Last week, the Arab citizens of Israel marked the 40th anniversary of the bloody events of Land Day in 1976, and their struggle over land rights still continues. Since the establishment of the state, relations between the state and its Arab citizens have known ups and downs, but there is one area in which Israeli government policy has been consistent: as little land as possible for the Arabs and as much as possible for the Jews. The intensity of the policy has changed, but the principle still applies and continues to undermine the rights, property and dignity of Arab citizens.
That is not the case when it comes to economic and social development, in which there has been a significant change in government policy towards the Arabs in the past decade. In the 1950s the government shattered and destroyed the Arab economy and Arab agriculture, including by means of a massive land expropriation (all the details can be found in the painful book by Yair Baumel, A Blue and White Shadow: Israeli Establishment, Policy and Actions among Its Arab Citizens 1958–1968).
Subsequently, for decades, almost nothing was done, leaving the Arabs impoverished. But in the past decade, the government began to realize that this state of affairs ran directly counter to the country’s interests, and that the Arab economy and Arab society should actually be strengthened. Because economic stability for Israeli Arab communities is in Israel’s interest, and thanks to the work of some fair minded officials and politicians, the government has been making a series of investments that are slowly but surely improving the Arabs’ socioeconomic situation.
But not when it comes to land. Although in recent years there have been efforts to improve the housing and planning situation within (only within) the Arab communities, there is no attempt or plan to deal with the deep rift below the surface of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel — the issue of land. In 1948, land was taken from internal refugees who were citizens of the state, many others lost their land in the massive wave of expropriations that continued until the 1970s. On some of this land communities were established (for Jews only, of course), and in other places the land remains totally deserted to this day — very nearby, and a cause of heartbreak for those citizens whose land was expropriated decades ago for “urgent” public purposes.
The Arabs were on strike in the Land Day and are not giving up their demand for equality on the issue of land. It’s an open and bleeding wound in Jewish-Arab relations. The truth must be told — it’s impossible to turn back the wheel and nobody is talking about evicting the residents of Carmiel from their homes and returning the land to its original owners — the Galilean Arabs.
But it must be said that there are many steps that can and should be taken immediately: returning land that is not in use to the owners; recognizing the unrecognized villages in the Negev; significantly expanding the municipal boundaries of existing Arab towns; establishing a number of new Arab communities; monetary compensation for past expropriations and more.
The historical injustice and the present discrimination related to land cry out to the heavens – to anyone who doesn’t turn a deaf ear. Significant activities to correct the discrimination are just, as well as being a moral obligation.
But there is no escaping the truth — in a situation of national conflict, it is interests rather than considerations of justice and morality that motivate people to act. And correcting the land discrimination is also in the interest of the state and the Jewish citizens, or at least all those who want to find a way to live here together. And I believe and know that the majority of Jews still aspire to that — even in the shadow of incitement by the provocateurs in the street, the Knesset and the government. The leaders of the economy have understood that it’s impossible to maintain a strong economy without Arab participation. The time has come to realize that it’s impossible to maintain a strong society in Israel and to ease the tremendous and dangerous tensions between Jewish and Arab citizens without dealing with the land issue. It’s not only just; it’s a genuine existential interest.
In the formative book by Shuli Dichter, On Tensions and Good Intentions (Hebrew), there is a fascinating chapter that discusses precisely this issue. It is required reading for Land Day. His conclusion: “Only a declared policy of a major land allocation (to Arab citizens) can cause a significant percentage of both Arab and Israeli citizens to stop seeing the conflict as ‘people grabbing each other by the throat’ and to adopt the concept of citizens living in the same land with mutual respect.”
The Land Day events of March 30, 1976 symbolize the Arab citizens’ struggle for their land. Forty years later and exactly three months ago, the government decision of December 30, 2015 symbolizes the change in policy in relation to the economy and employment. When will the day come that symbolizes a change in government policy towards the Arabs on the issue of land?
I confess that that day seems distant, but the task of those who want a good life in this country, is to bring about that day. Together — Jewish and Arab citizens.
Ron Gerlitz is the co-executive director of Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.