On Land Day in Palestine: Our Home is our Land

March 30, 2021

My great-grandfather sacrificed his life for land in Palestine of which he owned a very small portion.
A group of Palestinians hold Palestinian flags and shout slogans during a demonstration within the Palestine's ‘Land Day’ commemorations on March 30, 2018 in Nablus, West Bank. Photo by Nedal Eshtayah. Anadolu Agency.

When in 1948 Zionist militias invaded the village of Aqer, where my family is originally from, my great-grandfather was one of a few poorly equipped fighters who tried to stop the invading forces. The fighters took up posts at the village school, located nearly a kilometer from the village.

Soon after, and after some resistance, the invading militia took over the school, killing the fighters who remained inside, including my great-grandfather, who was found dead inside the building. My grandfather buried his father in the village graveyard only to become a refugee for the rest of his life in Gaza days later.

A few years later, my uncle Ahmed, named after my great-grandfather, received an unexpected visitor at his Gaza clinic. The visitor was the person who had found my great-grandfather’s body decades ago at the village school. He had kept some of my great-grandfather’s belongings for decades and was looking for my family so as to return them. When he met my uncle, he gave him a pocket watch that had belonged to my great-grandfather and which he had kept for nearly three decades.

He told my uncle the story behind the pocket watch and this story has been passed down orally in my family from generation to generation. The picture of my great-grandfather still hangs on the walls of my extended family’s home in our refugee camp in Gaza.

VIDEO: What is Land Day and why is it still important today?

It was land that pushed my great-grandfather to fight the invading Zionist militias in 1948, although he knew that a few fighters would not be able to stop an invading army. His love of the land and his understanding of the meaning of life with and without it was his sole motivation.

My great-grandfather bled to death defending the village land, of which, ironically, he owned nearly none. He was a peasant, working for rich families which owned much of the village’s land. But for him, his love of the land was unconditional – and this land that he loved and tried to protect was not a mere commodity.

Although in today’s world these documents prove ownership, Palestinian society’s relationship to land goes beyond official papers.

Today, many Palestinians try to prove their ownership of land, which amounted to a total of 13 million dunums in 1947, by presenting documents given to them by the colonial British authorities. What if Palestinians didn’t have these documents? Would it mean that their rights to their land are null and void? Clearly not.

Although in today’s world these documents prove ownership, Palestinian society’s relationship to land goes beyond official papers. The relationship a peasant has with the land is like the relationship between a mother and her children. It is deep and interconnected in a way that a settler-colonial society can never understand.

My great-grandfather’s love of the land goes beyond colonial definitions of ownership and was exemplified in the price he was willing to pay for it – his life. In actuality, his land was just large enough for him to build a small house for his family. In this context, land means everything to people. It is a witness to their lives, the source of their income, the warmth of their winters. It is something that belongs to them rather that something they own. And it is something that no one can “take” from them. The land is why a Palestinian mother will hug an olive tree to prevent Israeli bulldozers from uprooting it.

It was land that pushed Palestinians on March 30, 1976 to protest Israel’s confiscation schemes in the Galilee, with the Israeli forces eventually killing six Palestinians living in Israel and injuring 50 others. Since then, Land Day has been marked on March 30 every year.

In 2018, Land Day took a dramatic turn when a group of Palestinians erected tents at the eastern borders of the Gaza Strip and were joined by hundreds of thousands of refugees from the coastal enclave.

In 2018, Land Day took a dramatic turn when a group of Palestinians erected tents at the eastern borders of the Gaza Strip and were joined by hundreds of thousands of refugees from the coastal enclave. The tent-protest became known as the “Great March of Return” and continued for months at the Gaza fence.

According to the United Nations, since the outbreak of the Great March of Return, 214 Palestinians have been killed, of whom 46 were children, and nearly 36,000 others have been injured. Palestinians, mostly refugees, staged the protest to call for the return to their towns and villages, some of which appear on the horizon as they look east and north of Gaza.

It was land that motived them to start this largely non-violent protest which was met with Israeli fire and snipers. Israel has claimed the lives of hundreds of Palestinians at the Great March of Return, and thousands more lives before and since then. But it is beyond doubt, that Israel has failed to erase the love in the hearts of all Palestinians for their land.

I have seen this love and dedication in my visit to Hawaii in the United States. The Kanaka Maoli, the Native Hawaiians, have a special relationship with the land or, as they call it, Aina. “Aloha ‘Aina,” they declare every day, peace and love to the land. The Kanaka Maoli believe that there are hundreds of thousands of elements in nature, which come together to make the land.

In Hawaii, I was introduced to the notion that a people on their land can’t be homeless, but rather they are houseless. Palestinians, too, relate to this notion of homelessness and houselessness. In fact, this was the exact reason why my great-grandfather fought for a land of which he owned very little and was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in its defense.

The question that remains unanswered today is when will land in Palestine, which Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said, “was created for peace but never saw peace,” finally see peace? In the words of Darwish, this land is “what makes life worth living” and despite confiscation and occupation, Palestinians today express their unyielding generational connection to their land by marking Land Day on March 30.

This connection lives on and grows despite all attempts made by Israel to make Palestinians aliens on their own land – be it in Gaza, the West Band, or what is today Israel.

Time has proven that the more Palestinians stay away from their land, the more they become attached to it. That’s why when Palestinian refugees manage to visit Palestine using a passport that allows them to do so, the first thing they do is pick up a grain of sand and bring it back with them.

It is the land that has always connected Palestinians with the notion of home – not walls, not houses, not debris or bricks. For this reason, demolishing Palestinian houses may make Palestinians houseless, but they will never be homeless or landless. Because our home is our land.

Yousef M. Aljamal is a researcher in Middle Eastern Studies and the author and translator of a number of books. He is a co-author of A Shared Struggle: Stories of Palestinian and Irish Hunger Strikers published by An Fhuiseog (July 2021).