This excerpt from “Stranger in My Own Land” (Hurst, 2022), by Fida Jiryis, recounts the experience of al-Ard, founded in 1959 as the first Palestinian national movement after the establishment of Israel. Sabri Jiryis, the author’s father, was one of the leaders of the movement, together with Habib Qahwaji, Saleh Baransi, and Mansour Kardosh.
The new group needed a name. Confiscation of their land was one of the greatest problems facing the Palestinians in Israel, and they chose ‘al-Ard’, The Land.
Al-Ard adopted a pragmatic approach and acknowledged the United Nations Partition Plan and the State of Israel, but it stressed the right of the Palestinians to their own state, and the belonging of this state to the greater Arab nation.
The movement applied for a license to publish a newspaper. Months passed with no answer. According to a law from the time of the British Mandate, any citizen could publish a single issue once a year without a license, as long as it was not a regular publication. Jewish organizations had resorted to this law before the establishment of Israel. Al-Ard decided to do the same. Its members would take turns publishing issues of their newspaper every few weeks under their various names, and would change the title, keeping the name ‘al-Ard’ in it so that the public would recognize it.
The newspaper was printed at an old press in Acre, al-Zeibaq, the only commercial press to agree to print it. Some of the group had good connections with Mapam, Israel’s left-wing party. Yet, although the party’s printing press needed work in Arabic, it refused to print the newspaper.i
The first issue, in late 1959, was simply titled ‘al-Ard’ and published under Habib Qahwaji’s name. Many young people waited at the doors of the press in excitement, and many volunteered, alongside the founders, to distribute the paper and collect donations. Two thousand copies were gone within a week. At the time, most popular newspapers sold less than a thousand copies per issue.ii The paper spoke out against Israeli policies and made the following calls:
Equal rights for the Arabs in Israel in all respects. The repeal of the
discriminatory laws designed to destroy Arab identity, and the enabling
of the Arabs to develop in the framework of their own customs and national character;
Recognition of the right of the Arab refugees to return to their homeland.
No peace is possible while a million people are unable to return to their
homes and are living on bread and water in tents … We do not ask for
mercy for these refugees, nor do we play on the liberal conscience of
humanity, for we believe that their problem is a political one.iii
No sooner had the first issue circulated than a concerted smear campaign was launched in the Israeli press, accusing the founders of being anti-Israeli and of wanting to create a sabotage movement. But al-Ard’s work was open and public. It distributed a letter stating its objectives to the Israeli press and to all members of the Knesset.
1. The end of the military government
2. The return of plundered lands to their owners and an end to the seizure of lands and the Judaization of the Galilee
3. The raising of the standard of Arab schools in order to turn them into institutions in which one can have access to education
4. Equal rights for Arab workers
5. Aid to the Arab economy and the Arab peasant by helping them develop and not attempting to destroy them
6. The return of the Arab refugees to their villages. An end to the blowing-up of villages, whose inhabitants now go there on pilgrimages to cry over their lost land and homes (Biram and Iqrit)
7. A license for the newspaper.
There will be no peace without the return of the refugees, and this is their natural right … We are part of a larger nation (the Arab nation). Why are we not allowed to express our opinion as to its future and fate?iv
Al-Ard urged Palestinians to organize and handle their own affairs, calling for a boycott of the Israeli elections until the establishment of true democratic participation. Its call led to a 42 per cent abstinence rate among Palestinians in the 1959 Knesset elections. At the same time, it urged Jews and Palestinians to live in peaceful coexistence and saw this as the only option to move forward, with full rights for all.
That year, Israel lifted some curfews [under its military rule] during the day, allowing large numbers of villagers to go to the towns and cities to work. After a decade of restrictions, Palestinians could reconnect and recognize themselves as members of their larger community. Al-Ard developed branches in most Arab villages. Mansour was the leader in Nazareth; Habib, in Haifa and Acre; Saleh, in The Triangle; Fakhri Jdai, in Jaffa; and Sabri, in Jerusalem.
The two friends, Sabri and Mohammed Mi’ari, worked together in al-Ard on the Hebrew University campus, where they were studying. The Zionist groups on campus fought them as they had fought the Arab Student Council. But, soon, al-Ard drew in most of the Palestinian students at the university. The group was made up of people with different, sometimes conflicting, leanings, and a large number who had no clear political path. Many Palestinians were looking for an independent organization, free from the constraints of the Israeli Communist Party [which had been the only avenue open to them], and they found this in al-Ard. Within a few months, it attracted tens of laborers, peasants, lawyers, merchants, writers, and poets.
Al-Ard was the first Palestinian movement in Israel to call for selfdetermination and a just solution to the Palestine problem. It fought on two fronts: the lifting of repression from Palestinian citizens and the granting of equal rights, making Israel a democratic state for all its citizens; and the Palestinians’ right to their own state, as defined by the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, where they could live in peace alongside the State of Israel. The group’s leaders saw these aims as the only realistic options after the Nakba. They called for cooperation between Palestinians and Jews within a framework of justice and mutual recognition, and they were open in their desire to work with Jewish progressive and democratic groups.
Al-Ard was still waiting for a license to publish its newspaper. It applied again and again, and, despite the law stipulating an answer within a set period, there was no word from the authorities. It continued with its single issues. People encouraged the group and felt it belonged to them, and many made donations to the newspaper.
The paper reported news from the Arab world, particularly on Nasser, and anything that would bring the Palestinians in Israel out of their isolation. It exposed the problems facing Palestinians as a result of government policy: the lack of jobs and budgets for industry or agriculture, the persecution of those who spoke out, and the severe problems in their education system.
The attacks in the Israeli press grew intense. The group replied to them in its newspaper, defending the Palestinians’ right to self-expression. After the sixth issue, the authorities began to crack down and consider the group’s work illegal and a danger to state security. Most of its leaders were put under house arrest. But the newspaper continued, increasing its circulation four-fold.
In January 1960, Shmuel Divon, advisor on Arab affairs to the Israeli prime minister, held a press conference in Tel Aviv in which he launched an intense attack on al-Ard. He claimed that the group worked underground and was planning the destruction of the state. The press warned the Palestinians in Israel of the ‘grave danger’ that al-Ard posed to them due to its ‘extreme’ views, and the Communist Party itself joined the attack, in order to keep its standing as the sole political channel among the Palestinians. For the first time, Sabri, still a student, was summoned for interrogation. He was frank about what his group was doing, that it was a political movement trying to reach people through its newspaper, which the authorities had refused to license. He explained that they wanted to work through lawful, political means. But the authorities began a campaign against al-Ard’s leaders. Three or four agents took turns trailing them and watching their homes at night.
Al-Ard managed to print twelve issues of its newspaper before the authorities intervened. Two weeks after Divon’s public denunciation, the secret service offered the owner of al-Zeibaq press in Acre the equivalent of six months’ profit if he stopped printing the paper. He refused, but agents returned as soon as the thirteenth issue was printed. They amassed all the copies and took them away. They then arrested Mansour, Habib, Saleh, and Sabri, together with Mahmoud Srouji and Elias Muammar, and searched their homes. The six were charged with publishing a newspaper without a license and given heavy fines of 1,000 pounds each and three months in prison. After appeal, they were able to suspend the prison terms and lower the fines. But the ruling took a toll on their limited financial means.
They needed another way, and they decided to register al-Ard as a company. This would allow them to print the newspaper as part of the company’s commercial activities, as well as give them a base to continue political work and to receive funds. On the day of the court’s ruling against them, Sabri filled in an application for ‘al-Ard Limited Company for Printing and Publishing’, and sent it to the registrar of corporations in Jerusalem.
The response was swift. A few weeks later, he received a letter that the application was rejected for reasons of ‘public security and interest’. Meanwhile, many al-Ard members were placed under house arrest or had their movement permits revoked.
Al-Ard appealed to the Supreme Court against the decision to prohibit the registration of its company. The Court overruled the registrar’s decision, stating that his authority did not extend to assessing national security interests,v and approved the registration. But the judicial advisor to the government appealed the ruling. At the hearing, the registrar said that he had rejected the application because the company intended to engage in acts of ‘incitement’. The judge replied: ‘You cannot base a decision on speculation. When they carry out incitement, you can take legal action.’ The court upheld its decision to permit the registration of al-Ard Company, Ltd. In early 1962, the company was finally registered and its shares were sold to the leaders of the group and a few of its supporters.
It was a small, rare victory. The next step was to apply for a license to publish its newspaper. Again, the authorities resorted to delays and evasion.
Meanwhile, al-Ard was making contact with a number of Jewishcircles. One was the Semitic Action Group, led by Uri Avnery, editor of the Israeli weekly ha-Olam ha-Zeh, who became a friend to the movement. Another was Mordechai Stein, a leftist lawyer known for his defense of Arab rights and for fighting Zionist policy. Stein formed a small political organization, The Third Force, which published The Democratic Newspaper.
Al-Ard had formed many cultural and sports clubs in Palestinian villages, mostly in The Triangle. But its application for a newspaper license had still not been answered. The group had applied with Saleh’s name as editor. Stein offered to help. He would publish al-Ard’s material through his newspaper and would not interfere in its content, nor put any political conditions on the group. Al-Ard was in discussion to take up his offer for a few months, until Sabri turned 25 and could apply for a license in his name, if Saleh’s name was rejected. But the authorities threatened to close down The Democratic Newspaper.vi
The contacts with influential Jewish figures helped garner opposition to military rule, and another demonstration was held on 19 February 1963, in Jerusalem. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion retorted in a speech in the Knesset, determined to keep the military government.
There are in this country two organizations which resent Israel, one
called ‘the Front’ … a communist organization in disguise, and the other
a nationalist group called ‘al-Ard’, both of which periodically distribute
poisonous propaganda in the form of leaflets and pamphlets.vii
He pointed to the alleviations that the government had made in the system of military rule. But these had, in fact, made things worse. Blacklists were drawn up of Palestinians who were deemed ‘security risks’, and they were forbidden to leave their towns or villages, day or night, without movement permits—when they had previously been allowed out in the day without any restrictions. Although the military government had relaxed some of the repressive measures imposed on the general population, it had devised a harsher system to target those individuals. Anyone who expressed dissent was put on this list.
Shortly afterwards, Sabri was placed under house arrest for the first time. The order was issued by the northern military commander, and its terms were:
Not to reside outside the municipal limits of Haifa
Not to change his place of residence in Haifa without police permission
Not to leave the Haifa area without police permission
To report to police headquarters at 3:45 every afternoon
To return home no later than one hour after sunset and remain there until sunrise the next day.viii
In the evenings, a policeman could arrive at any time, without warning, to check that he was home.
These administrative rulings, issued under the Defense (Emergency) Regulations still in effect, did not require justification nor court approval, could not be appealed, and could be renewed indefinitely. Sabri found himself a prisoner in the city and, at night, in his home. For his legal training, if he had to attend any court sessions outside Haifa, he needed police approval. His friends were given similar orders.
After months of waiting and back-and-forth correspondence, al-Ard finally received an answer from the Haifa district commissioner, who did not grant a license for the company to publish a newspaper because the proposed editor, Saleh, did not fulfill a requirement of the Israeli Press Ordinance of having a secondary school certificate. Al-Ard reapplied, giving Sabri’s name as editor. When the commissioner saw that there was no further reason for refusal, he cited the Defense (Emergency) Regulations, which allowed him ‘in his discretion and without assigning any reason therefore’ to grant or refuse any permit.ix Al-Ard appealed to the Supreme Court, but the court upheld the absolute powers of the district commissioner.x Without its newspaper, al-Ard could not reach people and its work was crippled.
The group decided to expose the situation on the international stage. In June 1964, they wrote a seventeen-page memorandum describing the plight of Palestinians under military rule and a list of discriminatory practices against them in all public sectors. They cited al-Ard’s battle for legal means to publish its newspaper. The letter demanded equality for all citizens, the respect of basic freedoms, and the end of discrimination. It also called for Israel to recognize the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan and to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. A copy of the letter was sent to all foreign embassies in Israel, members of the Knesset, the prime minister, and Israeli institutions, as well as to international newspapers and dignitaries abroad.xi
At the same time, al-Ard decided on a different route: to register itself as a political party in order to work openly and express its demands. On 30 June 1964, the group met and drafted its by-laws,xii which were signed by twenty-two founding members. They included:
Raising the levels of education, science, health and economy of the Arabs in Israel, as well as their political status;
Seeking and achieving a true and just social equality among all social strata in Israel;
Finding a just solution for the Palestine question, as a whole and indivisible unit, in accordance with the wishes of the Palestinian Arab
people; a solution which meets its interests and desires, restores it to its political existence, ensures its full legal rights, and regards it as the first
possessor of the right to determine its own fate, within the framework of the supreme aspirations of the Arab nation;
Achieving recognition of the United Nations decision of 29 November 1947, which would provide a solution for the Palestinian problem, a
just solution which would maintain the rights of both Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab peoples and would strengthen the stability and peace of the area;
Support of liberation, unity and socialism in the Arab world by all legal means, recognizing the Arab national liberation movement as a decisive
force in the Arab world, which Israel should regard positively;
Acting for peace in the Middle East and in the world in general;
Support of all progressive forces throughout the world, opposition to
imperialism and support of all peoples who are trying to free themselves from its yoke.
Al-Ard Stressed the Need to Establish a Palestinian Arab State:
It is true that the Arabs in Israel are not a nation, but they form part of
a great nation. The Arabs of this country were and still are part of the
Palestinian Arab people, who are indivisibly part of the Arab world …
Their right to establish a Palestinian Arab state has been forcibly taken
from them. If the Jews have a right to an independent state, the people
of Palestine also have a right to an independent state.xiii
Sabri printed a copy of the by-laws and submitted it to the Haifa district commissioner for registration as a non-profit association, the legal entity for a political party. Two days later, the commissioner replied that al-Ard ‘had been formed with the intent of violating the security and the very existence of the State of Israel’ and that the registration was denied, based on the Defense (Emergency) Regulations in effect.xiv
Within weeks, the Algerian representative to the United Nations received a copy of al-Ard’s letter and shared it with the members of the UN’s General Assembly, including the Israeli representative.
In Israel, the backlash came. The media reported the incident and launched another incitement campaign against al-Ard. They began to receive anonymous threats. The government spokesman announced that the Knesset had discussed al-Ard in its latest session, taking note of the district commissioner’s decision, and that most of the ministers considered the formation of such a political party to be a ‘grave danger’ to the state. Levi Eshkol, prime minister and defense minister, consulted with his advisor on Arab affairs and with the security service on how to stop the group.xv Israeli radio broadcast the news in its Arabic and Hebrew segments.
Al-Ard submitted another appeal to the Supreme Court against the denial of its registration as a non-profit association. In a long ruling, the court stated that the article of al-Ard’s by-laws about the Palestinian people was ‘an absolute and utter condemnation of the existence of the State of Israel’,xvi and that the article on ‘liberation, unity and socialism’ in the Arab world supported ‘the hostile attitudes [of the Arab world] toward Israel and the elimination of Israel by force’.xvii The court upheld the district commissioner’s decision. Sabri, Saleh, Mansour, and Habib were again arrested, released, and placed under house arrest for three months. For the second time, the police raided their homes. At Mansour’s house, the police confiscated all his materials; even the text of the memorandum to the United Nations was seized and no copies were left. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol then used his powers under the Defense (Emergency) Regulations to declare al-Ard an illegal association. Shmuel Toledano, his advisor on Arab affairs, described the movement as a ‘threat to the very existence of the state’. He added that the notion of ‘Israeli Arabs’ was a contradiction in terms because they belonged to ‘another nationality’.
With this declaration, the al-Ard Company was terminated and all its assets were frozen. The movement’s activities were banned, with the threat of ten years in prison for anyone who tried to continue. Its leaders had their house arrest extended for three months, then for another six, bringing it to a year. Many al-Ard members and supporters were also placed under house arrest and had their movement permits denied.
Saleh Baransi made their final statement.
We have worked … side by side with other progressive and democratic
forces in order to win for the Arabs their rights and equality. We still feel
that the world must hear the voice of our masses … crying out against
oppression, discrimination, military rule, land robbery, and demolition
of houses, when we do nothing to impose on the rights of others to live
But there was one more chapter to al-Ard. Its leaders decided to form an independent list, the “Socialist List” and run in the 1965 Knesset elections. In the face of this, on the eve of the elections, Sabri was arrested and internally expelled to Safad; Mansour Kardosh was expelled from Nazareth to Arad; Saleh Baransi, from Taybeh to Bisan; and Habib Qahwaji, from Haifa to Tiberias. The expulsion order was for three months, and they had all been sent to distant towns with no remaining Palestinians and separated from each other so they could not organize and run in the elections. The government instructed the Central Elections Committee to disqualify the Socialist List, on the grounds that it was ‘an unlawful association, because its promoters deny the [territorial] integrity of the State of Israel and its very existence’.xix A media onslaught resumed against the group. Al-Ard went to the Supreme Court to dispute the decision.
On 7 October 1965, the Supreme Court heard the appeal of the Socialist List against its disqualification. Ya’acov Yeridor, counsel for the list, argued before Justices Shimon Agranat, Yoel Sussman, and Haim Cohn that the Knesset Elections Law did not empower the Central Elections Committee to invalidate lists because of their members’ personal affiliations. The committee itself had admitted that it had no right to disqualify individual candidates, yet had disqualified a whole list solely on the basis of its composition, on the grounds that five of its ten candidates were members of the outlawed al-Ard movement. Yeridor then handed the court an affidavit stating that the list had no proposals against the existence or integrity of the State of Israel.
Attorney General Moshe Ben-Ze’ev, who appeared for the Central Elections Committee, reviewed the previous court decisions against al-Ard’s attempts to register as an association and publish a newspaper. He quoted from a ruling by Justice Alfred Witkon that it would be ‘foolhardiness to give the organization the power which it seeks’.
On 12 October, the Supreme Court upheld, by a 2:1 majority, the committee’s ruling. The dissenting justice, Cohn, noted that ‘in the material which was in front of the Central Elections Committee, and which was presented to us, too, there was nothing to justify, let alone mandate, the finding that there is a real or clear or present danger’ posed to the state or to any of its institutions by the Socialist List.xx The other judges did not dispute this, but argued that the grave issue placed before them justified diverging from the strict letter of the law, for the sake of ‘defensive democracy’. Al- Ard’s objection to the Jewish character of the State of Israel was tantamount, in their eyes, to objecting to the state’s very existence.xxi
Justice Agranat wrote, in his decision: ‘This is a realistic matter of a list of candidates aimed at achieving the elimination of the State of Israel.’ Justice Sussman likened the proposed list to ‘someone who wants to throw a bomb in the Knesset and cannot do so from the runway, so he wants to enter the hall through Knesset membership for this purpose’. He added that the state ‘does not have to agree to be eliminated and wiped off the map’.xxii
Those statements had come in response to al-Ard’s call for the implementation of the 1947 Partition Plan and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. It was this point, more than anything else, that eventually drove the authorities to eliminate the movement.
With this, al-Ard had exhausted all avenues in its battle for legitimacy. In the five years of its troubled existence, its disputes had reached the Supreme Court six times.xxiii The movement was consumed with trying to break the restrictions on it and to form an independent organization, to obtain some kind of legal standing so it could work openly. In the end, it could not achieve much beyond protest meetings and public lectures, and the clubs that it formed in Palestinian villages. Sabri later wrote: ‘One of al-Ard’s obvious mistakes was to trust in Israeli justice and democracy; another was to underestimate the Zionist concept of “security” and how widely it could be interpreted when convenient.’xxiv For two decades afterwards, no independent Arab party would attempt to field a list of candidates in Knesset elections.
i El-Asmar, 1978, p. 74.
ii Ibid., pp. 74–5.
iii Ibid., p. 72.
iv Ibid., pp. 76–7.
v The Challenge of Ethnic Democracy: The State and Minority Groups in Israel, Poland and Northern Ireland, Yoav Peled, Routledge, Abingdon-on-Thames, 2014, p. 110.
vi Qahwaji, 1972, p. 168.
vii Knesset Debates, 20 February 1963, pp. 1215–16.
viii Rosenberg, 1996, p. 327.
ix Defence (Emergency) Regulations, 1945, Article 94 (2).
x Jiryis, 1976, p. 189.
xi Ibid., p. 190.
xii Al-Ard’s Bylaws (Arabic); translation cited in el-Asmar, 1978, p. 77–8; Jiryis, 1976, p. 190.
xiii Jiryis, 1976, p. 191.
xiv Judgments 18, part 4: 670, Sabri Jiryis v. the Haifa District Commissioner, case 253/64, cited in Jiryis, 1976, p. 192.
xv Haaretz, 24 July 1964, cited in Jiryis, 1976.
xvi Judgments 18, part 4: 677, Sabri Jiryis v. the Haifa District Commissioner, case 253/64, cited in Jiryis, 1976, p. 192.
xvii Ibid., part 4: 680.
xviii Al-Ittihad, 14 August 1964, cited in Jiryis, 1976.
xix The Legal Status of the Arabs in Israel, David Kretzmer, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1990, p. 24.
xx Judgments 19, part 3: 365, Ya’acov Yeridor v. the Chairman of the Central Elections Committee of the Sixth Knesset, Elections Appeal 1/65, cited in Jiryis, 1976, p. 194; The Jerusalem Post, 14 November 1965.
xxi Peled, 2014, p. 110.
xxii ‘Sabri Jiyris: “Al-Ard Movement” …’, Sabri Jiryis, 11 August 2017.
xxiii ‘A Case Study in the Banning of Political Parties: The Pan-Arab Movement El Ard and the Israeli Supreme Court’, Ron Harris, bepress Legal Series, Working Paper 349, 22 August 2004.
xxiv Jiryis, 1976, p. 195.