Controversy has arisen after Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s comments to the United Nations’ General Assembly on 28 September. During his address the leader of the ultra-right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party outlined his proposal for a “population and territory swap” in the context of establishing an ostensible Palestinian state during this current round of US-brokered direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
His plan, which he first announced in 2004, includes a re-drawing of the borders — moving Palestinian towns and villages currently inside the state to within the confines of a separate Palestinian entity (“Avigdor Lieberman: Olmert’s newest colleague,” Institute for Middle East Understanding, 12 November 2006). This move would be in return for evacuations of some, but not all, settlements in the occupied West Bank. Settlements in occupied East Jerusalem would not be but would be annexed to the State of Israel under Lieberman’s plan. Lieberman, a settler himself, lives in the illegal West Bank settlement of Nokdim.
If the plan is implemented, Palestinians in these areas would immediately become citizens of a Palestinian state, and would be stripped of their Israeli citizenship unless they move to other cities inside an Israeli state. If they decide to move elsewhere within the state, they would be forced to sign a draconian “loyalty oath” — a pledge to protect the “Jewish and democratic” nature of the State of Israel.
“A final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has to be based on a program of exchange of territory and populations … We are not talking about population transfer but about defining borders so as best to reflect the demographic reality,” Lieberman told the UN.
However Lieberman may try to verbally understate his plan’s intentions, many Palestinians consider proposals such as these to be a continuation of ethnic cleansing policies in place since Israel’s establishment in 1948.
“The Palestinian people will not accept, after all [their] sacrifices, to be another victim of injustice,” Dr. Jamal Zahalqa, parliament member and chairman of the National Democratic Assembly bloc, told The Electronic Intifada.
“There are two systems [inside the State of Israel] — one for Palestinians and one for Jews,” he said. “We [the Palestinians inside the state] are challenging the Israeli state in its definition of democracy, and exposing this contradiction between Zionism and democracy. When we say that the state should represent all its citizens, Israeli leaders claim that it’s a Jewish state, that it belongs to one part of the population. We should make a counter-attack against what Israel is demanding — Israel demands of the Palestinians and the Arab world to recognize it as a Jewish state.”
Recently, Palestinian members of the Knesset, or Israel’s parliament, have decried the resumption of US-brokered direct talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. They are protesting the state’s systematic policies of discrimination towards all Palestinians inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and those who are citizens of the state itself.
“The current balance of power and the dictates of the United States will make the negotiations a disaster for the Palestinian people,” Raja Aghbarieh of the Abna al-Balad movement told Al-Jazeera Arabic on 9 September (“1948 Palestinians: the save Israel”).
At the same time, there has been a substantial uptick in political arrests of Palestinian human rights activists and leaders around the state fighting the entrenched policies of legalized discrimination espoused by Israeli lawmakers such as Lieberman.
The Electronic Intifada spoke with several Palestinian citizens of the state, and asked them for their reactions towards Lieberman’s plan and the general situation inside their communities.
Raneen Jiries, coordinator of oral history projects at Zochrot, a Tel Aviv-based organization dedicated to raising awareness of the ethnic cleansing of 1948 amongst the Jewish Israeli public, said that she’s glad Lieberman made his comments to the UN last week.
“The policies of the Israeli government haven’t changed since 1948 until today,” Jiries told The Electronic Intifada. “All the racism we see, all the various ethnic transfer plans, the persecution of our leaders, the killing, the confiscating of land, the ongoing expulsions — it’s nothing new. People are not surprised by Lieberman’s suggestions of a population transfer. Israeli officials have always tried to hide this sentiment from the world, and now [Lieberman] came out and said it clearly so everyone can hear it.”
“Now, what do we do?” Jiries added. “Palestinians inside the state, we keep fighting for our rights, as usual. We raise awareness within our community. We go out and demonstrate. We tell the truth about what’s happening in the West Bank and Gaza and inside Israel.”
Asmaa’ Azaizeh, a radio and television reporter from Haifa, told The Electronic Intifada that Lieberman’s statements shouldn’t be a shock.
“I personally think that we shouldn’t take Lieberman’s speech so seriously,” Azaizeh said. “And I assume that many people and political activists and political parties agree with this approach. In fact the idea of transfer is a mental charade that Lieberman leads. It’s not practical. Historically, [former Israeli Prime Minister] Golda Meir and other Zionist politicians have announced the same plan, and it’s never happened — because it can’t.”
“The existence of Palestinians inside Israel is the obstacle in front of officially defining Israel as an apartheid state,” Azaizeh said. “It’s easier for Israel to pretend it is a democratic state — Palestinian citizens get to vote and be in the Knesset. But if a population transfer is committed against us, the international community would immediately recognize Israel as an apartheid state. It already is, in practice — look at what’s happening in the West Bank and Gaza. But the only obstacle in front of Israel as being defined as an official apartheid regime is our existence here, as Palestinians.”
Lieberman’s plan could be a way to psychologically threaten Palestinians inside the state, Azaizeh said, to make them afraid to “commit to the struggle, to call for our rights, and also remain part of the entire Palestinian population and society, connected to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
“Lieberman is not the most racist politician, and he’s not the most extreme right-wing,” she said. “He’s just the mouth of the state mentality.”
Samieh Jabbarin, a political activist and artist living in Jaffa, was put on house arrest for nearly ten months after he organized protests in his hometown of Umm al-Fahem during the winter 2008-09 attacks on Gaza. Umm al-Fahem is one of the towns that, under Lieberman’s plan, would become part of a separate Palestinian entity.
“I think there are some elements that we need to talk about to understand what’s going on for Palestinians here,” Jabarrin told The Electronic Intifada. “The Olso accords ignored the Palestinians inside ‘48 [what is now called “Israel”]. It was a historical shock for us. The bourgeoisie leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization turned to the right, and took a stand with the imperial powers and the Zionists in order to split Palestine into pieces and control it.”
Jabbarin said that Palestinian political consciousness within the state “connects inherently and organically to both sides of the green line [the internationally-recognized armistice line between Israel and the West Bank]” ten years after the beginning of the second intifada.
“Today, we still connect ourselves to Palestinians inside the West Bank and Gaza,” he added. “Our participation in the second intifada wasn’t just a show of solidarity. We showed that there was a political effect against the Oslo agreements.”
Jabbarin said that the current direct talks are leading the general Palestinian population to a similar response. “It’s urgent for people to go out and demonstrate daily,” he said. “The demonstrations that take place here are much more massive, and happen more often than in the West Bank. I think that politically, the energy is here in the ‘48 territories. And the next big political or militaristic uprising would be a two-headed enemy: it would struggle against the Vichy government of the Palestinian Authority, and against Zionism itself. And from inside the state, we will help lead the resistance of Palestinians everywhere.”
For his part, Dr. Zahalka said that the responsibility towards justice lies with the international community to recognize the intentions of the Israeli government — and Zionism itself — through these policies. “If the politicians say that it’s an internal matter to describe itself as a Jewish state, this is something that is against even the international values which say that racism is never — in any case — a domestic issue,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
“One of the lessons of the struggle against South African apartheid is very simple: racism should be defeated, not compromised,” he said.
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, writing for The Electronic Intifada, Inter Press Service, Truthout and other outlets. She regularly reports from Palestine, where she also runs media workshops for youth in the Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.