The Forgotten Million: Land Day and Israel’s Palestinian Minority


For a quarter of a century, the Palestinian minority in Israel has celebrated Land Day on March 30 as a protest against Israel’s discriminatory policies toward its one million Palestinian citizens and to underline its collective and individual rights. Land Day is also a commemoration of the bloody confrontations with state “security” forces that took place in 1976 when six Palestinians were killed and some 100 injured. Since then, it has become a sort of Martin Luther King Jr. Day that remains unrecognized by the state.

Economic and Social Discrimination:

This year, the Peace Now movement in Israel will, for the first time, participate with Palestinian Israelis in the annual ritual of protest in the olive groves of the Galilee. Considering the absence of the dovish movement during the bloody events of last October when 13 Palestinians were killed and hundreds wounded during confrontations with Israeli forces, this is certainly an encouraging step. In fact, this Palestinian-Jewish cooperation on the basis of equality and justice will prove the best way to confront the madness of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government.

In 1948, Israel took over 85 percent of historic Palestine, creating 800,000 Palestinian refugees who were thrown out or fled for fear of massacres. Over the five decades since then, Israel confiscated more than two-thirds of the land owned by its Palestinian citizens and on which they depended for their livelihood. Their share of land has dropped from 9 percent in 1948 to less than 3 percent in 2000.

Today, there are 220,000 displaced Palestinians in Israel who are not allowed to return to their homes and villages. There are 43 villages not recognized by Israel that are inhabited by more than 70,000 Palestinians, or almost 8 percent of the Palestinian population. For decades, even the recognized Palestinian municipalities received an insignificant fraction of government subsidies, while budgetary discrimination in education, health, culture, development, and other areas persisted.

Israel’s standard of living is among the top 20 worldwide, yet one of every two Palestinian children in the country lives under the poverty line, and half of all the Israeli children living in poverty are Palestinian. Over the last six years, unemployment increased by 88 percent among Palestinian academics in Israel and two-fold among Palestinian women, according to government figures released in late December 2000. This partially explains the increasing dissatisfaction and protest among Israel’s Palestinian minority.

Israel’s ‘Shame’:

In the early 1990s, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed his “shame” at the way the state treats its Palestinian minority, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s own chief of staff, Yossi Cucik, apologized in the late 1990s to Israel’s Palestinian citizens “for the discrimination against them over the years.” He described their living conditions as “disgraceful.”

The problem, however, seems to only worsen. Today, 23 out of the 26 towns with the highest unemployment in the country are Palestinian. In all the ministries and state companies, the employment of Palestinians is hardly existent. For example, the Ministry of Trade and Industry employs four Palestinians out a total of 540 employees. Only 0.5 percent of its budget goes to Palestinians, who make up some 20 percent of the population.

But the discrimination has not been only economic. The state of Israel has long considered Palestinians to be a potential fifth column. It is clear that it views Palestinian citizens as the enemy within, even though they have proved beyond any reasonable doubt their “moderation” and their readiness to live in peace with Jewish citizens. In fact, 93 percent of Palestinian Israelis voted for Barak in 1999, and 94 percent voted for Shimon Peres in 1996, thus showing support for Labor. Moreover, they were ready to support any peace initiative that was acceptable to the leadership of both peoples. Palestinian representatives in the Knesset were indispensable in passing crucial peace agreements, including the first and second Oslo agreements and the last Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, which was signed by Barak.

Taken for Granted:

Despite their support for peace initiatives, as soon as the Palestinians in Israel showed solidarity with their counterparts under attack in the Occupied Territories, they were brutalized and their property destroyed by Israeli hooligans. One Palestinian leader compared these attacks to the Kristalnacht in 1938 when Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses were ransacked.

This has brought about a major change in the attitude of the Palestinian minority. When asked to choose between two hawkish generals and help Barak win the 6 February 2001 election, more than 85 percent of the Palestinians in Israel chose not to vote. In doing so, they rejected the call of the Labor Party and ignored the advice of some officials in the Palestinian Authority.

After much pressure, the Barak government agreed to establish a state commission to look into the October events. The resulting three-panel Or Commission heard testimonies from Israeli security force snipers about their superiors’ orders to shoot at unarmed civilians. Evidence was provided that supports the Palestinians’ main accusation, namely that Israeli forces had, “without any warning and in an attempt to inflict bodily injuries, used live ammunition alongside rubber bullets,” which was authorized in “direct instructions” issued by Alek Ron, the regional commander of the Israeli police, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

At State for all its Citizens:

It is evident now more than ever that Israel cannot be a democracy for all its citizens while continuing to be a state for all Jews. Israel proved it could only tolerate Palestinian “under-existence” based on dependency and coercion. For their part, the Palestinians have learned that integration and assimilation in a “Jewish state” means no more than marginalization, dependence, and cultural disfiguration. Today, they are ever more keen on achieving equality without integration, until the conditions are ripe for the state to become that of its citizens and, hence, a new Israeli society made up of both Jewish and Palestinian citizens.

In that spirit, one reads the text of a new “basic law” proposed to the Knesset for consideration by Palestinian leader Azmi Bishara in March. In this proposal, he demands that the Palestinian minority be recognized by law as a national minority with collective rights as well as guaranteed equal civil rights in a state for all its citizens. He based his approach on the principles and spirit of the International Declaration of Human Rights of 1992, which underlines the rights of individuals belonging to ethnic, religious, or national minorities. The proposed text in fact demands the right of the Palestinian minority in Israel to manage its cultural affairs freely.

This new approach has been partially effective in Israeli society over the last few years. Already, voices in the peace camp and on the Left speak of a Jewish state as a state for all its citizens. Moreover, the political discourse of the Palestinian minority as a whole has moved in this direction as well in recent years, allowing for a more unified approach to state discrimination on national lines rather then on religious or ethnic lines as Israeli decision makers had hoped.

It is estimated that in two decades the demographic factor will change in favor of the Palestinians, hence strengthening their demand for equality and liberal democratic norms. In 2000, there were 8.2 million people in historic Palestine, 40 percent of whom are Palestinians, and by 2010 to 2015 it will be 50 percent. In the same time period, Palestinian citizens of Israel will comprise a quarter of Israel’s population, hence transcending the barriers of a small minority into the realm of bi-nationalism.

For the advocates of an ethnic Jewish state, this might be a reason to worry. But for those searching for a democratic, enlightened, and genuinely modern Israel, this is the time to mend bridges with the Palestinian minority in a spirit of tolerance and equality as the Israeli Peace Now movement has shown.

Marwan Bishara is a journalist and author.