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This Week in History: The 1976 Land Day protests

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On March 30, 1976, six Arab Israelis were killed in Galilee protests against the planned expropriation of land. Every year since, the protests have continued to mark the deaths and have served to build and cement ties between Palestinian citizens of Israel and those in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and abroad.

Nineteen days earlier, the government had announced a plan to expropriate some 20,000 dunams of land in the Galilee for the establishment of new Jewish settlements and military bases. While slightly more than 30 percent of the land slated for expropriation was Arab-owned, the move was viewed as emblematic of previous similar moves and general dissatisfaction among Israel’s Arab population regarding land use and planning.

From before the establishment of the state until the present day, Israel has maintained a strategic and symbolic policy of expanding the Jewish presence in the Galilee. In that context, the 1976 expropriation plan was in no way out of the ordinary but in this case, for a variety of reasons, served as a catalyst for unrest and rioting throughout the region.

In preparation for the plan’s execution, the government declared that a curfew would take effect in Arab towns in the North beginning in the evening of March 29. Arab Israeli political and labor leaders had called for a general strike on March 30 to protest the moves. Threats were made against teachers and other public sector employees encouraging participation in the planned events. Thousands of police and IDF forces were deployed ahead of the marches.

The marches that took place in the Galilee devolved into clashes between protesters and security forces. Though the Arab political leadership attempted to calm the situation, some protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at security forces, which in turn resorted to using live fire against them in the clashes that continued into the next day. Six Arab Israelis were killed in the 1976 Land Day events, hundreds were injured and hundreds more arrested. An unknown number of police and IDF troops were also injured in the protests-turned-riots.

The significance of the events of late March 1976 is four-fold. Firstly, the protests marked the first time since the establishment of Israel that Arab citizens embarked upon a large-scale political protest. While the reasons that happened first in 1976 are not easily identifiable, the Arab population of the Galilee had been ruled under martial law until nine years earlier, which may have prevented previous protests and escalations.

Secondly, the protests marked the first time since 1948 that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza protested at the same time as the Arab population within the boundaries of the State of Israel. The issue of land expropriation is one that served to unite the two populations largely severed by political boundaries.

Thirdly, the events of 1976 led to yearly general strikes among the Arab Israeli population in Israel and protests inside its boundaries, the Palestinian territories and abroad on March 30. Although some of those subsequent protests have seen repeats of violence, most have passed without the same scale of intense clashes and violence that took place in 1976.

Lastly, the protests of 1976 and their aftermath played a role in increasing Arab Israeli participation in Israeli politics. The issues of land and planning were brought to the forefront by the first Land Day protests and were one factor in a gradual increase in voter participation among the Arab sector and the resulting increased presence of Arab parties in the Knesset.

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