There has never been anything abstract about the longings of the Palestinians. The object of their longing has always been well defined: the places that had been left behind in 1948. For these places were, and still are, the dominant components of the Palestinian identity. — Danny Rubinstein

Labib, the 50 year-old director of one of three foreign-administered private hospitals in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, was in ebullient spirits as we drank `araq and ate crunchy green almonds dipped in salt at his home on Easter 1992. The food reminded him of an outing to the Galilean countryside he had arranged for hospital employees 15 years earlier. “The 30 of us had fun roaming around the destroyed village of Lubiya, picking wild thyme and collecting bags of green almonds. When we got back on the bus, we all started singing and clapping, and one young man was playing the darbaki drum. It was like a wedding celebration on wheels — until our broken-down, rusty bus pulled into a restaurant parking lot in Tiberias. We were hungry for fish, but the Jewish restaurant owner came out, stood in front of the door to block our way, and said we were forbidden to enter. People started shouting at him, and some tourists were staring at us, so I decided that, as the hospital director, I should take the restaurant manager aside and solve this problem reasonably. He didn’t see me as a man or a hospital director, though. He said, ‘We’ll lose our customers if we let a bunch of noisy Arabs in here acting like this!’ Well, I know French, English and Italian, so I turned around and used these languages to tell the tourists, ‘You see how they treat Arab citizens in their ‘democratic state’?'”

Labib sighed: “This is the hardest thing for us Palestinian citizens of Israel: being made to feel that we don’t belong in our own country.”

The Galilee Through Palestinian Eyes

In determining the location of their country, Palestinian citizens of Israel like Labib face an existential question. Is their country located in physical space? Is it demarcated in Hebrew on official maps of the State of Israel? Is it inscribed in the collective, cognitive maps of Palestinians, wherein all place names are in Arabic, the most minute details of villages are still recorded, and the boundaries extend as far and wide as the diaspora has wandered? Can it be read in the official green and white road signs erected by the Israeli Ministry of Transportation to direct travelers to collective farming communities such as Tzippori, or is it embodied in the abandoned orchards, crumbling stone walls and sabr cacti that hint at the remains of Saffuriyya, a destroyed Palestinian town whose ruins are visible under Tzippori’s pine forests?

Palestinian citizens of Israel do not enjoy a sense of belonging to the state or inclusion in Israeli national institutions and rituals. Though, under Israeli law, most of the land no longer belongs to them, their poetry, metaphors and daily practices evidence a strong sense of belonging to the land. People in Nazareth think of their country not as the territory that happens to fall within officially demarcated borders, but as al-Jalil (the Galilee), a place whose history, flora, open spaces and built landscapes they read very differently than their Jewish fellow citizens do. Whereas Israeli state policies and practices view the Galilee as a strategic and relatively empty region for hilltop settlements to be peopled with incoming Jewish immigrants, Palestinians see the landscapes, trees and destroyed villages of the Galilee as surviving vestiges of the Palestine that disappeared in 1948. [1]

In a state that defines Arabs according to what they are not (non-Jewish minorities), the Galilee provides a literal and figurative basis for a positive identity as Palestinians. [2] The Galilee attracts Palestinian citizens of Israel with its wide open spaces and vast vistas — most Palestinians reside in cramped villages or crowded towns like Nazareth, which have lost their physical base through land expropriations and receive insufficient development assistance from the Israeli government. [3] Nazareth residents viewed the arrival of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s as a spatial as well as an economic threat. New immigrants were being placed in mitzpi’im (literally, “lookout” communities) on Galilean hilltops, or in the neighboring Jewish development town of Nazrat `Ilit, and thus competed with Palestinians for scarce jobs. Many contended that the new immigrants were “absorbed” at the Arab citizens’ expense. “I’ve lived here all my 42 years,” a respected Greek Orthodox physician told me, “and I have been a dutiful citizen and a good taxpayer, yet a doctor newly arrived from Minsk who doesn’t speak Hebrew and probably knows less about the Torah than I do can walk right into my hospital and become my boss, just because he or his parents are Jewish.” Narrowed spaces, metaphorical or actual, implied circumscribed rights and power. Talk about space was frequently talk about political rights and communal power.

Fruits and Roots: Symbols of Identity

As spring’s colors enlivened Nazareth and the surrounding countryside, it became clear that natural landscapes were sources of joy, comfort and meaning for Palestinians in Israel. My own enclosed garden metamorphosed overnight from a tangle of scraggly brown branches and vines into a delightful realm of changing colors and fragrances. As I examined rose buds and delicate, unfurling grape leaves in my garden one morning, some neighbors gave me a preview of coming horticultural events. I asked them to name the trees in the garden, only two of which, an olive tree and a lemon tree, I had immediately recognized. They were surprised that I did not know the other trees: pomegranate, mulberry and fig, as well as a healthy grape vine spreading across the wire mesh canopy above our heads, and sage springing up along the walkway. My neighbors extolled the exquisite taste, fragrance, color and texture of each fruit or herb.

Local interest in trees and plants was not a passing phenomenon limited to the advent of spring or the hobby of gardening. Images and proverbs concerning trees and plants frequently emerged in discussions of politics, identity and communal memory. It is not surprising that Arab citizens of Israel, in attempting to define, defend and elaborate their Palestinian identity, have emphasized their connection to the lands of Palestine as a nostalgic realm in which to contemplate their communal heritage and national memory. As George Bisharat notes, “The hyperemphasis of the pastoral connections of Palestinians to the land is reflective not of genuine rootedness, but of an intellectualized, stylized assertion of place under conditions of rupture and threat.” [4] Few Nazareth residents described the land as capital or the geographic expression of a centralized state. Rather, they spoke of the land as a mother; they anthropomorphized trees, plants, fruits and the earth. The land was described as the source of communal identity, purpose and honor. Accordingly, problems besetting the Palestinians in Israel — lack of space, lack of power and influence, lack of employment, lack of purpose, leadership and communal mores — were ascribed to the loss of the land.

Land Day: Spaces of Resistance, Places of Memory

On March 30, 1976, Palestinian citizens of Israel coordinated mass demonstrations against the state’s ongoing land expropriations in the Galilee. Since that year, Land Day is observed every March 30 to commemorate the six unarmed Palestinian protesters who were shot dead by Israeli internal security forces in the Galilean village of Sakhnin. Each year, Land Day provides Palestinian citizens of Israel with their one and only trans-confessional, national holiday: a day to identify with the land and to show solidarity against the enforced expropriations of communal lands.

The morning of Land Day 1992, my husband and I accompanied my friends Afif, Kamal, Karim and their wives and children on a two-car trip from Nazareth to attend a day of solidarity with the residents of Ramieh, a small Bedouin village in the upper Galilee whose residents had been informed by the government that they would have to vacate their homes to make way for a new settlement for Russian immigrants. Ramieh was officially categorized as an “unrecognized village” — it did not appear in government records and planning schemes and received no electricity, water, education, health care or transportation services. Ramieh was not even on the map, and the roads leading to it were old, unpaved, goat paths lacking signs. After nearly an hour of failed attempts to find the road to Ramieh, the three brothers decided that we had probably missed all the official speeches anyway, so we took advantage of the beautiful weather to tour the Galilee instead.

Driving along the main east-west road of the Galilee below the town of Ramah, Karim excitedly ordered Kamal to stop the car. He jumped out, pulling me along with him. “Be sure you get a picture of that for your research,” he said, pointing to a large, gnarled olive tree ten meters away from us on the side of the road. Karim explained that this was probably the oldest olive tree in the Galilee, adding that pictures of it appeared on Palestinian political posters and brochures in the late 1970s. [5]

Olive Groves vs. Pine Forests

We next visited the destroyed town of Saffuriyya, now a Jewish farming community known as Tzippori, as well as an acclaimed Roman-era archaeological site. Before 1948, Saffuriyya had been a very prosperous town, larger and wealthier than Nazareth. Saffuriyya’s pomegranates, olives and wheat were famous throughout the Galilee. Just as famous was the stubbornness of the inhabitants, who were among the few townspeople to resist the approaching Jewish forces in 1948 militarily. Even after Saffuriyya was overrun and destroyed, some families defiantly continued to live among the ruins, although many fled to Lebanon immediately after the town fell, ending up in the refugee camps of `Ein Hilweh, Sabra and Shatila. A sizable number of Saffuriyya’s displaced residents eventually sought refuge in Nazareth’s new northernmost neighborhoods of upper and lower Saffafreh. [6]

Approaching Tzippori/Saffuriyya, we pulled off the highway onto an uneven field of spring wildflowers. Climbing a steep hillside, we parked our cars in a clearing surrounded by pine trees. I asked where the town had been. Smiling sadly, Kamal responded, “We’re standing in the heart of it.” My husband looked shocked and asked to see traces of the old houses. Kamal and Karim beckoned for us to follow, and soon we came across some old building stones and a square, hollowed-out piece of grayish limestone — an old grape press — half-hidden by weeds and dried pine needles. Karim looked wistfully at the stone press, which was probably still in use when he was born in January 1948, but which now lay forgotten under the detritus of the pine forest planted by the Jewish National Fund in the 1950s to dissuade Palestinians from returning to resettle and cultivate their destroyed village. “This is not unusual,” said Karim. “We could show you the remains of so many Arab villages covered by pine forests.” Pushing the dead pine needles off of the press, Karim added that, for Palestinians in Israel, pine trees had come to symbolize loss and exile, just as olive groves represented Palestinian rootedness and community.

Suddenly, Hasna, Afif’s wife, called out, “There’s ilsaineh (cowslip)!” and put us to work gathering the leaves to be stuffed with meat and rice for a meal later. As we picked the cowslip, my friends pointed out other plants, occasionally urging me to take a taste. Karim found a viridian shoot of fennel sprouting near a gurgling stream. He divided its flower in half, consuming his share and encouraging me to try mine. Its bright, licorice flavor startled me. Karim smiled at my delighted reaction. “We are having a wonderful Land Day, aren’t we?” “Yes,” I reminded him, ” but we did miss the sole political event of this year’s Land Day.” “What are you talking about?” he countered in a tone of mock anger. “We are out here seeing and touching and loving the land and its fruits. This is the best way to remember our Palestine!”

The Limits of Resistance

It seemed unusual that these young people in their thirties and forties, who had lived their entire lives in the urban setting of Nazareth, who had never worked the land or depended upon it for their sustenance, and whose fathers had been employees of the British Petroleum plant and labor union members in Haifa — not farmers — before 1948, knew so much about the culinary and medicinal uses of plants. But the land, the trees and the fruits of the forests and meadows meant much more to my friends than mere botanical specimens or ingredients for traditional recipes. They were powerful and vital symbols of a communal identity, experience and history. Sharing the fruits of the land with loved ones was a way of communing with the past, with the refugees who had fled, with the Palestine that had virtually been erased. Visiting destroyed villages and gathering their orphaned fruits was a way of reaffirming a communal identity denied by state discourse, laws and policies.

Our Land Day outing taught Afif’s small children concrete lessons about Palestine, its loss and people. The tour of Saffuriyya had imparted a subtle message: the land, the people, the traditions and memories are all interconnected. Although the name of the state is now Israel, as far as the people of Nazareth were concerned, the name of the land is still Palestine. For the children and the adults, the land has become a rich source of symbols, a repository for collective memory and a balm for the psychological pressures resulting from political exclusion and domination.

As Claude Levi-Strauss said of Australian totems, the Galilean landscape is “good to think with.” Yet it can no longer assist Palestinians in Israel in achieving their political objectives. The sight of bulldozers scraping Galilean hilltops to build new settlements is a painful reminder of the limits and failures of past attempts at resisting the state’s imposition of identity and expropriation of lands. This is one of the many contradictions facing Palestinian citizens of Israel: that which nourishes and sustains their sense of identity and belonging — the land and its fruits — is beyond their control. The state that granted Palestinians nominal citizenship robbed them of their land, fractured their identity and ruptured their embodied belonging to the Galilean landscape.


[1] Most Palestinian citizens of Israel live in the Galilee and in the Negev. Nearly 80 percent of Israel’s Jewish population lives in the central, urbanized 15 percent of the country between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israeli Bureau of Statistics, 1995; Esther Zandberg, “Is there Enough Room for Everyone?” Ha’aretz, June 16, 2000. The Judaization of the Galilee has been a long-standing state goal. See Ghazi Falah, “Arabs versus Jews in Galilee: Competition for Regional Resources,” GeoJournal 21/4 (August 1990).
[2] The titles of many non-governmental organizations run by and serving Palestinian citizens in Israel contain the name “al-Jalil.” I asked a friend if this reflected NGOs’ support of MK Azmi Bishara’s idea that Arab citizens in the Galilee should work towards cultural autonomy and even self-rule. “No,” he said, smiling. “It’s sort of a code word for ‘Palestine,’ a name you can’t use here without really pissing off the government.”
[3] “In 1992, the crowding index in Jewish communities was 1.4 persons per room, on average, as compared with 1.69 persons per room in Arab communities. Approximately 5.47 persons live in each Arab residential unit, as compared with 3.42 persons in each Jewish housing unit, or live in 25.1 square meters of space per person as compared with 32.5 square meters per person respectively….The percentage of high density households in the Arab sector is still five times that of the Jewish sector.” Arab Coordinating Committee on Housing Rights in Israel (ACCHRI), Housing for All? Implementation of the Right to Adequate Housing for the Arab Palestinian Minority in Israel, submitted to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Nazareth: Arab Association for Human Rights, 1995), pp. 3-4.
[4] George E. Bisharat, “Exile to Compatriot: Transformations in the Social Identity of Palestinian Refugees in the West Bank,” in Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, eds., Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).
[5] A month later, as the race for the 1992 Knesset elections began to heat up, I saw a new poster depicting this very tree.
[6] The residents of these neighborhoods can look out their windows at the lands of Saffuriyya five kilometers away. In 1982, two streets in lower Safafreh were paved and named “Sabra Street” and “Shatila Street,” emphasizing the links between former residents of Saffuriyya in Nazareth and in Lebanon.

How to cite this article:

Laurie King-Irani "Land, Identity and the Limits of Resistance in the Galilee," Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000).

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