(3/30/09, Arrabeh) – 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
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
“We were given citizenship by
In 1976, Dr Kanaaneh, having completed his medical studies at
During military rule, historians have noted, vast swathes of land were taken from Palestinians, both from refugees in exile and from
“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
Although the strike was strictly observed by Palestinians throughout
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
“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.”
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth,
A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in