila, Khadija Juhayna, Muhammad Yusuf Taha and Rafat Zuhairi. All six were Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Dr. Kanaaneh describes the atmosphere on March 30: “When a neighbor called me to attend to his wife who had gone into labor, I walked out of my house towards an armored vehicle waving my stethoscope. A soldier aimed his rifle straight at me, and I hurried back inside.”

According to Khader Khalaila’s brother Ahmed, a neighbor of theirs in Sakhnin defied Israeli orders to stay inside and was shot in the street. It was in the process of walking to help the wounded woman that Khader was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier. He later bled to death in the backseat of a car as his family was stalled at a checkpoint trying to make their way to the hospital.

An Israeli police officer who was dispatched to the Galilee to break the strike was among the few to speak out in the aftermath, reporting on the horrors he took part in:

A first sergeant and a logistics officer found relief from their abhorrence of the bureaucratic apparatus by shooting at the panicked villagers (the latter even hit two, one of them, it turned out, died due to this).

After the villagers fled, the forces entered some of the homes and began to take their rage out on their entire contents. I witnessed one such incident, in which glassware, the television set, the record player, pictures and other objects were smashed to pieces. Such images cannot but remind me of the poems by Bialik and Tchernichovsky about the pogroms waged against the Jews [in Russia] at the end of the last century and the beginning of this century.

THE GENERAL strike led to some temporary success, with Israel revoking the expropriation order. But a month later, in order to reassert its “Judaization” plans, the government leaked the Koenig Memorandum, an internal report written by Yisrael Koenig of the Interior Ministry in 1975. The document called for “the possibility of diluting existing Arab population concentrations” as a defense of “long-term Jewish national interests.”

A year later, Ariel Sharon, the minister of agriculture at the time, announced plans for Jewish settlements called mitzpim (“lookouts”) in the Galilee “to prevent control of state lands by foreigners,” a particularly egregious way of referring to the Indigenous population.

While a sizeable number of Palestinians have remained in the Galilee, Sharon’s plans to surround Palestinian land with Jewish settlements and firmly exert Jewish control over the region was successful, with 52 mitzpim constructed over the next decade.

The significance of Land Day is not merely in recognizing past atrocities, as important as that is in countering the racist narrative put forward by the Israeli state. The process of “Judaization” that began from the very foundation of Israel with Plan Dalet continues to this day, particularly in East Jerusalem and in Bedouin villages in al-Naqab (Negev) desert.

Echoes of the Koenig Memorandum can be found in the recent “nation-state law,” which declares Jewish-only settlements a “national value,” as well as proclaiming that “the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

As a result of the particular form of settler colonialism carried out by Israel, Palestinians form one of the largest refugee populations in the world. The open-air prison of Gaza encloses a population of around 2 million, with over 1.38 million registered as refugees with UNRWA.

Nearly a third of the Palestinians in the West Bank are also refugees. Moreover, around 300,000 Palestinians were expelled from the West Bank during al-Naksa (“the setback”) of 1967, when Israel began its occupation and set up Jewish settlements in areas from which refugees had left. For the last 52 years of military occupation, this ethnic cleansing has continued through settlement expansion and forcible transfer.

The ongoing dispossession of Palestinian land and denial of justice for refugees spurred Palestinians into a popular revolt in Gaza beginning last March. We should join them by demonstrating in the belly of the beast on Land Day 2019.

From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!

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