Witness to His Cousin’s Shooting by the IDF, an Israeli Arab Still Works for Coexistence

As Gazal Abu Raya marks the 40th anniversary of Land Day – when six Israeli Arabs were shot by soldiers – he continues to cultivate better relations with his Jewish neighbors.

Residents of Arabeh mark Land Day by marching and waving Palestinian flags, March 2014.
Gil Eliahu

Though 40 years have passed, Land Day is still an open sore for Gazal Abu Raya.

He was 18 when Israeli soldiers burst into his town on March 30, 1976, to enforce a rare curfew on the Arab population – put in place to quash protests against Israel’s confiscation of Arab-owned land.

It was a scene repeated in villages across the Galilee and other parts of Israel. Six Arab men were killed by troops and the incidents collectively became known as Land Day, one of the worst explosions of civil violence inside Israel during that era. It is now widely viewed as a turning point in Jewish-Arab relations.

Abu Raya was part of a group of young men on a hilltop, some of whom confronted Israeli troops on a street below. Some demonstrators threw stones at the forces, but Abu Raya says he didn’t sense any danger because the troops were several hundred feet away and none of them were hit.

In fact, it all seemed so calm out there, Abu Raya recalls. He has the distinct recollection of watching neighbors picking almonds in their yards nearby as all this was going on.

Suddenly, a gunshot felled a man standing just half a yard from him. It was a relative, Rajah Abu Raya, a 23-year-old father of four who collapsed after a bullet pierced his forehead. He bled profusely until someone gathered him up and took him to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

“It could have been me, I was just lucky,” says Abu Raya, 58. He believes his relative was struck by sniper or deliberate fire, not a stray bullet fired in the heat of battle. He fails to understand why Israel has never fully investigated the events of that day, as it has other deadly confrontations with Arab citizens.

But while marking Land Day is important to Abu Raya, he feels the main message of those deadly events is the need to bridge differences and avoid lethal confrontation.

He saw how camaraderie with Jewish colleagues could neutralize tensions and facilitate trust when University of Haifa lecturers intervened against an order to toss him out of the dorms for his role in organizing a Land Day protest on campus.

Residents of towns throughout the Lower Galilee will hold an annual memorial for Land Day victims on Wednesday, including visits to victims’ families and a ceremony held at a monument in a town square, followed by a somber procession.

Gazal Abu Raya in the Galilee.

Many of Israel’s approximately 1.8 million Arabs mark the day with rallies and a commercial strike in the towns where they live. Palestinians in the occupied territories often hold their own separate rallies and protests in solidarity.

Israel’s Jewish population used to hold its breath as police went on high alert, anticipating violence that seldom erupted.

More than historical footnote

Abu Raya is involved in organizing memorials in his town of Sakhnin, but he differs from many of his peers in that he also devotes time outside his considerable duties as local council spokesman to cultivate better relations with Jewish neighbors.

A father of seven and a grandfather as well, Abu Raya arranges tours of Sakhnin, as well as meetings and seminars, for mixed Jewish-Arab audiences, sometimes involving Palestinians from the occupied territories.

“Look at the paradox. I run a project at Givat Haviva,” he says, referring to a nonprofit organization supporting social cohesion. “We have complicated lives. On Saturday, I was at a meeting preparing for Land Day commemorations, and not long after I was shepherding a meeting of Jewish and Arab families,” he adds.

He says he’d like to see Israel stop treating Land Day as a historical footnote, and recognize it as a sore that needs healing. “Land Day was a turning point” for Israel’s Arab minority, says Abu Raya, a one-time high school teacher. “It gave rise to a new generation that wants to live with respect.”

Arabs account for about a fifth of Israel’s population. The Land Day protests had been the most serious outburst in decades against Israeli discrimination – specifically its policies of squeezing Arab villages and siphoning away land for military as well as civilian purposes.

Tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs have ebbed and flowed in the decades since, sometimes erupting in violence and other times maintaining an uneasy quiet. Distrust has risen along with right-wing Israeli nationalism and the growth of radical Islamist groups such as the Palestinians’ Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.

Abu Raya acknowledges this history, but is more concerned that Israel hasn’t done enough to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians.

“We must be active and look ahead, to learn to recognize and trust each other; we must forgive. Without developing a mechanism to forgive, this isn’t going to work,” he says, echoing a view held by many left-leaning Israelis who see peacemaking with the Palestinians as a moral and political imperative.

Givat Haviva, the project Abu Raya participates in, is one of many coexistence efforts between the sides. Many of these programs have been hurt by waves of violent outbreaks, and yet many bounce back and survive – largely due to the tenacity of people like Abu Raya.

Many Israeli Arabs are related to Palestinians living in the occupied territories and refugees who fled or were driven away from their homes during fighting over Israel’s establishment in 1948. They hold Israeli citizenship and are enfranchised, but this also comes at the cost of a dual identity that is viewed suspiciously by both Israelis and Palestinians.

Abu Raya feels most Israeli Arabs handle this dilemma well, and he wishes more Israelis would see it that way, too, echoing a widely felt sentiment among his peers.

He is weary of seeing Arab citizens’ loyalty constantly questioned, and points to how relatively few Arab Israelis have been involved in the rampant knifing attacks of the past six months.

After pointing out how Sakhnin’s soccer team has produced some of Israel’s best players, Abu Raya seizes the metaphor to discuss how he wishes Jewish Israelis would quit flinging “red cards” at its Arab population.

The overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs reject all violence, he says, despite supporting aspirations for Palestinian statehood on land currently occupied by Israel. “The Arabs are a loyal minority at a time when the country is at war with its people.”