Heightened Security Restricts Palestinian Land Day Demonstrations

Last year saw massive Land Day demonstrations in Palestine, but this year's turnout was significantly smaller. Anna Lekas Miller reports.

On March 30, 1976 the Israeli government announced a plan to confiscate 20,000 dunums of Palestinian land in the Galilee region. Palestinians called for a general strike, taking to the streets en masse in the first Palestinian act of mass resistance inside of Israel. Six Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) that day.

Since then, March 30 has marked “Land Day,” a day when Palestinians gather on both sides of the Green Line, and often demonstrate in support of the right to their land and right to return to their original communities—whether that land and those communities happen to be in present-day Israel or the West Bank. However, while there were reports of massive demonstrations in years gone by, including last year throughout the West Bank, many of this year’s demonstrations were significantly smaller in size.

“Today is a day of remembering our roots, where we came from and why we are here now,” Majd, a shoe salesman in Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, told me. “However, I think that in Jerusalem there are too many police and this discourages people from coming out.”

In anticipation of both the Christian and Jewish holidays of Holy Week and potential demonstrations for Land Day, security is routinely heightened throughout Jerusalem at this time of the year. Although this security presence is meant to protect the tourists who have made religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Israeli Jews who are celebrating Passover, in practice it often causes restrictions on movement that limit Palestinian Christians from coming to worship in Jerusalem for Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter.

Due to recent Palestinian unrest in the West Bank following discontent at Israel's treatment of Palestinian political prisoners, the Israeli security presence is particularly heightened this year.

Understandably, Qalandia Checkpoint—the permanent military checkpoint built into the Wall that divides Ramallah from Jerusalem, and an imposing symbol of the Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement—is another popular site for Land Day demonstrations. However, though last year saw a massive march and rally, this year there are hardly any demonstrators—quite possibly due to the heightened security.

On the Ramallah side of Qalandia Checkpoint, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who lined up outnumbered both the press and demonstrators. This did not stop them from firing teargas canisters towards the young Palestinian boys who were throwing stones. Since there was no crowd to disperse, the gas ended up inconveniencing those at the busy intersection more than controlling a riot. Several passersby who did not wish to demonstrate, but were merely trying to go about their day, had to be rushed into nearby shops and given alcohol pads and gas masks to be able to breathe.

Despite the noticeable lack of turnout in certain places this year, many Palestinians still take the meaning of Land Day to heart.

“My family, we are from Jaffa,” Majd told me with a sad smile.

Palestinian Arabs made up 67 percent of the population of pre-1948 Palestine; however, with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the ensuing expulsion pushed 780,000 Palestinians to the West, to other Arab countries, or to cities and towns in what is now the West Bank and Gaza. Like Majd, many West Bank Palestinians who now call Ramallah, Nablus or East Jerusalem home trace their roots to cities like Jaffa, Haifa and Akka inside of present-day Israel. However, due to a combination of expulsion and fleeing from fear, many resettled in what is now the West Bank. Because of restrictions on freedom of movement due to the Israeli occupation, many are kept from seeing their hometowns in present-day Israel. Checkpoints—like Qalandia—ensure that only Palestinians with proper identification and permission from the Israeli authorities can pass from the West Bank to Jerusalem and Israel. Often, permits are very expensive or only available to Palestinians who meet certain qualifications, making them nearly impossible for many Palestinians to obtain in practice. For most West Bank Palestinians, their hometowns in "'48"—as many call present-day Israel—remain a distant dream.

As I was leaving, Majd told me that he had a question for me—an unusual way to interact with a journalist. “When you decided to come here, were you deciding to come to Israel or Palestine?”

“Palestine,” I told him.

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“Oh, you are welcome here,” he told me. “You are so very, very welcome.”