Israel’s Palestinian Arab community on Sunday observes Land Day, an annual event commemorating protests that broke out on March 30, 1976 against government land seizures in which six Arabs were killed by Israeli security forces.
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That first Land Day began with a general strike in Israel’s Arab communities, in the wake of a cabinet resolution approving the expropriation of 20,000 dunams (some 5,000 acres) in an area known as Area 9 or the Sakhnin valley, as part of the government’s goal of increasing the Jewish population in the Galilee.
In the intervening 38 years, two events stand out in shaping the often rocky relations between the state and its Arab citizens. The first was the second Rabin government and the Oslo peace process, when for the first time Arabs in Israel were seen as genuine partners and a number of Galilee Bedouin communities received official recognition. The second watershed moment was the events of October 2000, which precipitated the complete collapse of Israeli Arab trust in the establishments.
Over the past decade, many issues have risen to the surface. The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and human rights organizations have released documents emphasizing the desire of Israel’s Arab citizens to preserve their national identity while accepting Israeli citizenship based on full equality and their recognition as a minority. The state, however, went in the opposite direction, stressing the state’s Jewish character at every opportunity, to the current juncture in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a precondition for discussion of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Specific proposals, such as the so-called Prawer plan for relocating tens of thousands of Negev Bedouin from unrecognized villages to recognized communities and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s population exchange proposal, send Israeli Arabs a clear message that the state wants as few of them as possible within the state’s borders, and in the smallest area possible.
This policy is borne out in the severe housing shortage within the Arab community. According to a recent study by the nongovernmental organization Hagalil, Israel’s Arab community will need at least 100,000 additional homes over the next decade.
El Baqa, an organization specializing in planning issues, cites figures from the Interior and the Housing and Construction Ministries, according to which only nine percent of building permits issued between March and September 2012, or 2,200 units, were in Arab communities, for a 43 percent decline between 2012 and 2013 in building permits in Arab communities. The practical result is a rise in unlicensed construction, and thousands of demolition orders that hang over the heads of homeowners.
The bottom line is that the state has not only failed to learn the lessons of the first Land Day, but is increasingly turning its back on its Arab citizens.
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee has called a general strike for Sunday (including schools). The traditional Land Day parade will take place in Sakhnin and in Arabeh, and the main rally will be held in the latter town in the afternoon. A parade will also be held in the unrecognized Negev Bedouin village of Suween, east of Be’er Sheva on Route 25, whose participants will call for the Prawer plan to be shelved and the unrecognized communities sanctioned.
It is doubtful that the participants’ calls and chants will receive broad media coverage; Israeli public opinion doesn’t really care about the issues, which have not changed from year to year.
The time has come for all parties to look for a new policy, under which on one hand the state views the Arabs as equal citizens whose housing needs must be met, and on the other hand the Arab leadership − whether the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee or the mayors of Arab communities − puts forth its own plans and recommendations and demands the fulfillment of the basic right to housing before it is too late. Parades and slogans alone are not enough, and the younger generation of Arabs is beginning to lose its trust in everyone.