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Memories, daily reality intermingle as Palestinians mark Land Day

Among young Palestinians, the stories and memories of a pivotal event that happened nearly four decades ago refuse to fade
Thousands of people marched to commemorate Land Day in Deir Hanna in northern Israel (MEE/Yotam Ronen)

DEIR HANNA, Israel - Bringing balloons, flags and music, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel gathered here on Monday, marking the 39th anniversary of Land Day.

In a steadily growing procession from the surrounding villages in the predominantly Arab Galilee region, crowds of demonstrators of all ages bought candy floss and painted their cheeks with Palestinian colours while listening to the speeches of local leaders. In a town square surrounded by the Galilee’s green hills, young people crowded around tents hung with images of recent Palestinian history, a grim collage in contrast to the almost celebratory atmosphere of the event.

“This day we will never forget. And we’ll keep remembering,” Deir Hanna’s Mayor, Samir Hussein, told the crowd, as a Palestinian flag billowed in the late-afternoon breeze above his head.

Thirty nine years ago, events in Deir Hanna irreversibly altered the situation for Palestinians living in Israel. Protests in the village, which spread to the surrounding towns, led to confrontations that resulted in the deaths of six Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the arrest and injury of hundreds more.

In many Israeli narratives, those that were killed are referred to as “Arab rioters”. But for the Palestinians commemorating the event on Monday, the original Land Day was the point at which Palestinian national identity inside Israel became conscious, and leapt into action.

Even though she’s far too young to have witnessed the events of that day, 19-year-old Altheer Khalileh is - like many young people in Deir Hanna - closely familiar with what happened on 30 March 1976.

“My uncle was killed by Jewish soldiers,” Khalileh told Middle East Eye, describing in detail the account of what happened that’s been passed through her family. Khader Khalileh, she said, was attempting to defend a neighbour when he was shot dead by soldiers who were enforcing a curfew on the village

“My father saw his brother shot through his eye and dying. He had to tell my grandmother. And he went on to tell me that we should protect our land; that we need to be strong. They always tell us about Palestine, and that we need to be strong to protect it,” she said.

In addition to Palestinian flags and kuffiyehs brought by every family in the crowd, Altheer and her siblings wore white t-shirts printed with photographs of their uncle, a young man photographed in soft focus, with a 1970s hairstyle. Other families that lost a member in 1976 did the same.

Collective memory

Those killed in the first Land Day have played a central role in every commemoration since 1976, and Monday morning, officials from Deir Hanna, Arraba and Sakhnin visited the deceased’s families and cemeteries. As well as nationalist songs, those that marched in the morning’s protest chanted slogans that promised to redeem the shaheed, or martyrs, with land and blood.

But the collective memory of the day is much broader than just those killed by Israeli forces. The protests of 1976 followed the Israeli government’s decision to confiscate land belonging to the villages of Sakhnin, Deir Hanna and Arraba for official use. The land was designated as a closed military zone, and was gradually used for the development of housing and industry, most of which was for the benefit of Jewish Israelis.

“At this time, Arab people in this land felt no hope,” Muneeb Khalid Tarabia, vice-Mayor of Sakhnin, told MEE. “They perceived a lack of rights, and that the Israeli government was pursuing, threatening the Arab minority in all sections: politically, and in terms of land and community too.

At the time, Tarabia explained, Palestinians in Israel were starting to feel that Israel was a country that would last a long time.

“Before, they thought it would only be around for a few decades - like the British. But in 1976, it seemed then that the Israeli government wasn’t going anywhere, and that it saw all the lands in Israel as Israeli land, as belonging to the Jews,” he said.

“The day of the strike, for the Arab minority, it was like a bomb that exploded,” Tarabia continued. “It wasn’t just that day - it was something that had been going on for years, since 1948. In 1976, people reached a point that they couldn’t stand Israeli policy anymore.”

This idea of a tipping point is strong in the collective memory of those that attended the demonstration on Monday. Among young people in particular, the idea that March 1976 was the beginning of unity for Arabs in Israel is a matter of immense pride.

“It was the first time that all of the people in all of the villages stood together,” Halaa Salem told MEE. The 19-year-old enthusiastically described exactly what happened on 29 March and the following days, and said she regards the young people of the villages as playing a crucial role. “They made a group to defend the land, and it still exists today. They succeeded, and it was because all the villages stood together and said there was a strike - they weren’t divided.”

“I came here because it’s the 30 of March 1976, when our Arab nation came out for the first time to protect their land,” 21-year-old Abdul Raza continued. “We are here to respect their memory and stand by our people and our land.”

Elsewhere in the country, and in the West Bank in particular, demonstrations took place that highlighted the same point. At the village of Hawara, near Nablus, protesters gathered near Route Sixty, a road used by Israeli settlers, and in the south of the West Bank, activists planted olive trees. Addressing the crowd, organisers praised the importance of the unity between Palestinians, arguing for Land Day as a “special day” for cooperation.

Policies continue

Memory alone has not just fuelled Monday’s commemoration: there is also a sense among Palestinians citizens of Israel that what happened in 1976 was a demonstration of broader government policy that continues to this day. Residents of Sakhnin complain that they lack the space to grow their communities, with land that might have been used for housing new generations or for developing farmland or industry now inaccessible. In an announcement timed to coincide with this year’s Land Day, the Arab rights NGO Adalah stated that just 4.6 percent of new housing units from the state were allocated to Arabs, a group that make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population. High housing prices, Tarabia said, hit young people looking to start their own families hardest, while a squeeze on agricultural lands has dramatically changed the economic terrain for residents of the Galilee and Triangle.

Nor was 1976 the only case of Arab-Israeli protests leading to casualties at the hands of police. In 2000, at the beginning of the second intifada, 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli police; since that year, around 50 Palestinian citizens of Israel have been killed by police.

“Still the state doesn’t treat us as citizens. It treats us as enemies or obstacles,” Arab-Israeli MK Haneen Zoabi told MEE. Zoabi, despite being enormously popular at Monday’s demonstration, remains a controversial figure in Israel. She continued: “If you struggle against the state in a very stubborn way, it regards you as an enemy. If you are very passive, if you don’t do anything to resist, then you can still be an obstacle, you can still be evacuated from your lands.

“Land is the centre of the struggle. The most important thing about the struggle is the land. And land, it’s not a romantic thing, it’s not about nationality. It’s our daily life,” she said.

Asked whether recent developments in Arab-Israeli politics had changed the tone of the Land Day demonstrations, Zoabi downplayed the importance of the Joint List, a coalition of Arab and Jewish parties that gained a strong showing during this month’s Knesset elections. Change, she said, should come from young people who engage in activism and Palestinian identity.

For the many young people at Monday’s demonstration, that remains a crucial message.

“I’m a teenager, and I’m mad at this – I’m mad all the time,” 19-year-old Halaa Salem said. “What do I do about it? I write articles, I speak to my grandparents. It’s important to me that every man, woman and child here knows, that they know the story of what happened.”