Palestinians across the Middle East were due to commemorate Land Day today, marking the anniversary of clashes in 1976 in which six unarmed Palestinians were shot dead by the Israeli army as it tried to break up a general strike.
Although Land Day is one of the most important anniversaries in the Palestinian calendar, sometimes referred to as the Palestinians’ national day, the historical event it marks is little spoken of and rarely studied.
“Maybe its significance is surprising given the magnitude of other events in Palestinian history,” said Hatim Kanaaneh, 71, a doctor, who witnessed the military invasion of his village.
“But what makes Land Day resonate with Palestinians everywhere is that it was the first time Palestinians inside Israel stood together and successfully resisted Israel’s goal of confiscating their land.”
The confrontation took place between the army and a group usually referred to as “Israeli Arabs”, the small minority of Palestinians who managed to remain in their homes during the 1948 war that led to the founding of Israel. Today they number 1.2 million, or nearly one-fifth of Israel’s population.
“We were given citizenship by Israel, but have always been treated as an enemy, perceived of as a threat to the state’s Jewishness,” said Dr Kanaaneh, who last year published his memoir, A Doctor in Galilee, which offers a rare account in English of Palestinian life inside Israel during the Land Day period.
In 1976, Dr Kanaaneh, having completed his medical studies at Harvard University in the United States, was the only physician in Arrabeh.
Israel crushed organised political activity among Israel’s Palestinian citizens between 1948 and 1966, Dr Kanaaneh said. Nonetheless, popular frustration had mounted as the state expropriated privately owned Palestinian land to build new communities for Jewish citizens, many of them recent immigrants.
During military rule, historians have noted, vast swathes of land were taken from Palestinians, both from refugees in exile and from Israel’s own citizens. Jews had bought only six per cent of Palestine by the time of the 1948 war, but today the state has nationalised 93 per cent of Israel’s territory.
“Government policy was explicitly to make the land Jewish –” or Judaise it, as it was called,” Dr Kanaaneh said.
The announcement in the mid-1970s of the confiscation of a further 2,000 hectares led to the creation of a new body, the National Committee for the Defence of Arab Lands, which provided a more assertive political leadership.
The minority’s decision to strike, Dr Kanaaneh said, shocked the Israeli authorities, which were not used to challenges to official policy. “Both sides understood the significance of the strike. 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.”
Although the strike was strictly observed by Palestinians throughout Israel, the focus of the protest were three villages in the central Galilee that faced the loss of a large area of prime agricultural land: Arrabeh, Sakhnin and Deir Hanna.
The prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and his defence minster, Shimon Peres, acted on the eve of the strike.
“What was surprising was that they didn’t send in the police, as you’d expect when dealing with citizens of a country, but the army,” Dr Kanaaneh said.
The government’s original plan, he said, was to break the strike and force employees to go to work, but when villagers began throwing stones, the army imposed a curfew.
“When a neighbour called me to attend to his wife who had gone into labour, I walked out of my house towards an armoured vehicle waving my stethoscope,” Dr Kanaaneh said. “A soldier aimed his rifle straight at me and I hurried back inside.”
Ahmed Khalaila, who was 18 and living in Sakhnin, remembered being woken early by loudspeakers. “Soldiers were calling out that we must not leave the house … We couldn’t even look out of the windows,” he said.
When a neighbour stepped outside her house, she was shot and injured, Mr Khalaila said. He and his older brother, Khader, tried to help the woman. When they were about 50 metres from her, Khader was shot in the head.
“He was still breathing and we hoped he could be saved, but there were checkpoints at all the entrances to the village. We knew no ambulance would be coming for him.”
Eventually, the family managed to get him into a car and drove towards the nearest hospital. Held at a checkpoint, Mr Khalaila said, the family watched as Khader bled to death as he lay across his younger brother’s legs on the back seat. Khader was 24 and recently married.
No one ever came to investigate what had happened, or offered the family compensation. “It was as if a bird had died,” he said. “No one was interested; no questions were asked in the parliament. Nothing.”
As well as the six deaths, hundreds more Palestinians were injured and sweeping arrests were made of political activists.
Dr Kanaaneh said the stiff resistance mounted by the villagers eventually forced the government to revoke the expropriation order.
Victory, however, was far from clear cut. The next year, Ariel Sharon, as agriculture minister, announced a programme of new Jewish settlements called “lookouts” in the Galilee “to prevent control of state lands by foreigners”, meaning Israel’s own Palestinian citizens. The three villages were surrounded by the lookout communities, which came to be known collectively as Misgav regional council.
“They were intended to be agricultural communities, but Land Day stopped that,” Dr Kanaaneh said. “Instead they became small bedroom communities, and much of the land we defended was passed to Misgav’s jurisdiction.
“Today the owners of the land pay taxes to the regional council rather than their own municipalities, and Misgav can decide, if it wants, to try to confiscate the land again. We may have got our land back, but it is not really in our hands.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.