Occupied: Land before honour on Palestine Land Day
Forty-one years ago today, Israel's Palestinian Arab community protested against the expropriation of land by the Israeli government in its northern Galilee region.
Demonstrations first began with a general strike among Arab workers who were responding to a government resolution that earmarked 20,000 dunams (or 5,000 acres) of land for Jewish settlement within the Sakhnin valley.
Protesting against nascent Israeli policy to Judaize Israel's northern localities - a region that had long since had a significant Arab population - Israel's Palestinian Arab community affirmed their historic and collective right to territory within Galilee, considerable tracts of which had been owned by Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Their protest was met with live fire from the Israeli military, the confrontation saw six Palestinian citizens killed, and over one hundred injured. It marked the first time Israel used live-rounds against protests involving its own citizens.
The events of 30 March, 1976 today are commemorated each year as Land Day or Yum El-Ard. Observed now by Arab communities both in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, 1976 marked a turning point in the politicisation of Israel's Arab minority, a population that today comprises 20 percent of Israel's total population.
The original Land Day protests laid the foundation for what became an increasingly assertive and politically involved Palestinian-Israeli community, frustrated with discriminatory land policies that had long affected them.
|Many 'closed areas', consisting of demolished Arab villages were declared shut, to prevent the return of the previous occupants who now resided elsewhere|
Borne in part of discontent from the cabinet decision to expropriate land, Palestinian-Israelis in Sakhnin protested measures of systematic land appropriation. In the years that preceded the events at Sakhnin, Israel expropriated great swathes of land, under the guise of proclaiming an area as a military zone, and therefore a sensitive area.
The area known as the Arab "Triangle", where not only the 1976 protests at Sakhnin took place, but where almost 25 years later Palestinian citizens decrying similar grievances demonstrated, had not long ceased to be under complete military government. The "Triangle" had constituted a single closed area until just ten years before events at Sakhnin.
Many "closed areas", consisting of demolished Arab villages were declared shut, to prevent the return of the previous occupants who now resided elsewhere within Israel.
Other areas were expropriated from Arab landowners and declared closed; for use as military zones for training the Israeli Army. Once they had served this use, they were often passed on to Jewish developers, as was the case in the villages of Deir al-Asad, Bina and Majd al-Kurum which were confiscated to allow the Jewish town of Carmiel to be built.
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Conditions for Palestinian citizens in the intervening years appear to have deteriorated. A survey of 4,816 Palestinian citizens cited in Sammy Smooha's book, 'Arabs and Jews in Israel', observed that 57 percent had personally experienced land confiscation in 1976, with that figure rising to 75 percent in 1988.
These developments had been triggered by the takeover of Bedouin lands in the Negev following Israel's construction of a new military airfield, as a result of the retreat from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982. In addition, many new Jewish settlements in the Galilee were established, with jurisdiction over enclaves of Arab lands with no constructions.
|Failing to create any new Arab settlements led to continued issues of overcrowding, poor living conditions and underdevelopment|
The decade following Sakhnin precipitated a worsening situation for Palestinian citizens facing accelerated land seizures. The Oslo accords of 1993, along with official recognition of Bedouin communities in the Galilee, marked the zenith in Israeli-Palestinian relations in both Israel and across the Green Line in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
It brought - momentarily - an air of optimism to a phase of what was heralded as a new and positive relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.
The sanguine hopes dashed by the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the failure of two successive peace settlements contributed, in part, to the worsening relationship between Israel and its minority Arab population.
A new low was reached following the events of October 2000 when on September 28th, the leader of the Likud opposition, Ariel Sharon, made a provocative entry into Temple mount (Haram Al-Sharif).
|The issue of land allocation and housing for Palestinian citizens of Israel has now reached crisis point.|
This incendiary action that followed the breakdown of talks between Israel and the Palestinians during the Camp David summit earlier that summer, led to protests at the site revered by Palestinian Muslims.
The four Palestinian deaths that ensued from the targeting by Israeli security service's anti-terror sniper unit contributed to the start of the Second Intifada, and compounded the increasingly fraught situation of Israel's Palestinian minority.
They felt antagonised not only by feelings that their Palestinian kin in the Occupied Palestinian Territories had been disadvantaged in negotiations with Israel at Camp David, but also by increased demolitions of their homes in the Galilee that were taking place.
Eclipsing Sakhnin in terms of fatalities, the events of October 2000 saw the death of 13 Palestinians and one Jewish Israeli.
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The violent scenes witnessed in the northern region in the period leading up to this, had been triggered largely by the involvement of the local police commander, Alik Ron who had supervised dawn raids enforcing house demolitions.
Failing to create any new Arab settlements led to continued issues of overcrowding, poor living conditions and underdevelopment within Arab settlements in Israel.
This, combined with the difficult and arbitrary method of gaining a building permit, inadvertently led to Palestinian citizens to build their homes "illegally".
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Israel's Or commission which looked into the reasons behind the protests barred police commander Ron from ever taking a senior role within the security services.
Today many of the Land Day protests held in Israel focus on the Negev region, since much of the land that has been marked for appropriation in the Galilee has already been confiscated. The Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel also now face the appropriation of 800,000 dunams of the Negev by the Israeli state.
The housing situation for the Bedouin remains dire. Settlements that house 160,000 people are deemed "illegal" by Israel, and risk demolition.
The issue of land allocation and housing for Palestinian citizens of Israel has now reached crisis point.
In a video address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu equated the future of illegal Israeli settlement of Amona in the West Bank, with that of the 50,000 or so Palestinian citizens' properties facing demolition in Israel. Both, he said, were necessary under the same law.
The Hok HaHasdara law passed in February allows Israel to offer land that it officially recognises as Palestinian-owned, and offer it to Israeli settlers.
The systematic confiscation of land, coupled with a decrease in the number of permits granted to Arab communities means that Land Day events continue to resonate today more than ever.
This unbearable status quo requires principled action through a unified response to discrimination in housing from Palestinian community leaders.
But equally, Israel must remain true to its original founding declaration to "ensure the complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex".
Israel must decide, as it nears its seventieth year, whether these are principled ideals that it can afford to sacrifice.
Otman Aitlkaboud is an Executive Committee member of the Arab-Jewish Forum working on improving relationships between Arabs and Jews in the UK and beyond. He formerly worked at conflict resolution think tank Next Century Foundation and for the European Union External Action service in Armenia.
Follow Otman Aitlkaboud on Twitter: @OtmanA
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.