Tuesday, March 31, 2009

LAND DAY & Israel's Arab Citizens

Tuesday - Land Day at 33


If only the Arab-Israel conflict was about land - and nothing else - it might have been solved by now. Still, there's no denying that land is part of what's at stake.

Yesterday Arab members of Knesset absented themselves from the swearing-in ceremony of new Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, in order to attend demonstrations marking the 33rd anniversary of Land Day. This year's theme: promoting a global boycott of Israel.

Some Arab advocates assert that a Jewish state within any boundaries is "theft." The Alternative Information Center, bankrolled by Catholic leftists, Spain's Catalan regional government and Ireland, marked Land Day by asserting that Palestinians first "lost" most of their land with Israel's creation, and that "ethnic cleansing" has only proceeded apace.

The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, which reflects such voices as Hanan Ashrawi and Rashid Khalidi and gets money from the British Council and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, claims that Land Day "commemorates the bloody killing of six Palestinians in the Galilee on March 30, 1976 by Israeli troops during peaceful protests over the confiscation of Palestinian lands."

Actually, the six were citizens of Israel; the "protests" were riots, and the land was not "Palestinian." Telling the truth about Land Day does not diminish the sorrow over what happened, but it does put the tragedy in perspective.

WHAT became Land Day was intended by the Communist Party - once a powerful force among local Arabs - and the Palestine Liberation Organization to be a general strike protesting "land confiscations." The mainstream Arab leadership, which in those days included Knesset members and village elders, opposed strikes as unnecessarily polarizing. Had secret balloting among the Arab local councils been permitted, they probably would have defeated the strike proposal.

The radicalization of Israel's Arab sector was an unintended consequence of the free flow of people and ideas between the West Bank and Israel proper after 1967. The strike was but a violent manifestation of this developing militancy, and Land Day a convenient excuse to protest.

For at stake was 20,000 dunams of Galilee land: 6,320 Arab and 13,780 either Jewish-owned or state property. Any land taken by the government would have been fairly compensated for with cash or alternative plots. Indeed, moderate Arab leaders had begun consultations about how the money would be spent.

The radicals chose March 30 because it coincided with a vote on a resolution in the UN Security Council by Libya and Pakistan, denouncing Israel. The PLO organized violence in the West Bank, arranged for the mayor of Hebron to "resign" in protest of Israel's presence there, and stage-managed a march from Amman to the Allenby Bridge in solidarity with the general strike.

On the eve of the strike, 400 Arab youths, ignoring pleas from their elders, blocked traffic at a key Galilee crossroads and attacked police who had arrived to restore order. Arab business owners, Christians especially, were browbeaten into striking.

Next day, predictably, fierce riots erupted. Police and soldiers found themselves facing thousands upon thousands of enraged Arabs armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails. In one incident, an army vehicle was firebombed and overturned and its occupants set upon by the mob. To save themselves from being lynched, the soldiers opened fire. It would later be portrayed as an "overreaction."

All told, six young rioters were killed and 70 injured in the widespread, coordinated civil insurrection. The police suffered 50 casualties.

SINCE THEN, lamentably, attitudes between Jewish and Muslim Arab citizens have only hardened. The Arabs claim, with justification, that they face prejudice in employment and in the allotment of land for construction. The Jews retort that this discrimination is partly a consequence of the Arab refusal to do national service; and of allowing their leaders to align the community with Israel's most implacable enemies. Jews pay attention when Arabs denounce the "judaization" of the Galilee, interpreting this as a rejection of Jewish rights on both sides of the Green Line.

With sovereignty comes responsibility for the state. With citizenship come responsibilities for the individual. Israel's Arabs need to accept more of the responsibilities of citizenship, and the state needs to deliver more of its benefits. The sooner it happens, the better - for all concerned.

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