The time has come to allow ourselves to see this country not only as the battleground of a national struggle but as a shared homeland, which with painful concessions and tremendous confidence-building efforts on both sides, we can turn into a good place where our children will want to live.
By Ron Gerlitz
As Israel’s Jewish citizens celebrated the Passover holiday last month, its Arab citizens commemorated Land Day. Land Day is a commemoration of the death of six Arab demonstrators in 1976 while protesting massive government land expropriations in the Galilee for the purpose of building new Jewish communities. It has also become a day of protest against discrimination and inequality.
Coverage of Land Day events in Israel’s Hebrew-language media was very limited and reported only on the demonstrations; it ignored the content of the day and the demands being made by Arab citizens. This seems to attest to the the Jewish majority’s reluctance to make a genuine effort at dealing forthrightly with Arab citizens on land issues.
Almost 40 years after the Land Day events, an examination of government policy toward Arab citizens reveals a complex picture. Alongside prolonged and systematic discrimination that encompasses almost all aspects of state allocations, there has also been a positive trend that includes a government effort to close gaps between the Jewish and Arab sectors in certain areas. This effort has been translated into government programs that have led to somewhat of an improvement in Arab citizens’ socio-economic situation. The pace of narrowing gaps is excruciatingly slow, but there is great potential in this positive trend.
But in one area, the state has demonstrated almost total refusal to bring about change, namely the land issue. It is important to recap the background: Immediately after the establishment of the state in 1948 there was a massive expropriation of land belonging to internal refugees, who became landless citizens. Later on, until the 1970s, the state expropriated large amounts of land in order to develop Jewish communities.
Since 1948, the two groups’ populations have grown at similar rates (eightfold to tenfold) but the government has built 700 (!) new communities for Jews (including new cities) and not a single community for Arabs (with the exception of a few permanent towns for the Bedouin who were evicted from their land in the Negev). Even today, a new city called Harish is being built in the heart of the Arab population in Wadi Ara (Nahal Iron) – for Jews only.
Land is a tangible resource, but also has a powerful dimension of consciousness. The Jewish community grew up on the words of poet Alexander Penn: “Land my land, merciful till death, a mighty wind roiled your ruins, I have wooed you in blood.” On the other hand, in “Poem of the Land” Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote: “In the month of March we sprawl in the land and in the month of March the land propagates within us”.
The poems and their narratives translate into viewpoints. A public opinion survey conducted by Sikkuy found that when it comes to land, a very small percentage of Arab citizens are willing to reach a compromise with the government (only 11 percent) compared to other areas where there is greater willingness: defining the Jewish character of the state (18 percent) and the obligation to perform national service (28 percent).
But the state has refused attempts by Arab citizens to resolve the land discrimination. And so, precisely on the issue that is most important to Arab citizens, and which for them constitutes an open wound, the government hunkers down and is not willing to compromise.
That is a bitter mistake. Equality and good relations between Arabs and Jews could be improved significantly by taking of a number of steps, such as: expanding the jurisdiction and boundaries of some of the Arab municipalities; keeping the government’s promise and implementing the Supreme Court decision allowing the residents of Iqrit and Biram to return to their villages; promoting plans to build a new Arab city in the Galilee; establishing a number of Arab community settlements; and even considering returning land to some of the internal refugees.
I am not ignoring the fact that Israel is a small country in which it is preferable to promote protection of open spaces, the construction of high-rise buildings and certainly not building new communities. But you can’t use open spaces for one nationality and remember the environment only when it comes to the other nationality.
Nor am I naive. The Arab-Jewish conflict is a conflict over land, and any action concerning land touches its most sensitive nerves. The Jewish majority is afraid that any such move would provide an opening for Arab “control” of the land, and undermine the interests of the Jewish public.
But the opposite is the case. The present situation is not only unjust, it also means leaving a barrel of gunpowder between Arabs and Jews in the heart of the public space we share. The Arab citizen who looks with a broken heart at the land that was confiscated from him and stands unused, is a wounded citizen. The national conflict over land should be resolved by making it a resource for all the state’s citizens. Significant confidence-building steps that would change the situation, even if they are far from fulfilling Arab citizens’ wishes, would constitute a basis and an opening for a historical reconciliation between Arabs and Jews in the country. It is precisely this sensitive issue that offers an opportunity for all of us.
This is a period in which Arab and Jewish citizens mark Passover, Land Day, Israel Independence Day and Nakba Day. During these days both nations are concerned with questions regarding their profound connection to the homeland. The time has come to allow ourselves to see this country not only as the battleground of a national struggle but as a shared homeland, which with painful concessions and tremendous confidence-building efforts on both sides, we can turn into a good place where our children will want to live. There is no other way, and we have no other country.
The writer is the co-executive director of Sikkuy: the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.