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Memories of the first Land Day

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Yesterday we posted a Land Day reflection from Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh, and Max Blumenthal referenced his book A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel in his Land Day post as well. Dr. Kanaaneh has been kind enough to allow us to republish an excerpt from his book describing his experience of the first Land Day in 1976. Please be sure to buy the book for invaluable insight into the struggles of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

docingalThe problem of being an Arab in a Jewish state had confronted me even before I set foot back in Israel. In preparation for my first return to Arrabeh, after a decade of studying in the US, I sent my passport to the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles for renewal. The officials replied with a standard package of information for returning students that included details of interest-free loans readily available from offices across Israel to help with my re-absorption into my community. Once in Arrabeh I tracked down the nearest office in Haifa. It was actually the office of the Jewish Agency, where no one had ever come across a similar case of a returning Arab student demanding that his government honor its promise to him. A few visits later, a kindly lady there made a phone call to the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Arab Affairs to set up an appointment with Yorum Katz, a pleasant young Ashkenazi who claimed to know some of the Kanaaneh elders. He was very open that he saw this as a chance to recruit me as an informer in exchange for securing me the promised loan:

“Scratch my back and I will scratch yours,” he told me in fluent Arabic.

“My itch is gone,” I told him and walked out.

Back in Arrabeh people knew Yorum Katz well. Ahmad, my brother, gave me a piece of his mind for even thinking of getting a government loan:

“You might be a doctor alright, but you don’t know beans about this country. Yorum Katz is probably the man behind the military order banning me from entering Gaza to sell and buy and make a living. Don’t let anyone know that you’ve met this guy or else you will be considered another lackey. You don’t want to shame us all. I want to continue holding my head high when your name is mentioned!”

I expressed my frustration to my brother:

“Ahmad, I am a good doctor; I know what needs to be done here, but I don’t know how to go about it.”

“Now you are making sense. The task you assign yourself is nearly impossible. But you have done the impossible before, you have become a doctor.”

“Thanks in a great measure to your support and to that of our late father.”

“Don’t lose faith, then; don’t give up on me! I have already found you a temporary place for a clinic, right across from the hillside where our parents are buried. In a month or two I will start building a permanent clinic for you.”

So, there I was, having realized my impossible dream of old, embarking on a collective nightmare. Fully conscious and in full command of my senses I committed to meeting the immediate curative health needs of friends and relatives in the hope of enlisting them on my side in the battle to arrest further deterioration in our communal spirit and collective health. I felt like a trained athlete jumping to clear the bar, only to realize in mid-air that the rules had been changed and the bar was now too high for me, or anyone else, to clear. The political climate in the whole of the Middle East was, and still is, not conducive of better health and development for us. It takes a redirecting of the dominant winds of ill will and enmity, a friendlier atmosphere of care and solidarity, to change our fortunes and health conditions, caught as we are on the wrong side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And that, alas, is still an impossible dream.

A sense of despair finally overwhelmed me at a feast Ahmad had prepared for village elders to celebrate my return. I ran from the crowd of well-wishers and locked myself in my mini-camper. I drew the curtains, turned on the motor and, with that for cover, sobbed loudly. And I had not yet had to deal with the most formidable opponent to my long cherished dream of bringing public health to my community: the Israeli Ministry of Health.

Over the next six years disillusionment set in further as I struggled to cope with my multiple roles: as a primary care physician, as a community leader, and as an official in the Ministry of Health. Repeatedly I had to endure casual insults from Jewish colleagues. Take, for example, the time I accompanied ‘my’ health minister, Victor Shem-Tov, of the socialist Zionist party, Mapam, on a tour of Western Galilee. During a meeting with council members of the Jewish city of Naharya to celebrate the construction of a new hospital wing he declared proudly: “I am against the policy of land confiscation, except for the public good. But for building a hospital like yours I am willing to confiscate private land not only from Arabs but even from Jews.” Afterwards, we met the sixteen department heads of the Naharya Government Hospital, not one of whom was an Arab. I raised the issue of a memorandum submitted to the hospital’s director, Dr Avigdor Einhorn, by the mayors of neighboring Arab villages requesting the appointment of an Arabic-speaking clerk in the emergency room to help the Arab 60 per cent of its clientele understand instructions and find their way around the maze of hospital corridors. In response, Dr Einhorn blamed the recent death of a Jewish department head, shot dead by a disgruntled Jewish patient, squarely on the violent nature of Arab patients. The violence was especially uncontrollable among Druze patients, he added. Unlike Christians or Muslims, the Druze served in the Israeli armed forces and therefore, he claimed, had full rights and privileges in the state, just like Jews. Hence, they could not be prevented from entering the hospital and behaving in a rowdy manner. The Health Minister meekly accepted these observations without a word of protest. I stormed out of the meeting, but am sure no one noticed or cared.

It was no less dispiriting to be a community leader in Arrabeh struggling to make the state meet its obligations to its Arab citizens. Faced with the obstructions placed in our way by the authorities, the slightest step forward required superhuman efforts and considerable financial sacrifice. In those six years instances included the battles Arrabeh waged to be connected to the national electricity grid, to have its main street paved, to get a second school built, and to be connected to the telephone network. As a member of the Electricity Committee in Arrabeh, for example, I quickly realized that the villagers’ limited financial means was not the only, or even the main, hurdle to actualizing the project. They simply didn’t trust Israel to ever care enough for its Arab citizens and hence didn’t subscribe to the project. To break the impasse I offered a special deal to everyone in the village for three months: any patient who showed up at my clinic with a voucher proving they had made the down payment for electricity would be treated free of charge. It worked wonders. Of course, eventually the villagers would have come around of their own accord, but my scheme speeded up the process. When people from neighboring villages started showing up with receipts for electricity, or even water, I had little choice but to honor those as well.

And finally, of course, there was the overwork of providing preventive health services to a quarter of a million people, two-thirds of them Arab villagers, and running a rural solo general practice around the clock. When I was home for a meal or nap, it was Didi who handled patients that came knocking at our door. Elderly patients expected to be received and hosted while waiting, a task often entertaining but always demanding. Almost daily, she would report to me the various conversations she struck with the village folks, the minor misunderstandings, and the frequent faux-pas because of the language barrier. Among those were the first time an aunt handed her a live rooster in payment for my fees, the man who accused her of hiding me and barged in to look for me in bed, and the food gifts from thankful mothers whom she would advise on the care of their children. To me patients often sang the praises of my wife, what a gracious hostess she was, and what a traditional obedient wife she must be.

After one particularly grueling night, in November 1975, at three in the morning, half asleep, I wrote bitterly:

Arrabeh has reached 8,000 residents, two-thirds of whom are under sixteen years of age; it promises to double in size in another fifteen years. Our infant mortality rates remain double the rates for the Jewish population whose homes our men build, whose roads our men pave, and in whose factories our men toil, all at an average of half the pay Jewish workers receive. And we live in a democracy and have the right to vote, they tell me! Our leaders are kept out of breath, the outspoken ones shouting against the intended confiscation of another swath of our land and the kiss-ass lackeys denying such ‘rumors’.

Shortly, I started to admit defeat and to think the impossible: we should escape the insanity we were living. I was rapidly making up my mind to leave, when my state delivered the final blow. On 30 March 1976 I woke up to a sight I had never seen before: soldiers on top of tanks less than a hundred yards from my house. My two young children, Rhoda and Ty, and their cousins were screaming and running to the bathroom with diarrhea. A neighbor was shouting from his window that his wife had gone into labor and needed help. I stepped out of my door waving my stethoscope at the soldiers. They responded by taking aim with their guns. I hurried back inside and told Didi:

“That’s it. Israel is not meant for peace-loving people like us. We will move back to Hawaii.”

“But Arrabeh still needs you,” Didi responded trembling and her voice cracking with fear.

“The need is temporary; soon other village sons studying medicine in the Soviet Union will return to fill the void.”

“How about your Health Ministry job?”

“This appalling violation of our right as citizens to protest against the state’s confiscation of our land is perpetuated by the very same bureaucracy to whom I belong. How can I maintain my self-respect and credibility within my community while working for a state that was prepared to do this to them? Any state that commits this kind of violence against its own citizens is not worthy of my service. How can I keep my dignity in my own eyes? Or in yours for that matter?”

That day, known forever more as Land Day, was the first time the Palestinian community inside Israel tried to stage a general strike, to protest against the extensive and continuing confiscation of its farming lands by the government. Until Israel’s creation, rural communities like Arrabeh had depended on their land and agricultural skills, both for subsistence and to earn a living. Without the land, villagers had been pushed into poverty and casual labor, working cheaply in Israeli quarries, factories and, as hired hands, in what were now declared as Jewish farming communities like the kibbutz, often on the very land confiscated from Arab villages. The state could not countenance defiance from its Arab ‘citizens’; so to break their will it responded with massive violence against villages like Arrabeh. It imposed a curfew and deployed its tanks, turning our peaceful streets and fields, for the first time in living memory, into a war zone. Six unarmed demonstrators, from Arrabeh and neighboring villages were killed in the ensuing clashes. The army, of course, emerged victorious. In Sakhnin, a few dozen Golani crack troopers linked arms in a circle and danced the Hora to their own chants of ‘A’am Yisrael hai’ – ‘The people of Israel lives’ — on the very spot where they had shot dead two young villagers.

I submitted a letter of resignation to the Ministry of Health, both in protest at the state’s violence on Land Day and at the lack of support for my efforts to improve health conditions in Arab communities. On the face of it, the step carried more weight than I had expected, securing me two meetings with the Health Minister himself. He rejected my letter of resignation and asked instead for a detailed list of the steps that would be necessary to improve the health of the Arab minority in Israel. He granted me an extended leave without pay. It took a moment for me to realize that this was political maneuvering and his promises empty. My absence would be used as an excuse for delaying the implementation of any serious measures I would suggest.

So in 1976, shortly after Land Day, we moved back here to Hawaii. But it wasn’t long before I was contemplating my return to Arrabeh. Didi and I were unhappy with the risks to which we were exposing our two children in America: schools where drugs and violence were on the rise; streets so unsafe that parents accompanied their children to school for fear of molestation or worse; and our inability to control our children’s TV viewing and prevent them from consuming a diet of sex and violence. We started romanticizing the technological backwardness of rural life in the Galilee, and to idealize the traditional extended family where all adults care collectively for the safety and behavior of its youth.

Hatim Kanaaneh

Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh is a Palestinian doctor who has worked for over 35 years to bring medical care to Palestinians in Galilee, against a culture of anti-Arab discrimination. He is the author of the book A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel. His collection of short stories entitled Chief Complaint was released by Just World Books in the spring of 2015.

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