This is the 32nd anniversary of the first "Day of the Land" – one of the defining events in the history of Israel.
I remember the day well. I was at Ben Gurion airport, on the way to a secret meeting in London with Said Hamami, Yasser Arafat’s emissary, when someone told me: "They have killed a lot of Arab protestors!"
That was not entirely unexpected. A few days before, we – members of the newly formed Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace – had handed the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, an urgent memorandum warning him that the government’s intention of expropriating huge chunks of land from Arab villages would cause an explosion. We included a proposal for an alternative solution, worked out by Lova Eliav, a veteran expert on settlements.
When I returned from abroad, the poet Yevi suggested that we make a symbolic gesture of sorrow and regret for the killings. Three of us – Yevi himself, the painter Dan Kedar and I – laid wreaths on the graves of the victims. This aroused a wave of hatred against us. I felt that something profoundly significant had happened, that the relationship between Jews and Arabs within the state had changed fundamentally.
And indeed, the impact of the Day of the Land – as the event was called – was stronger than even the Kafr Kassem massacre of 1956 or the October Events killings of 2000.
* * *
THE REASONS for this go back to the early days of the state.
After the 1948 war, only a small, weak and frightened Arab community was left in the state. Not only had about 750 thousand Arabs been uprooted from the territory that had become the State of Israel, but those who remained were leaderless. The political, intellectual and economic elites had vanished, most of them right at the beginning of the war. The vacuum was somehow filled by the Communist Party, whose leaders had been allowed to return from abroad – mainly in order to please Stalin, who at the time supported Israel.
After an internal debate, the leaders of the new state decided to accord the Arabs in the "Jewish State" citizenship and the right to vote. That was not self-evident. But the government wanted to appear before the world as a democratic state. In my opinion, the main reason was party political: David Ben-Gurion believed that he could coerce the Arabs to vote for his own party.
And indeed: the great majority of the Arab citizens voted for the Labor Party (then called Mapai) and its two Arab satellite parties which had been set up for that very purpose. They had no choice: they were living in a state of fear, under the watchful eyes of the Security Service (then called Shin Bet). Every Arab Hamulah (extended family) was told exactly how to vote, either for Mapai or one of the two subsidiaries. Since every election list has two different ballot papers, one in Hebrew and one in Arabic, there were six possibilities for faithful Arabs in every polling station, and it was easy for the Shin Bet to make sure that each Hamula voted exactly as instructed. More than once did Ben Gurion achieve a majority in the Knesset only with the help of these captive votes.
For the sake of "security" (in both senses) the Arabs were subjected to a "military government". Every detail of their lives depended on it. They needed a permit to leave their village and go to town or the next village. Without the permission of the military government they could not buy a tractor, send a daughter to the teachers’ college, get a job for a son, obtain an import license. Under the authority of the military government and a whole series of laws, huge chunks of land were expropriated for Jewish towns and kibbutzim.
A story engraved in my memory: my late friend, the poet Rashed Hussein from Musmus village, was summoned to the military governor in Netanya, who told him: Independence Day is approaching and I want you to write a nice poem for the occasion. Rashed, a proud youngster, refused. When he came home, he found his whole family sitting on the floor and weeping. At first he thought that somebody had died, but then his mother cried out: "You have destroyed us! We are finished!" So the poem was written.
Every independent Arab political initiative was choked at birth. The first such group – the nationalist al-Ard ("the land") group – was rigorously suppressed. It was outlawed, its leaders exiled, its paper proscribed – all with the blessing of the Supreme Court. Only the Communist Party was left intact, but its leaders were also persecuted from time to time.
The military government was dismantled only in 1966, after Ben Gurion’s exit from power and a short time after my election to the Knesset. After demonstrating against it so many times, I had the pleasure of voting for its abolition. But in practice very little changed – instead of the official military government an unofficial one remained, as did most of the discrimination.
* * *
"THE DAY OF THE LAND" changed the situation. A second generation of Arabs had grown up in Israel, no longer timidly submissive, a generation that had not experienced the mass expulsions and whose economic position had improved. The order given to the soldiers and policemen to open fire on them caused a shock. Thus a new chapter started.
The percentage of Arab citizens in the state has not changed: from the first days of the state to now, it had hovered around 20%. The much higher natural rate of increase of the Muslim community was balanced by Jewish immigration. But the numbers have grown significantly: from 200 thousand at the beginning of the state to almost 1.3 million – twice the size of the Jewish community that founded the state.
The Day of the Land also dramatically changed the attitude of the Arab world and the Palestinian people towards the Arabs in Israel. Until then, they were considered traitors, collaborators of the "Zionist entity". I remember a scene from the 1965 meeting convened in Firenze by the legendary mayor, Giorgio la Pira, who tried to bring together personalities from Israel and the Arab world. At the time, that was considered a very bold undertaking.
During one of the intermissions, I was chatting with a senior Egyptian diplomat in a sunny piazza outside the conference site, when two young Arabs from Israel, who had heard about the conference, approached us. After embracing, I introduced them to the Egyptian, but he turned his back and exclaimed: "I am ready to talk with you, but not with these traitors!"
The bloody events of the Day of the Land brought the "Israeli Arabs" back into the fold of the Arab nation and the Palestinian people, who now call them "the 1948 Arabs".
In October 2000, policemen again shot and killed Arab citizens, when they tried to express their solidarity with Arabs killed at the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. But in the meantime, a third generation of Arabs had grown up in Israel, many of whom, in spite of all the obstacles, had attended universities and become business people, politicians, professors, lawyers and physicians. It is impossible to ignore this community – even if the state tries very hard to do just that.
From time to time, complaints about discrimination are voiced, but everybody shrinks back from the fundamental question: What is the status of the Arab minority growing up in a state that defines itself officially as "Jewish and democratic"?
* * *
ONE LEADER of the Arab community, the late Knesset member Abd-al-Aziz Zuabi, defined his dilemma this way: "My state is at war with my people". The Arab citizens belong both to the State of Israel and to the Palestinian people.
Their belonging to the Palestinian people is self-evident. The Arab citizens of Israel, who lately tend to call themselves "Palestinians in Israel", are only one part of the stricken Palestinian people, which consists of many branches: the inhabitants of the occupied territories (now themselves split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), the Arabs in East Jerusalem (officially "residents" but not "citizens" of Israel), and the refugees living in many different countries, each with its own particular regime. All these branches have a strong feeling of belonging together, but the consciousness of each is shaped by its own particular situation.
How strong is the Palestinian component in the consciousness of the Arab citizens of Israel? How can it be measured? Palestinians in the occupied territories often complain that it expresses itself mainly in words, not deeds. The support given by the Arab citizens in Israel to the Palestinian struggle for liberation is mainly symbolic. Here and there a citizen is arrested for helping a suicide bomber, but these are rare exceptions.
When the extreme Arab-hater Avigdor Liberman proposed that a string of Arab villages in Israel adjoining the Green Line (called "the Triangle") be turned over to the future Palestinian state in return for the Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, not a single Arab voice was raised in support. That is a very significant fact.
The Arab community is much more rooted in Israel than appears at first sight. The Arabs play an important part in the Israeli economy, they work in the state, pay taxes to the state. They enjoy the benefits of social security – by right, since they pay for it. Their standard of living is much higher than that of their Palestinian brethren in the occupied territories and beyond. They participate in Israeli democracy and have no desire at all to live under regimes like those of Egypt and Jordan. They have serious and justified complaints – but they live in Israel und will continue to do so.
* * *
IN RECENT YEARS, intellectuals of the third Arab generation in Israel have published several proposals for the normalization of the relations between the majority and the minority.
There exist, in principle, two main alternatives:
The first way says: Israel is a Jewish state, but a second people also live here. If Jewish Israelis have defined national rights, Arab Israelis must also have defined national rights. For example, educational, cultural and religious autonomy (as the young Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky demanded a hundred years ago for the Jews in Czarist Russia). They must be allowed to have free and open connections with the Arab world and the Palestinian people, like the connections Jewish citizens have with the Jewish Diaspora. All this must be spelled out in the future constitution of the state.
The second way says: Israel belongs to all its citizens, and only to them. Every citizen is an Israeli, much as every US citizen is an American. As far as the state is concerned, there is no difference between one citizen and another, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, Arab or Russian, much as, from the point of view of the American state, there is no difference between white, brown or black citizens, whether of European, African or Asian descent, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. In Israeli parlance, this is called "a state of all its citizens".
It goes without saying that I favor the second alternative, but I am ready to accept the first. Either of them is preferable to the existing situation, where the state pretends that there is no problem except some traces of discrimination that have to be overcome (without doing anything about it).
If the courage is lacking to treat a wound, it will fester. At football matches, the riffraff shout: "Death-to-the-Arabs!" and in the Knesset far right deputies threaten to expel Arab members from the House, and from the state altogether.
On the 32nd anniversary of the Day of the Land, with the 60th Independence Day approaching, it is time to take this bull by the horns.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is o a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.