The late Mahmoud Darwish famously lamented: “I come from there … and remember.” On March 30, 1976 I woke up to the rumbling of tank tracks on the unpaved rocky road in my home village in Israel’s Northern District. This was a first. Even in the lead-up to the Nakba Arrabeh had been spared the sight of tanks in its streets. My little nephews and nieces in the shared household scampered to the bathroom with fright-induced diarrhea. But I wanted to laugh: To prevent us from striking for one day in protest against a new wave of land confiscation, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres, later to share the Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat, ordered their top crack troops into our villages to enforce a curfew they imposed on Palestinian communities in Israel. Not only did that compel us all to abide by our strike decision but also it led to the few government lackeys who were bent on breaking it being attacked and severely beaten by the undiscriminating soldiers. A neighbor was shouting at the top of his voice for me to come and help his wife who had gone into labor. I stepped out the door carrying my bag and waved my stethoscope facing the tank. A soldier aimed his gun in my direction and I ran in and closed the door. I went in and wrote my letter of resignation from my Ministry of Health position as district physician. Continuing to hold such a job would taint me in the eyes of my aggrieved community, I concluded.
Soon the police brought an unresponsive old neighbor for me to check. When we were alone he opened his eyes and told me he was all right. “Just send me to the hospital,” he whispered. I did and the police agreed to transport the neighbor who was in labor as well. She delivered a healthy girl they named ‘Thaira,’ Arabic for ‘rebel.’ The old man, Hassan Naamni, became a living legend of peasant resistance: He had been arrested and beaten while bringing home two buckets full of earth from his land that had been designated for appropriation by the government. He explained that after the confiscation he would have nowhere to be buried and hence he needed the earth from his land. His wife, Nada, was less poetic; she went after the soldiers with a stick. A tank was cornered in a narrow alley under a hail of stones from the likes of Nada, forcing its commander to negotiate a safe exit with the mayor, or so Arrabeh’s heroic legend chroniclers would have you believe. Other incidents didn’t end as peacefully: Israel’s security forces killed six youth including Kheir Yassin, a fellow villager I knew well.
Land is at the base of all that troubles our relationship with Israel as our state. The Nakba of 1948 left us a leaderless and disorganized rural minority on the wrong side of a vicious border. Nearly one third of us were internally displaced thus forfeiting their right to their land and property under a specially formulated Israeli law. Those are the Present Absentees, a living contradiction attesting to the land as the base of the conflict. We have come a long way since, though not as far as our Jewish co-citizens did. ‘Their’ majority group defined ‘our’ minority out of the state’s conception of its common good and security concerns. Laws, rules and regulations continue to be promulgated to disadvantage us especially on land related matters. Some three-dozen Israeli laws enable the shifting of land ownership from us to the state while only the Jewish majority can access state lands. We now make up near one fifth of Israel’s population but own only a constantly shrinking 3% of its land and have possible access to another 4%. All the remainder is held in perpetuity for the Jewish people de facto if not always de jure.
The state’s insatiable coveting of our land on one side and our subsistence farming roots on the other made the clash of Land Day unavoidable. It was Less than a decade since Israel had copied its military rule over us across the Green Line to the Palestinian Occupied Territories where it still applies today. Under that set of draconian emergency regulations it appropriated our communal lands and much of our privately owned lands. So when in 1976 it beckoned to us to yield yet another large swath of our agricultural land, we stood as one man and said “No!” It was a first for us, conceptually the first Palestinian Intifada. It deserved to be commemorated wherever Palestinians aspired to assert their identity and their right to their land.
With the accelerating post-Oslo ascent of messianic settlers to positions of power both in government and in the command ranks of the security forces, the encroachment on what remains of our land has accelerated further, especially in the Negev. Repeatedly, specialized governmental planning committees have fetishized the collective eviction of entire Bedouin villages off of their ancestral lands. The rationale is to make room for Jewish National Fund forestation projects and for new Jewish settlements. Again and again, security forces arrive under the cover of darkness to demolish their homes. The Supreme Court of the land has sanctioned such actions.
The recent elections in Israel have unified our formerly factional political parties under a charismatic young leader, Ayman Odeh. His first major public action is to lead a six-day march on Jerusalem on the occasion of Land Day to protest the ongoing exiling attempt of Negev Bedouins, the weakest link in our communal unity. Elsewhere we continue to lose our land at pain of penalty of law to infrastructure development projects, new parks and public spaces while our villages are severely constrained in their residential zones. The same process is underway in the West Bank, conducted through the crosshair sites of the army’s and the settlers’ automatic weapons, witness the ongoing cleansing of Palestinian farmers and shepherds in the Jordan Valley and the Hebron Hills. Amira Hass’s analysis as quoted in Mondoweiss is spot-on:
“When you look at the geography of Palestinians in Israel, it’s the same geography, they are encircled in enclaves. They are deprived of their land. Most of their land has been taken by Jews to settle, even though they are Israeli citizens… They are all packed and cramped in houses without spaces to breathe, without agricultural lands…
The political geography of the Israeli state is very similar on both sides of the Green Line.”
Hass concludes with a question once a Palestinian attacked by settlers asked her.
“Tell me Amira, don’t Israelis think about their grandchildren?”
It is time the international community, especially the USA and the EU, took notice of their moral responsibility towards the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line as the victims of its proxy colonialist project. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the nonviolent resistance movement launched by the Palestinian civil society in 2005 as a proven tactic to counter apartheid, deserves the support of the masses the world over, but especially in the West.