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The Story of a Monument: Land Day Sakhneen 1976-2006

Abed Abdi and Gershon Knispel

Photographs: Nikola Abdo, Rafik Bachri, Amin Bashir, Yaron Kaminski, Gidon Gitai, Salam Munir Diab, Al-Ittihad Archive and others.

Curator: Tal Ben-Zvi

The exhibition “Story of a Monument: Land Day Sakhneen 1976-2006” is centered on the Sakhneen monument commemorating Land Day, as a space of struggle, remembrance and identity of the Palestinian minority in Israel.

The first Land Day took place on 30.3.1976, in protest against the government’s decision to expropriate 20,000 acres in the Sakhneen area for “Galilee Judaization” purposes. The leaders of the Rakakh political party, together with the heads of the Arab municipalities in the Galilee region, called for a day of general strike and protest demonstrations on the 30th of March. The demonstrations took place mainly in the villages of Sakhneen, Arrabi and Deir-Hanna. IDF forces confronted the demonstration participants, resulting in six dead demonstrators and many wounded. The six people killed were: Khir Mohamed Yasin from Arabe, Raja Khasin Abu-Ria, Khader Abed Khlaila and Khadija Shuhana from Sakhneen, Mohamed Yusef Taha from Kana and Rafet Zuheiri from Nur-Shames, who was shot in Taibe.

In the course of the years following the Land Day events, Abed Abdi and Gershon Knispel decided to build a monument commemorating the Sakhneen Land Day, with support from the Sakhneen mayor at the time, Jamal Tarabeih. On the 30th of March 1977, exactly one year after the demonstrations, the artists presented a model of the monument to the Arab Municipalities Committee and to the wide public.

The monument was constructed at the end of March 1978, and the construction itself took several hours with the joint effort of a large number of construction workers from Sakhneen. Tamir Shorek (see LINKS, Shorek Tamir, 2002), notes that Jamal Tarabeih, mayor of Sakhneen at the time, was arrested by the police in the course of the construction and accused of granting an illegal construction permit, but he was released within several hours.

On Thursday 30.3.1978, a ceremony revealing the monument was held in the Sakhneen cemetery. The Galilee reporter covering the event for Ha’artez Newspaper wrote (31.3.1978):

“Land Day” took place yesterday with no violence nor any need for police interference. The Arab population in Israel marked this day with one central event – in the Mid-Galilee village of Sakhneen […] In a large rally in Sakhneen, a monument commemorating the dead demonstrators from two years ago was revealed, the work of artists Gershon Knispel and Abed Abdi from Haifa […] Thousands of people from far and wide came to the rally. Speeches were made by Knesset members of the Hadash Party – Taufik Ziad, Meir Vilner and Khana Mois, as well as by several municipal leaders […] A police helicopter circled above the village occasionally, and it became known later on that it was photographing the rally participants.”

This rally became a central event in the collective memory of the Palestinian minority in Israel. Shorek notes that this was the first time that a symbol of Palestinian nationality appeared in the public sphere.

From 1978 to this day, throughout almost 30 years, on every 30th of March the monument becomes a central marking point of remembrance ceremonies for the Land Day events in Galilee. These ceremonies reflect the constitutive place of Land Day in the Palestinian national culture, but at the same time the serve as a stage for the changing political, social and cultural struggles of each era. These events are manifested in documentary journalistic photographs that document the Land Day ceremonies in Sakhneen. Part of these photographs were presented through the years in the Arabic newspapers, in particular the Al-Ittihad newspaper, which covers the Land Day ceremonies in Arab towns and villages in the Galilee region extensively.

In the photographs of Nikola Abdo, Rafik Bachri, Amin Bashir, Yaron Kaminski, Gidon Gitai, Salam Munir Diab and others, it appears that an iconography is created of the remembrance and mourning that are unique to the Palestinian minority in Israel. This iconography is based on the colorfulness of the flags (the Palestinian flag in red-white-black-green, the Communist Party’s red flags and the Islamic Movement’s green flags) and on the recurring symbols in the remembrance parades, such as the portrait of Che Guevara as the leader of the revolution, the Communist Party’s sickle image and the “Handala” child image by the illustrator Naji al-Ali. The photographs show the central multi-participant parade, the school ceremonies, the public personalities going up the stairs with circular flower wreaths inscribed with dedications to the Shahids, the “Al-fatiha” prayer ceremony with the gaze towards the hands, and the wreath-laying ceremonies and public speeches in the square before the monument.

In recent years, the Sakhneen cemetery monument is also attended every October, at the end of the “Shahid Remembrance March” commemorating those killed in October 2000. Thus, with time, the Monument’s status as a central place of remembrance and mourning in the Palestinian national culture continues to grow.

Despite the contemporary nature of the parades, the speeches return time and time again to the connection between the Palestinian minority and its land.

This connection is the central sculptural topic in the monument, which is shaped as a Sarcophagus with four walls. The embossments on each wall are an aluminum casting that from a distance looks like clay. On the first wall, a figure lifting a kind of large basket of grains or a large stone is sculpted, along with two figures stooping to gather the harvest. It also carries words in English, Arabic and Hebrew: “Designed by A. Abdi and G. Knispel, to deepen the understanding between the two nations”. On the second wall, a figure of a woman with seeds in her hands is sculpted, and words appear again in the three languages: “Memorial for the Dead of Land Day 30.3.1976”. On the third wall, two kneeling mourning women are sculpted, with their hands covering their faces. In between the two women appear words in Arabic alone: “They died so that we could live… They live. The dead of Defending the Land Day 30th of March 1976”. In addition, the names of those who were killed and their places of residence are inscribed on this side. On the edge of the left wall, a kind of hole appears, with a hand extended out of the hole, either holding on or seeking help. The fourth wall has no text on it. Two figures appear on it, lying like dead bodies, one above the other, creating a tranquil horizontal composition. Alongside the monument, but apart from it, a plough is placed. When workers of the land are murdered, the plough remains abandoned and broken.

The death of the land workers and the call for universal justice underlie the joint work of Abed Abdi and Gershon Knispel. This position was manifested in a printed package of impressive volume, published in 1978 and including preparatory sketches and photographs of the monument immediately following its construction, as well as texts by Samih al-Qassim, Joshua Sobol and the artists Abed Abdi and Gershon Knispel.

These texts, in Arabic, Hebrew and English, which are attached here, were written almost 30 years ago. But it appears that the human solidarity that emerges from the texts is very far from here. The Sakhneen Monument was the first expression in the public sphere of the identity and remembrance of the Palestinian minority in Israel. In its time, it also manifested a cry for solidarity, justice and understanding between the two nations. Today, it is worthwhile to repeat that textual and public cry.

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