DAMASCUS GATE, East Jerusalem — The Land Day demonstration, an annual protest against state confiscation of privately owned Arab land, all but ended 15 minutes after it began.
A few dozen protesters, mostly teenagers, stood on the stone steps across from the grand gate erected by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538, waving Palestinian flags and chanting nationalistic songs. Local politicians, including Fatah’s former Jerusalem affairs minister Hatem Abdul Qader and Legislative Council member Jihad Abu Zneid, sat in the front row, cheering, as the youth behind them chanted: “Hand in hand, we shall protect Jerusalem from Judaization,” “Tomorrow Hamas will arrive and with it suicide attacks,” and “How great are the kidnappers of soldiers and border police.”
When the demonstrates began moving toward Sultan Suleiman Street, a major thoroughfare, they were stopped by Israeli border police, and physical altercations erupted. One man was arrested, a couple of mounted policemen arrived at the scene, and within moments the road was back to normal, with only a handful of journalists looking for people to interview and three Irish solidarity activists carrying a banner that read “Celts against Apartheid” left behind.
Land Day was established by Israel’s Arab leadership as an annual day of protest on March 30, 1976, following a decision by the first Rabin government to expropriate some 5,000 acres of land from Arab towns in the Galilee.
While most of Jerusalem’s 375,000 Arabs are not Israeli citizens, Youssef Mkheimar, a businessman and political activist from Shuafat Refugee Camp, said that the city’s Palestinian residents are more concerned than anyone else with the theme of the day.
“Jerusalemites suffer more than anyone else on Land Day, because they have no land left,” he told The Times of Israel. “Their identity is threatened; they’re caught between Israelization and marginalization. If these people won’t establish an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, their identity will be lost.”
For most Arab Israelis, though, Land Day is about more than identity. According to statistics released this week by the Israeli Arab NGO Adalah, based on data provided by Israel’s Land Authority, only 4.6 percent of the housing units marketed in 2014 were in Arab towns, although Arabs comprise 20% of the country’s population. In addition, 36 tenders were published for new industrial zones across Israel and the West Bank in 2014, but none of them near Arab communities.
Abdul Qader, the former Palestinian minister, who oversees the Jerusalem portfolio for Fatah, said the demonstration also represented a message to the international community “to protect the Palestinian people, whose existence, land and holy sites are threatened.”
“We came today to assert the Arab identity of Palestine, and that of Jerusalem in particular,” he added. “We believe that the occupation is temporary and will not last forever in this city.”
After the crowds had dispersed, a small group of Fatah activists remained at the Damascus Gate plaza, singing songs of yearning for the resumption of armed attacks against Israelis.
Mkheimar, the Jerusalem businessman, was fairly unfazed.
“Indeed, the chants are discouraging,” he conceded. “But if there were negotiations, they would provide encouragement.”