“Our community is at risk”: An interview with Ittijah’s Ameer Makhoul

Ameer Makhoul (Adri Nieuwhof)

Ittijah, the Union of Arab Community Based Associations, was founded in 1995 in response to a widely felt need for increased cooperation and exchange between Palestinian Arab organizations in Israel. Ittijah’s member organizations are engaged in a variety of issues from human rights to social and economic development as well as culture and the arts. The Electronic Intifada contributor Adri Nieuwhof recently interviewed Ameer Makhoul, the general director of Ittijah.

Adri Nieuwhof: Please introduce yourself and Ittijah.

Ameer Makhoul: I am the general director of Ittijah, the network of Palestinian civil society organizations within the borders of Israel. Ittijah unites the majority of the organizations of the Palestinians who remained in the homeland. One major goal is to organize Palestinian community efforts in the context of creating unity among Palestinians. We have succeeded in uniting 81 Palestinian no-governmental organizations from around the whole country. I also chair the Palestinian Committee for the Protection of Political Freedoms in Israel that was founded in 2003 in response to increasing political persecutions. The committee is composed of civil society organizations and all of the Palestinian political parties in Israel.

AN: What is life like for the Palestinian community inside Israel?

AM: I would say our community is the most organized compared to other Palestinian communities. Our community is at risk because of the systematic, colonial, racist practices and policies of Israel [imposed] to weaken this group and to try to disconnect it from the other Palestinian communities. I witness an increase in our role in the debate about how to obtain our rights as a community and as a people. At the same time, the Israeli persecution increases. There are attempts to delegitimize our work and to disconnect us morally from our homeland and from the responsibility we feel for our homeland. Israel uses its legal system and its laws on citizenship and loyalty to the Jewish state to achieve this. Even having contacts with the outside world can be considered illegal. Any speech or essay can be judged by Israel law as illegal or as a sign of maintaining relationships with the enemy. Israel is a Jewish state, it is not our state. So we Palestinians are marginalized and delegitimized by this society. And Israeli policy is that we have to accept this.

AN: Do you see parallels between the conditions of Palestinians in Israel, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and the Diaspora?

AM: I always see the connection, always. Look at the nature of Israel. They make this connection, but they do not allow us to make it. For example, the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was not for peace; it served the campaign for a Jewish state. Israel wants to influence the demographic balance by Judaizing the Galilee [region of northern Israel], the Negev and East Jerusalem. Most of the Palestinians live in those places. There is a right of return for Jews, but our right for return is blocked by Israel.

Israel’s projects in Nazareth Illit and Maale Adumin [in the occupied West Bank] are aimed at the same goal: to disconnect the Palestinian population, to gain control over Palestinian land. The infrastructure of the Palestinian people must be destroyed. The aim has not changed since 1948. We Palestinians in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Diaspora are facing the same nature of policies. All of us have a lack of control over our sovereignty, our land and our education. And now with the new legislation on loyalty we have a lack of control over our thinking and even our feelings.

AN: You attended a court hearing on 13 January in the case against Sheikh Raed Salah. Can you tell us about the case and the hearing?

AM: Sheikh Raed Salah is the leader of the largest Palestinian extraparliamentary movement in Israel, the Islamic movement. He is a very active, credible and highly respected leader. The movement’s al-Aqsa Association aims to protect religious property of both Muslim and Christian all around the historic Palestine and in particular in East Jerusalem. They revealed plans for the construction of a synagogue and archaeological plans around the al-Aqsa mosque. Sheikh Raed made it difficult to implement these policies and was involved in protests against home demolitions and home evictions. He and other leaders of the movement received orders from the Israeli military not to come to Jerusalem. Sheikh Raed Salah was accused of attacking a policeman — by spitting on him — during one of the campaigns in occupied East Jerusalem. Bishop Atala Hanna of the Greek Orthodox Church attended the court hearing, as did leaders of all other political parties. I also attended. The verdict was nine months imprisonment and six months suspended sentence. The justification was that the sheikh does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty in East Jerusalem, which Israel considers as its capital. But under international law it is occupied territory.

AN: Are Palestinian youth in Israel actively involved in improving their situation?

AM: Yes, and three youth organizations are members of Ittijah. Youth are targeted by Israel. Israel wants to disconnect Israeli Arabs from the Palestinian cause, homeland and history. [Israeli President] Shimon Peres and others say that we should “forget about the past.” But he is looking back millennia to try to justify the Zionist enterprise, to claim Israel as “my father’s land.” The last year more than 1,000 youth were invited by the Shabak, the Israeli security agency, and were interrogated and intimidated for hours. Israel does not want Palestinian youth to be active. Family is used to put pressure on them. The message is to choose your career, perform civic services and become an informant for the Shabak. I call it state terror.

Israel has a system of compulsory military service. Serving in the army gives certain benefits in life, for example loans, housing, etc. By law Palestinians are not called to perform this military service. Thus Palestinians in Israel are excluded from these benefits. Yet members of the ultra orthodox religious groups who do not serve in the army still enjoy these benefits automatically as Jews. At the same time, Palestinian Druze Arabs who must perform compulsory full military service are treated as Palestinians in terms of rights. This is racial discrimination. Above all the most colonial and racist law in Israel is the law of return and law of citizenship which is the basis for all discrimination.

AN: How do you think this institutional discrimination can be challenged?

AM: Israel is pushing the Palestinian community to a big confrontation, in order to harm the whole community. We must look at the whole of the Palestinian community since 1948. We need to include the 1.4 million Palestinian people living in Israel in our efforts for just solution. The international community looks at us as part of the Israeli problem. International solidarity should be based on the root causes of the problem, meaning the situation since 1948, which includes Palestinians inside Israel.

Adri Nieuwhof is an independent consultant based in Switzerland.