March 30, 2017, marked forty-one years since the first Land Day protests were organized by Palestinian citizens of Israel, or ‘48 Palestinians. The protests held on March 30, 1976, were the culmination of nearly three decades of Israeli land expropriation. They were sparked by a government plan, announced earlier that month, to seize 20,000 dunams (5,000 acres) of land in the Galilee (northern Israel) in order to build military bases and settle Jewish Israelis within the Sakhnin valley. To implement the plan, a curfew was imposed on Palestinian villages and cities.
While land expropriations impacted all ‘48 Palestinians, it was particularly intense in the Galilee. Following the establishment of the “Jewish state,” the colonization of the north became a “vital Israeli interest” because the region was predominately Palestinian. As an “internal frontier,” Israeli officials sought to “Judaize” the Galilee and disrupt Palestinian territorial contiguity, through strategically placed Jewish settlements.
In response to the 1976 expropriation plan, heads of Palestinian municipalities in the Galilee, along with political representatives in Rakah (New Communist List), declared a general strike and organized demonstrations throughout the country. In the end, six (unarmed) Palestinian citizens were killed and hundreds were injured or jailed by Israeli security forces.
Since then, Land Day has been used to highlight Israel’s ongoing land seizures and discriminatory treatment of Palestinians, both within “Israel proper” and the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Land Day is also significant for exposing the weakness of Israel’s divide and rule policies and marking the rise of ‘48 Palestinians, as a political force within the broader Palestinian nationalist movement.
After the 1947-49 war, approximately 156,000 Palestinians remained in what became Israel. Although they became citizens, the ’48 Palestinians were treated as a hostile population and threat to the consolidation of a “Jewish state.” As a result, a host of measures were taken to ensure “maximum control over the political and social behavior” of the population and to detach them from the wider Arab world.
Most ‘48 Palestinians lived under a military regime from 1948-1966. This regime was meant, in part, to restrict Palestinian movement and monitor their political activity, in order to hinder the emergence of a unified cultural/national identity. After 1966, responsibility for this shifted from the military to various civilian systems, such as the security establishment and state ministries serving the “Arab sector.”
To bolster its policies toward the ’48 Palestinians, Israel empowered and integrated local leaders (such as village headman and religious authorities) into a brokerage system that reinforced parochial, community-based identities. In doing so, the Israeli government sought to further atomize the Palestinian population, by defining its members not as a national minority but as a “fractured collection of ethnic and religious groups” (Bedouin, Druze, Christian, and Muslim).
While Israel sought to inhibit the development of Palestinian identity, the population was, nonetheless, united by shared experiences of discrimination and dispossession. This was further increased by Israel’s conquest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories in June 1967, which placed Palestinians, who had long been separated, under common rule. Contacts were renewed across the “Green Line” and ’48 Palestinians found themselves in closer proximity to their nationalist movement.
It was as a result of these developments that ’48 Palestinians held the Land Day protests in 1976, which is commonly regarded as the first major act of mass, collective disobedience by this population. As the protests materialized In Israel, solidarity strikes were simultaneously held in the oPt and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. It was the first time Palestinians in exile took their cue from their ’48 compatriots.
To this day, Palestinians across the world gather every year to remember those slain in 1976 and demonstrate the resolve of the Palestinian people. As Israel continues to entrench its one-state (apartheid) reality, this unity will only strengthen.