Land Day: Palestinian Citizens of Israel Protesting Historical and Ongoing Land Expropriation

By: Dr. Tilde Rosmer, University of Oslo.

Last week Palestinians gathered to participate in Yawm al-Ard/Land Day protests to commemorate (and continue) the collective struggle against land confiscation and dispossession by Israel. The original Land Day took place on 30 March 1976 and was organised in protest against the confiscation of land by the State in two Arab communities in Israel, namely Sakhnin (where 20,000 dunums/200,000 square meters of land was expropriated) and Kafr Qasim(where 3,000 dunums/30,000 square meters of land was expropriated). During the original demonstration six Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed and several wounded by fire from the Israeli police and border patrol forces. Many others were arrested. The demonstrations themselves came as a surprise both to the Jewish majority community and to the Israeli authorities, who had grown accustomed to considering Palestinian citizens of Israel as a passive and submissive minority. It also surprised the Palestinian citizens of Israel themselves. They were shocked by the violent response of the Israeli forces to their peaceful demonstrations.

In conversation with me a few years ago, Father Shehadeh Shehadeh, the priest and activist who headed the first protest in 1976 (and died in 2010), described Land Day as ‘The first mass political protest by Palestinians in Israel’. Its organizational body, the National Committee for the Protection of Land, was multi-denominational and cross-party political. It represented the emergence of a new generation of leadership among Palestinians in Israel, who began to build institutions and organisations to fight for their rights as Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Land Day is still the largest annual mass demonstration of Palestinians in Israel, with several large demonstrations occurring across the country, as well as in the occupied Palestinian territory and in the Palestinian Diaspora. While the commemoration of the original Land Day is understandable, it is also an occasion for Palestinian citizens of Israel to protest against land and planning laws and policies that affect them today.

The Israeli legal human rights organisation Adalah summarises the history of discriminatory land and planning policies experienced by Palestinians as follows: ‘Prior to [Israel’s establishment in] 1948, the Jewish community owned just 6-7% of the land… During the next four decades, 80% of lands owned by Palestinians living in Israel were confiscated and placed at the exclusive disposal of Jewish citizens’. Today, 93% of all land in Israel is under direct state control administered by the Israel Land Administration (ILA).

The focus of the Land Day demonstrations this year was on the Bedouin communities in the Naqab/Negev. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), ‘The Arab Bedouin minority in the Negev is one of the most discriminated groups in Israeli society as a whole. More than half of the approximately 160,000 Negev Bedouins reside in unrecognised villages, which the state refuses to provide with a planning structure and place under municipal jurisdiction. The government uses a variety of measures to pressure Bedouins into relocation to government-planned urban centres that disregard their lifestyle and needs.’

In a petition from March 2014, ACRI specifies that these ‘unrecognised’ villages are ‘not connected to water, electricity, sewage, telephone or roads, and the residents suffer from a severe lack of education, health and welfare services.’ Notably, these villagers are citizens of Israel and as such pay taxes.

Currently, these Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel feel particularly threatened. This is because of the Prawer Plan of 2011. According to the Knesset website, the Prawer-Begin bill ‘calls to officially recognise and register the vast majority of the Bedouin settlement throughout the Negev, and compensate the residents of 35 unrecognised villages – some 30,000 to 40,000 people – who are to be moved off state-owned land into towns built for them’. Officially, the goals of the plan are to ‘bring about a better integration of the Bedouin in Israeli society’ and to ‘reduce the economic and social gaps between the Bedouin population in the Negev and Israeli society as a whole’.

However, according to a joint Position Paper by ACRI, Bimkom and the Regional Council for Unrecognised (Bedouin) Villages in the Negev (RCUV), the state has ignored the Bedouin’s historical presence in the region, and has sought to transfer and concentrate this population into a small corner of the Negev, not because it wishes to integrate the community into wider Israeli society, but in order to ‘free up the most fertile areas of the Negev for Jewish agricultural settlements’. According to Adalah, if passed, the Prawer-Begin bill will result in mass expulsion of Arab Bedouin citizens in the Naqab/Negev and the destruction of 35 ‘unrecognised’ villages. They will be relocated into what the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality describes as ‘impoverished, urban areas where their potential for self-development will by stymied.’

The Prawer-Begin bill was shelved in the Knesset in December 2013, brought down by a coalition of strange bed-fellows from the left to the right who for different reasons opposed the bill. As described by one journalist in Ha’aretz, whereas the leftwing parties supported the Bedouin community by voting against, ‘the right-wing opponents considered the plan too generous towards the Bedouin’. Despite this success for those opposing the bill, the fear is that this is only a temporary set-back and that it will resurface once more. In addition, the mayor of Rahat, one of the townships built by the state to house displace Bedouin, has complained that the government is continuing to implement the plan on the ground with house demolitions and land confiscation.

Thus, on Land Day this year, Palestinian citizens of Israel were not just commemorating and protesting the historical loss of land, but also protesting against on-going land expropriation by the state and tsp land to continue doing so. As with the original protests in 1976, this year’s protests are representative of a new generation of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Today’s protestors are the sons and daughters of the leaders from 1976, a generation described Dan Rabinowitz and Hawla Abu-Baker as the ‘Stand Tall Generation’ that ‘displays a new assertive voice, abrasive style, and unequivocal substantive clarity’. As the journalist in Ha’aretz noted after the Prawer-Begin bill was successfully shelved in December last year, those who want to see the Plan implemented now have to take into account this new generation of educated people who are not afraid to put up a public struggle for their rights. As with the original protest of 1976, there is a notable (and unusual) consensus among Palestinian citizens of Israel in opposing the Prawer Plan and supporting the Bedouin in the Naqab/Negev. This consensus is discernable among civil society groups, religious-political movements (most notably the Islamic Movement in Israel) and the Arab political parties, all of which are working in cooperation across ideological and party lines in this struggle. Whether they or the government will ultimately succeed time will tell.