This week the calendar features a date of special significance for both Jewish and Arab citizens. On Friday, while one of us is taking part in the rally in Arabeh to mark the 42nd Land Day, the other one will be sitting down at the seder table at a moshav in the Arava. At Arabeh they will mark the day in 1976 when Arab citizens came out in protest against the expropriation of their lands. Invalidating the right to legitimate protest, the government declared the protest illegal. The police shot six protesters to death and hundreds were injured and arrested. Meanwhile, at the seder table in the Arava, the story will be told of the exodus from Egypt and the transition from slavery to freedom.
This flourishing moshav is one of 700 communities that the state has established for Jews since 1948. Since Israel’s founding, the two populations have grown at similar rates, each by about ten times. But not even one new community was established for the Palestinian citizens, except for towns established for Bedouin Arab citizens who were forced off their land in the Negev.
The establishment of a community is a governmental action requiring great resources, requiring the allocation of land and funding for infrastructure. But even these harsh figures – 700 for Jews, zero for Arabs – show only part of the discrimination Palestinian citizens suffer with regard to land. That is because many of those 700 communities were built on land expropriated from Arab citizens – beginning with the expropriation of millions of dunams in the first decade of the state, through to the expropriation of land in the Galilee in the 1970s. Other land that was expropriated from Arabs stands desolate, a desolation that sears the hearts of the previous owners every day.
To cry out against the expropriations, the leaders of Arab society declared a day of protest on March 30, 1976. Since then, on Land Day Palestinian citizens mark the injustice of the expropriations, the suppression of the right to protest, the denial of the injustice and the failure to correct it.
Some treat the huge expropriations and discrimination against Arabs over land as an event of the past, or think that government investment in the employment rate of Palestinian citizens and closing gaps in funding to Arabs and Jews are enough to promote real equality and heal the wounds that impede the mending of the ties between them. But this thinking fails to take three things into account.
First, discrimination against Palestinian citizens over land is still going on today. While the end of the 1970s saw a reduction in massive land expropriations, it did not stop, and since then not only has no action been taken to correct the injustice, but preference of Jews over Arabs in giving land rights is going on full bore. To this day, new communities are being established for Jews only. And now the injustice, unfairness and violence in these actions are reaching a high point. Last week demolition orders were issued in the Arab Bedouin community of Umm al-Hiran. The state announced its intention to destroy it next month, and in its place establish the Jewish community of Hiran.
Second, the expropriations have a tangible impact on the daily lives of Palestinian citizens. Many have no land on which to build their homes; local boundaries choking the Arab communities do not allow proper development for a growing population. All of this creates a severe housing shortage, construction without permits, overcrowding and poverty.
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Third, land has a powerful symbolic dimension. It embodies the natural hold on the homeland, and it is precisely this hold that the government wishes to prevent. But the hold does not weaken; the negation of Arab citizens’ rights to the land only produces more anger and frustration and remains like an open wound, tearing at relations between Arabs and Jews. But the future in this land, which both Arabs and Jews see as their homeland, is shared. And so that the future will be better, the state must deal with the issue of land and recognize the historic injustice of expropriation.
Recognizing the wrong is only the first step. It is possible and important to promote equality and the relationship between the two groups by a number of practical steps. The process can be started by returning lands that were expropriated and are not in use; establishing new Arab communities and expanding the jurisdiction of existing ones; expediting planning, construction and infrastructure development in Arab communities; recognizing unofficial villages in the Negev; keeping the government’s promises and following the rulings of the Supreme Court to allow the inhabitants of Iqrit and Biram to return to their villages, and more.
On the same day of this week, the two peoples living in this country will be dealing with their connection to their land, their people and their freedom. The viewpoints at the rally in Arabeh and at the seder tables will in most cases be contradictory. The conflict between Jews and Arabs is to a great extent over land, and it is far from resolution. But the time has come for the Jewish majority to treat Palestinian citizens justly, for both their sakes. Such actions will pave the way for a better future for all of Israel's citizens, Jews and Arabs alike.
The writers are co-executive directors of Sikkuy: the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.