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Land Day, 1976

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Land Day, 1976
A Turning Point in the Defense of Palestinian Lands in Israel

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In 1975 Israel stepped up its campaign to appropriate Palestinian-owned land in Israel and to confine the Palestinians to isolated enclaves; that year, the Palestinians and their leaders woke up to the gravity of the Israeli plans. They gradually grew more mobilized, better organized, and more united, and declared 30 March 1976 as a day of widespread protest in defense of the Palestinian land that Israel was threatening to confiscate for Jewish settlements.

The overwhelming success of Land Day and the sacrifices that it entailed were a landmark in the history of the Arab struggle inside Israel since 1948. It also brought together the Palestinian communities in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the diaspora.

The Palestinian campaign began on 21 May 1975, when political activists and Arab intellectuals took the initiative of holding a consultative meeting in Haifa. They included lawyers Hanna Naqara and Mohammed Miari, Shaykh Farhoud Farhoud, Mohammed Kiwan, Mohammed Said Naamna, Massad Qassis, and Saliba Khamis. After the meeting they invited a large number of Arab local authority chairmen, political activists, intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, and journalists to hold another meeting on 29 July to prepare for a wider meeting to formulate a public response to Israel’s settlement plans. At that meeting it was decided to set up an Initiative Committee for the Defense of Palestinian Land.

The initiative committee in turn called another consultative meeting on 14 August in Nazareth, chaired by Anis Kardoush, a political activist and formerly a member of the Land Movement. Participants established the National Committee for the Defense of Arab Lands in Israel, which had 121 members representing all political and ideological persuasions and from the various regions—Galilee, the Triangle, and the Negev, as well as the heads of several Arab local authorities—and a general secretariat. A decision was also taken to set up local village committees for the defense of the land and to arrange meetings, rallies, and other activities to raise awareness among the Arab population of the threat that lay behind the land confiscation policy, a 1972 amendment to the Law on Property Tax (which, by raising significantly the tax, intended to impel Arab property owners to sell their land), and the creation of settlements around Arab villages and towns. Those who took part in the meeting also decided to hold a public congress in Nazareth on 18 October 1975.

The public congress was the largest public gathering of Palestinian residents of Israel since 1948, with hundreds of delegations and thousands of participants from all the Arab communities in Israel. A conference declaration read by Hanna Naqara laid out Israel's settlement plans and the methods and pretexts that the Israeli authorities were using to appropriate Arab land. The conference also gave rise to several resolutions, such as ones calling for an end to the policy of confiscating Arab land, “a danger that threatens the national and day-to-day existence of the Arab masses,” and setting up a committee to follow up implementation of the conference resolutions. Most important, the participants in the conference discussed the possibility of calling a general strike in all parts of the country with an Arab population if the government did not abandon its confiscation plans, though no date was set for such a strike.

At the end of the year the Israeli authorities decided to confiscate about 3,000 dunams (about 740 acres) of land owned by the people of Kafr Qasim, a village where a horrible massacre had taken place about twenty years earlier. The confiscation decision was followed by a police decision in early February 1976 to refuse permits to farmers from the villages of Arraba, Sakhnin, and Deir Hanna to access their land in the al-Mill area, a small part of Zone 9, which was used for military training. The police told them that anyone entering the area would be committing a felony.

In response to this measure, more than 5,000 area residents rallied in the village of Sakhnin on 14 February. In the statement the rally called for repeal of the decision to designate the land as a military area and for a comprehensive general strike. To prepare the Arab inhabitants for the strike, the local land defense committees stepped up their efforts, as did local branches of the Communist Party, which distributed leaflets, organized marches and demonstrations, and held meetings in several Arab towns and villages, especially Sakhnin, Arraba, and Deir Hanna.

In the tense atmosphere that arose as the Arab population called on the Israeli authorities to abandon their land confiscation measures and appeared increasingly willing to confront these authorities, the Israeli government under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin decided on 29 February to confiscate 20,000 dunams (about 4,900 acres) of land in Galilee as part of a “Develop Galilee” plan. The National Committee for the Defense of the Land reacted by calling a large meeting in Nazareth on 6 March 1976, attended by seventy delegates from the various Arab villages, including the chairmen of local councils and local defense committees. The meeting decided to call on the Arab population, representative institutions, and all other groups in the country “to hold a general strike on 30 March 1976, and to declare this day to be Land Day in Israel, the day on which the Arab masses will raise their voices to demand an end to the official policy, which has started to threaten the future of the Arab masses in this country.”

On 19 March 1976, the steering committee of the Israeli Labor Party, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Jewish Agency head Yosef Almogi, and party secretary Golda Meir, instructed the police to reinforce their presence in Nazareth and the Arab villages and to take the “strictest measures” against the strike and the expected demonstrations. Police Minister Shlomo Hillel, who attended the meeting, apparently asked for reinforcements from the army, which would be under the command of the police and the Border Guard, to handle the general strike. All the Israeli newspapers, the Israeli trade union movement Histadrut, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Interior Ministry, Northern District Commissioner Yisrael Koenig, and Health Minister Victor Shem-Tov all made intensive efforts to thwart the strike, both by offering incentives and by intimidation.

On 25 March, after pressure and threats from the Northern District Commissioner and police officers, some of the chairmen of the Arab local authorities met in the town of Shafa 'Amr with the aim of calling off the strike. After some acrimonious arguments in the meeting hall, the heads of other local authorities, who were members of the National Committee for the Defense of the Arab Land in Israel, said that the meeting had no authority to revoke a decision taken by their committee. The secretariat of the committee announced that evening that “the strike by the Arab masses in Israel on 30 March 1976, in protest against the confiscation of Arab land in Galilee and other parts of the country, will take place on time as planned.”

The first confrontations between the citizens and the Israeli security forces broke out in the villages of Deir Hanna and Arraba on 29 March, the eve of Land Day. On the afternoon of that day residents of the two villages came out in demonstrations, set fire to car tires, and closed off streets in Deir Hanna. The demonstrators in Arraba called for the release of Fadel Naamna, a member of the Arraba local council, who had been detained the previous day. (He was in fact released that day at about 10 p.m.) Israeli soldiers and police intervened in the evening, firing live ammunition at the demonstrators and injuring many of them. Protesters closed the main road in Sakhnin to stop military vehicles entering the village or Arraba and Deir Hanna. Stones and petrol bombs were thrown at military vehicles in the main street in Sakhnin.

At dawn on the day of the strike, Israeli troops, police, and border guards in military trucks, tracked vehicles, and tanks raided Arab towns and villages, including Sakhnin, Arraba, Deir Hanna, Nazareth, Tamra, al-Taybeh, Baqa al-Gharbiyya, al-Tira, and Nahf. They also raided other towns and villages, including al-Maghar, Daliyat al-Karmel, Kafr Qasim, Kafr Qar'i, Qalansuwa, Jaljulia, and the cities of Haifa and Acre, to arrest activist politicians or to disperse demonstrators.

Despite these repressive measures, the strike was total in most Arab towns and villages. The most violent confrontations took place in Sakhnin, Arraba, and Deir Hanna. Four people were killed: Raja Abu Rayya, Khidr Khalayleh, and Khadija Shawahna from Sakhnin and Khayr Yassin from Arrabeh. Muhsin Taha was killed in Kafr Kanna and Ra'fat Zuheiri from the Nur Shams refugee camp was killed in the clashes in al-Taybeh. About fifty people were injured, and the Israeli police detained about 300 protesters.

The events of Land Day included elements of civil disobedience and violent confrontation, like confrontations between a military force and insurgents. In addition to the clashes between Israel soldiers and the demonstrators, especially women, four policemen and six soldiers were trapped in a house in Sakhnin, and some residents of Sakhnin tried to reach them while thousands of others imposed a siege on the house. They were prevented from doing so when a number of people and the owner of the house intervened and opened channels for negotiation with the army commanders in order to get them out of the village safely. A military armored vehicle with troops inside was also trapped in part of Arraba village, and a channel of negotiation was opened between the villagers and the military commander of the Northern Brigade, Rafael Eitan, who was later chief of staff of the Israeli army during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Eitan threatened to storm the village and destroy it completely if the soldiers and policemen were not released and the vehicle was not allowed to leave. Several soldiers were also trapped in a lane in Deir Hanna. It is worth noting that the Israeli Ministry of Defense treated the Land Day confrontations as “combat activity” when some of the injured applied for compensation.

To show solidarity with the Arab population in the 1948 areas and to help make the Land Day strike a success, representatives of Palestinian mass organizations and institutions had held a meeting in Beirut on 17 March, in which they decided to take a number of steps designed to expand the scope of participation in this day in the Arab world and internationally. The PLO Executive Committee had also mobilized to make Land Day succeed and turn it into a day of protest throughout all occupied Palestinian land. On 30 March, Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and refugee camps in Lebanon went on strike in solidarity with Palestinians in Israel. 

Land Day was a turning point in the orientations and tools adopted for Palestinian struggle inside Israel. After Land Day the Palestinians in Israel gradually structured their presence as a national group inside Israel in a way that went beyond their local struggles. At the same time they had created the one occasion around which Palestinians everywhere could rally (in addition to the commemoration of the Nakba). Since 1976 Palestinians inside Israel, in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in the diaspora have commemorated Land Day to assert their commitment to their land and their home and to show that they have not surrendered Israel’s ongoing policy of appropriating their land.

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Selected Bibliography

Beinin, Joel. “From Land Day to Peace Day and Beyond.” In Zachary Lochman and Joel Beinin, eds., Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against the Israeli Occupation, 205–216. London: I.B. Tauris, 1989.

Revolt in Galilee.” Journal of Palestine Studies 5, no. 3-4 (Spring-Summer 1976): 192-200.

Wolfsfeld, Gadi, Eli Avraham, and Issam Aburaiya. “When Prophesy Always Fails: Israeli Press Coverage of the Arab Minority's Land Day Protests.” Political Communication 17, no.2 (2000): 115–131.

Yiftachel, Oren. “Minority Protest and the Emergence of Ethnic Regionalism: Palestinian-Arabs in the Israeli ‘Ethnocracy’.” In Shlomo Ben Ami, Yoav Peled and Alberto Spectorowski, ed., Ethnic Challenges to the Modern Nation State, 145–184. Basingstoke Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 2000.