The First Yum El-Ard (Land Day) Protest: An interview with Fr. Shehadeh Shehadeh Sharif Hamadeh, The Electronic Intifada, 31 March 2005
"I am a pastor and I believe that a pastor should understand the pain of the people," says the priest. "It aches people when their land has been taken. It is as though a part of their body has been taken. It is very painful... My faith did not allow me to stand aside.
"Without land we have no roots in this country," says Fr. Shehadeh, "The land is our roots. The land is not only a place where you plant eggplants and cucumbers - it is our national home. I am a Palestinian and this is my homeland."
Each 30th of March, Palestinians from all over the world commemorate Land Day with demonstrations in order to remind the international community of the ongoing Israeli injustice and oppression against them. Land Day (Yom al-Ard in Arabic), was initially established to honour the killing by Israeli troops of six Palestinians in the Galilee on 30 March 1976, during peaceful protests over the confiscation of Palestinian land from villages in this area. However, as land confiscation is part of a larger policy of Israeli colonialism in the Palestinian Territories, it has now become a day of demonstration to link all Palestinians in their struggle against the occupation and for self-determination and national liberation. Although the Israeli apartheid policies towards Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians from the West Bank and Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, aimed to break and divide Palestinian society, land continued to play an important role in all their lives, and continues to be a core issue of the conflict. For this ruptured community, land is not only the main source of income, but also functions as a source of communal identity, purpose and honour.
The issue of land is the ground for any negotiation and peace process: land is the first necessary element to establish a Palestinian state with real sovereignty, and with geographical unity between the districts and between West Bank and Gaza Strip. Land is also where Palestinians have to look for the implementation of their rights, the right to their own property, the right of return, the right to self-determination, the right to work on their land and to build their homes on it.
Following 32 years since the original Land Day demonstration, Israeli policy has not changed: land confiscation and house demolitions are going on constantly, to make room for illegal settlement expansion and bypass roads that are restricted exclusively to the settlers. Only in the past week, six homes were demolished in three villages of the southern hills of Hebron, as part of a larger policy of deportation in this area, begun with the expansion of local settlements in the 1990s. An additional six homes in villages located to the southwest of Jenin were demolished without previous warnings or orders. On the same day, another three homes were demolished in the al-Jeeb village, located in the Jerusalem district, in order to make space for the new settlements and construction of the Separation Wall.
These are powerful examples that Israel’s policy towards Palestinians is one of deportation and ethnic cleaning. In addition to this, hundreds of checkpoints and obstacles to the freedom of movement, closed military zones and industrial zones occupy and fragment the land needed to build a future Palestinian state.
Annapolis superficially promised the Palestinians a real peace agreement to be reached and implemented by the end of 2008, yet the reality on the ground shows anyone who is willing to look that reality is light-years away from this. During and after the Annapolis conference, Israel announced it would build more than ten thousand new housing units. Tens of thousands of dunam of land have been confiscated, and the Separation Wall and fence barriers to protect settlements have been built or are still under construction. This is done to prevent Palestinians from implementing their rights.
The American plan for peace requires the cessation of all settlement expansion. However, Bush said after Annapolis that some facts on the ground should be taken into consideration in the ongoing peace negotiations. These facts evidently include the Separation Wall and the settlements. Translated into political language, this means: no real achievements based on justice are coming.
This situation bestows the right for all Palestinians to raise some demands of their leaders. If democratic policy should be based on the principle of accountability, it’s now the time for the Palestinian Authority to give the electorate an account of its work. Citizens should receive an answer to their legitimate question of ‘where are we going?’ The PA leadership knows full well that the demands of the Palestinian people are not just for food, work and salary, but are first and foremost political demands, for freedom, justice, self determination, the right of return and the establishment of a real and sovereign state. The people need to see changes on the ground, but yet again, the changes on the ground in all their cruelty are going in a direction opposite of that which is hoped.
Saeb Arikat, the head of the Palestinian negotiations team, expressed this feeling when he declared: “if there will not be a tangible peace agreement during this year, there is a concrete possibility for the PA to collapse.”
Actually, the Palestinian people have already given their answers. The peace process of the Oslo Agreement is dead. The matter now is merely to decide who will lead and issue the legal death certification. The result on the ground of the last governmental elections is another answer: people voted against Oslo and against corruption, but their choice has been denied. Even Kahled Mesh’al, the leader of Hamas, couldn’t ignore this reality when he said, two days after the elections “as the Hamas Party, we are very surprised by this great result.” And those who are cynically attempting to make a clear separation between the failure of the Oslo process as a political agreement, and corruption of the Palestinian leadership, are working against the Palestinian people—against their vote and therefore against their rights. Corruption is the son of the Oslo Agreement failure: it is the marriage between politics and economy.
This special day, Land Day, gathering Palestinian people who struggle for freedom and self determination, could give them the possibility to think seriously about the achievements of their leadership, their real power and their possibility to defend Palestinian rights. Now, following Palestinian society has shown their great disappoint in their leaders and in politics in general, if Israel and the international community didn’t accept the results of Palestinian democratic elections the first time, what will happen next time? Where can we go as Palestinians? And where will we decide to go?
It’s time for the Palestinian leadership to think about the national project in the framework of what is occurring on the ground. It’s time for them to give answers to the people and to work for the real and primary needs of their people.
Otherwise the struggle will never be able to find its correct path towards peace and justice