Between oppression and empowerment

A Palestinian citizen of Israel is arrested by Israeli riot police at a protest commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Nakba in Saffuriya village outside Nazareth, 8 May 2008. (Keren Manor/ActiveStills)


Defining the status of the Palestinian citizens of Israel has always been a puzzle for many scholars. One called the Palestinian citizens “semi-citizens” with accidental citizenship. Another distinguished between “liberal citizenship” granted to the Arabs and “republican citizenship” granted to the Jews. A third distinguished between “incidental citizenship” granted to the Arabs and “substantive citizenship” granted to the Jews. I have contributed to this discussion by claiming that the Palestinians are “citizens without citizenship.” The “citizen without citizenship” is the citizen who is excluded from the political community, from the dominant public sphere and from the common public good. This citizen has rights within the state but does not have rights over the state, to use the terms used by then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. To this citizen, the state is his home, but his home is not his national home, as Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni would have it. He is the citizen who is supposedly equal as an individual but his equality is subordinated to the general condition of discrimination, as is evident in the liberal Zionist position and the Israeli high court’s approach. The Jewish state transforms the Arab citizens into citizens without citizenship: they are marginalized, their homeland is taken from them, their history is silenced and the public common good is achieved at their expense.

Leaving definitions aside, we witnessed three remarkable developments last year. First, with talks about the revival of the Oslo process and the Annapolis conference, leaders of the Palestinian community inside Israel met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and urged him not to agree to Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state. Second, was the publication of the “Vision Documents” by three Palestinian elite groups inside Israel articulating the demands for equality and transforming Israel into a state for all its citizens. Third, the Israeli General Security Service publicly warned against “subversive” Arab attempts to change the Jewish character of the state, even if pursued by lawful means, and considered the Palestinian minority a “demographic and strategic threat.”

What is happening here? Two competing and conflicting processes are underway. First, is the intensification of oppression by the Israeli security apparatus and the growing hostility among the Jewish majority toward the Palestinian minority. Second, is the ongoing process of empowerment within the Palestinian minority inside Israel. I will briefly discuss each of these processes and their effect on the foreseeable future.

The failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000 was a crucial moment in Israeli political thinking. The elites who were invested in the Oslo process reached the conclusion that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will not deliver, he will not agree to the Israeli-American dictates; therefore, a solution that would accept the Israeli terms cannot be achieved in the near future. The aftermath of Camp David, that is the outbreak of the second intifada and the mass protests of the Palestinian citizens of Israel in October 2000 and the brutal reaction of the security forces, became a watershed moment that heightened in these elites’ eyes as well as in popular perceptions the “problem” of the Arab citizens. You may recall Ehud Barak’s statements in June 2002 to the effect that the Arab citizens will serve as the spearhead of the Palestinian struggle, and this requires changes in the rules of the democratic game to guarantee the “Jewishness” of the state. The immediate developments were the Herzliya Conference in December 2000 (recommending a policy of containment) and the Kinnert Covenant in August 2001 (emphasizing Jewish demographics) as well as Sharon’s rise to power with an overwhelming majority in March 2001. A later reaction was the project of drafting a constitution. These projects aimed at articulating a vision for Israel and forming a consensus behind this vision. This vision is not only about enhancing the ethno-religious character of the state, obsession with demography and preserving Jewish domination but also about the rejection of the right to return.

The right-wing, which since 1977 has always been in a better position than the left within the Jewish vote, became the mainstream, and Israeli society moved to the right. In addition, the Israeli security apparatus identified two political movements among the Arab minority as an immediate threat: the extra-parliamentary Islamic movement led by Raed Salah and the parliamentary nationalist movement led by Azmi Bishara. Consequently, both movements and leaders were persecuted; Salah was sentenced to a three-year jail term and Bishara finds himself these days in a forced exile and outside the Knesset. The identification of these leaders as a threat is not surprising given that both of them resist Zionist hegemony inside Israel. Salah is identified mainly with three long-term projects: creating a self-sufficient Arab society (creating institutions which provide services the state does not provide); protecting religious sites, especially the al-Aqsa mosque; and organizing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Bishara is identified with the call for a state of all its citizens and collective rights, which became the living spirit behind the “Vision Documents;” breaking the isolation of the Arab minority by connecting to the Arab world; and finally with the idea of organizing the Arab minority as a national minority. In short, both Salah and Bishara are important figures in the empowerment of the community. That’s why they were targeted. The state hopes that by reframing their agendas as treason, incitement to violence and supporting terrorism, their community will be intimidated, their ideas will be delegitimized and the state will avoid meeting the challenge the Palestinian minority presents by demanding equality.

Another indicator of growing oppression is the ethnocentric legislation the Knesset passed in these years, which curtails political rights and is forcing the Arab representatives, more than ever, to accept the axioms of the Zionist consensus as an eligibility requirement for electability. The ban on the family unification law, upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court, meant that the attack on Arab citizenship is extended also to the private sphere; that is the love life of the Arab citizens, which makes one wonder what is the meaning of a citizenship that does not include the right to a family life of one’s own choice. On other fronts, the main representative of this hostile policy is the establishment of the demolition authority and growing numbers of house demolitions, which of course invite protest. The bottom line of these and other developments (such as killing Arab citizens with impunity, spraying toxic chemicals on the farmland of the Bedouin citizens and revoking the citizenship of suspected security offenders) is a growing erosion of the distinction between the Palestinian citizen and the Palestinian non-citizen.

Let me move to the empowerment processes within the Palestinian minority. The Palestinians inside Israel grew from 156,000 in 1948 to 1.2 million or so today. In spite of the population growth, the state has not established a single Arab community while it has established about 600 Jewish communities since 1948. Quite the contrary, more than 80 percent of the Arab citizens’ lands have been confiscated since 1948. Ninety-two percent of the Arab citizens continue to live in separate Arab communities suffering from dire economic conditions — 54 percent of the Palestinian families are poor. A study conducted last year revealed that the Human Development Index (a measure for standards of living, poverty and progress) of the Palestinian citizens in Israel ranks in the 66th place out of 177 countries, 43 slots below the general ranking of Israel — their state — which ranks 23rd. The gross domestic product (GDP) per capita for the Palestinian minority is a third of the GDP per capita of the Jewish majority and is identical to Romania and Iran. The level of education in Jordan, Lebanon and Libya is higher than that of the segregated Arab education system in Israel (a system highly controlled and monitored by the General Security Service). The level of health amongst the Palestinian minority is lower than countries like Costa Rica and Cuba.

Given these ghetto-like conditions, it is not surprising that protest has always been a recurrent theme — May 1958, March 1976 (Land Day), 1977 (house demolitions in Majd al-Kroom), 1998 (land confiscation in Rouha), October 2000 and 2001 (protests against the Trans-Israel Highway). From villagers and peasants, the minority has developed a middle class and an intelligentsia. For the past ten years, we have commemorated the Nakba and organized visits to the sites of the ruined villages. In the most recent commemoration in May 2008, the Israeli police stormed the main event in Saffuriya. A week later, confrontations erupted between Palestinian students in Israeli universities and the police. In the 1970s, representative national institutions were formed. During the 1980s-1990s, national Arab political parties were established. Also, in the 1990s, we witnessed a proliferation of non-governmental organizations. In this century, we are witnessing a decrease in Arab suffrage due to disenchantment with electoral politics as the main venue for political action. The recent “Vision Documents” were in part a reaction to the exclusion of the Arab citizens from the Jewish vision, as such these documents presented a clear-cut challenge to the ideology of the state.

One can also identify a change of rhetoric and strategy. While rhetorically there is an emphasis on collective and indigenous rights, strategically, there is a serious and growing effort to reach out to the Arab world to raise awareness on hardships the minority faces and to internationalize the question of the Palestinian minority. One of the reasons for this is the absence of any discussion of the final status of this minority in the Oslo process. Quite the contrary, the Oslo process itself was promoted by left-to-center Jewish elites who were willing to contemplate territorial compromises due to demographic and strategic concerns vis-a-vis the sustainability of the Zionist project. That is, they wanted the two-state solution in order to preserve a Jewish state. For the Arab citizen, this is a code name for eternal subordination; a condition of constant foreignness and alienation in his/her own homeland. While inferiority can be imposed, one cannot ask the victim to accept/internalize/endorse it. You cannot ask the victim of historical injustice to legitimate it. The Arab citizens distinguish between recognizing Israel as a state (as institutions) and as a Jewish state (as an ideological artifact, a product of the colonial project). For the majority of the Jewish citizens, there is no distinction between the two. In fact, in political and legal terms, being Jewish comes before the state.

Where does this leave us? Or, if you will, where does it lead? Prophecy has been given to fools and children as the Old Testament says. So, I do not want to predict scenarios. But it is likely that the intensification of oppression, faced with a growing empowerment of the oppressed, will lead to further confrontation. The Israeli establishment is alarmed by developments in the Palestinian minority and is presenting an iron fist policy in order to deter and subjugate. But one cannot reverse historical processes, and the spirit of freedom, once unleashed, cannot be suppressed for a long time without considerable costs. The “Vision Documents” demonstrate that the Palestinian citizens are no longer content with the leftovers of rights and the status of being considered unwelcomed guests who are granted an inferior citizenship. One of the documents, the Haifa Declaration, was published shortly after the forced exile of Azmi Bishara, with this message: fear is over. The existence of Palestinian citizens in a Jewish and Zionist state reveals the inherent contradiction of the Zionist project: you cannot have a Jewish supremacy and claim that you are democratic because you do not propose equal and universal citizenship. Nelson Mandela issued the freedom charter in June 1955; the South Africans won their freedom 40 years later. My hope is that it will not take us 40 years after the publication of the “Vision Documents” to achieve freedom and equality in our homeland.

Nimer Sultany is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and currently a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School. He has worked as a human rights lawyer in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and as the head of the political monitoring project at Mada al-Carmel (the Arab center for applied social research).