Land Day is crucial for Palestinians

Land Day in Nablus in 2017.

Palestinians will gather to commemorate Land Day on March 30. Last year, Land Day marked the beginning of the Great March of Return weekly protests in Gaza.

Land Day has its origins in 1976 when Israeli authorities conducted a brazen, large-scale theft of Palestinian land on behalf of settlers. Palestinians responded with a general strike and protests.

Land Day became a grim turning point in the struggle for sovereignty over land. Six Palestinians were killed and scores were arrested, setting the scene for a ramped-up response by Israel against Palestinian protest.

March 30 this year would have been the 53rd Friday of the Great March of Return protests in Gaza. However, on the previous Friday protest was suspended because of Israeli bombing.

On March 25, a rocket fired from within Gaza injured seven people in a town north of Tel Aviv, destroying one building. This has resulted in a fierce escalation of action by Israel against the besieged enclave.

What we hear about in the mainstream media is the “heroic, necessary self defence” that Israel must carry out as a result of Palestinian acts of terror.

No one wants a rocket to land on their property and injure or kill anyone, but unlike the Palestinians, Israel uses the might of an extremely well-equipped armed force against a population with no means of escape.

Bomb shelters in several Israeli cities are open, but the destruction of United Nations Relief and Works Agency shelters in Gaza in 2014 means there is nowhere safe for Gazans to shelter.

In a “knock on the roof” attack by Israel, a dummy bomb knocks a hole in the roof as a precursor to the real destruction that is about to arrive. Gazans have only minutes to flee.

Israel has sealed the Kerem Shalom and Eretz crossings and is also firing at fishing boats along the coast, so Gazans have nowhere to flee.

It appears to be Israel’s core business — as crude as this may sound — to bomb the Palestinians out of existence, thereby ending their demand to return to their land. Israel’s determination indicates that it is worried about the persistent calls by Palestinians to return and the cost involved in continuing to hammer Gaza.

The timing of the imminent Land Day and the Israeli election due on April 9 meant that convoys of Israeli tanks and other “security infrastructure” were ready to roll within hours of the rocket strike.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political fate is not as secure as it once was and he is taking it out on Gaza.

We hear about the damage and injuries in Israel — damage and injuries that are actually rare events. We don't hear about the scores of Palestinian deaths, thousands of severe injuries and the dearth of facilities needed to treat survivors.

When we don’t hear what happens on the other side of the fence, it is hard to counter the Israel-as-victim narrative. In such circumstances Land Day becomes crucial for amplifying Palestinian voices.

UN inquiry

The UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry report into deaths and injuries suffered at the Great March of Return protests is grim, but also a useful way to listen to those voices we do not get to hear.

The report begins by pointing out that it is illegal to shoot unarmed civilians and to fire at people based on a suspicion that they belong to a particular armed or political group.

"Unless undertaken lawfully in self-defense, intentionally killing a civilian not directly participating in hostilities is a war crime,” the report said. “Serious human rights violations were committed which may amount to crimes against humanity." Israel rejected the statement.

The report found that between March 30 and December 31 last year, 6106 Gazans were shot, resulting in 1576 shrapnel injuries and 183 people killed.

Eighty-one percent of gunshot injuries were to people’s legs and there were 122 amputations performed. Given the parlous state of Gaza's health system, survivable injuries became fatal and many of those amputations might have been unnecessary.

Dr Ashraf Al Qedra, from the Gaza Ministry of Health, summarised the difficulties faced in treating the wounded in the report: “Challenges facing the health sector exceed the medical capabilities of any health system in the world … on Fridays, hospitals in the Gaza Strip received 280 cases per hour which surpassed the 2014 Israeli offensive, where hospitals received only 9 cases per hour.”

Sections of the report focussed on those groups believed to have been deliberately targeted by Israeli shooters, such as journalists and medics.

As could have been expected, Israel refused to cooperate with the commission of inquiry.

The vote by the UNHRC to accept the report was far from unanimous, with 23 voting in favour, 15 abstentions and 8 against. The result is a begrudging admission that Gazans might have been subjected to violence rather than a clear declaration that Israel is guilty of crimes against humanity.

Israel's response is summed up by ambassador and permanent representative to the UN, Aviva Raz Schechter. Schechter tweeted her objections to the result of the vote, using the same script deployed by every Israeli representative whenever there is even slightly favourable news about Palestine.

Golan Heights

Another factor in the lead up to this year’s Land Day is United States President Donald Trump's recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Stolen from Syria and occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967, the territory had until recently been referred to as “occupied”. The decision to drop that word says much about US support for Israel's brutal, expansionist, land grabbing practices.

Trump’s signing of the executive order coincided with a sharp escalation in Israeli attacks on Gaza. After signing the order and handing the pen to Netanyahu, Trump is reported to have said, “Give this to the people of Israel”.

While what little news we get is focussed on Gaza and cosy Trump/Netanyahu deals, activists are continuing work with the people of Palestine.

An international solidarity study tour, timed to conclude the day after Land Day, will visit the Tamimi family in the besieged village of Nabi Saleh, where residents are engaged in a daily struggle against Israeli soldiers. They understand all too well how vital it is to continue mobilising around critical dates such as Land Day.

Nabi Saleh's most famous resident, Ahed Tamimi, was imprisoned for slapping an Israeli soldier who was part of a patrol that invaded the family's compound.

Seventy-one years of occupation

Netanyahu’s recent declaration that Israel is not a state for all its citizens leaves no doubt about how Palestinians would be treated if Israel succeeds in gobbling up all the territory it wants. He could have gone even further and admitted he is actually an advocate for a single state solution — just not one that would enshrine equality as a core principle.

If 52 or 53 Friday protests in a row seem staunch and determined, we should not forget that Palestine itself has been attacked and occupied for 71 years.

Every year there is a little bit less of Palestine and Palestinians are doubly attached to what remains of it.

On Land Day next year, Palestinians will still be defying Israel by declaring to the world that they will never move from their land.

While Netanyahu might be using the Gaza attacks to influence voters in the upcoming Israeli election, he would absolutely be aware that any escalation around the same time as Land Day means that the world's eyes remain focussed on the Israeli narrative.

As some say, when it is election season in Israel, it is open season on the Palestinians.

Below: Peter Beinart from the podcast Occupied Thoughts: Israel, Palestine & Peace is joined by one of the organisers of the Great March of Return in Gaza, Ahmed Abu Artema, for a discussion of how the march came to be, and what has sustained it for almost one year.