What the persecution of Azmi Bishara means for Palestine

Azmi Bishara (Magnus Johansson/MaanImages)


The Israeli state and the Zionist movement have begun their latest assault in their century-long struggle to rid Palestine of its indigenous people and transform their country into a Jewish supremacist enclave: the persecution of Azmi Bishara, one of the most important Palestinian national leaders and thinkers working today. This case has enormous significance for the Palestinian solidarity movement.

Bishara is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, one of more than one million who live inside the Jewish state, who are survivors or their descendants of the Zionist ethnic cleansing that forced most Palestinians to leave in 1947-48. Elected to the Knesset in 1996, Bishara is a founder of the National Democratic Assembly, a party which calls for Israel to be transformed from a sectarian ethnocracy into a democratic state of all its citizens.

On Sunday, Bishara appeared on Al-Jazeera, after weeks of press speculation that he had gone into exile and would resign from the Knesset. He revealed that in fact he is the target of a very high level probe by Israeli state security services who apparently plan to bring serious “security” related charges against him. Censorship on this matter is so tight in “democratic” Israel that until a few days ago Israeli newspapers were prohibited from even mentioning the existence of the probe. They are still forbidden from reporting anything about the substance of the investigation, and Ha’aretz admitted that due to official censorship it could not even reprint much of what Bishara said to millions of viewers on television.

Bishara himself was vague about the allegations. If he even knows all the details, he could place himself in greater jeopardy by talking about them. He said he is still thinking about his options, including when to return to Israel. While he questioned the value of spending years proving his innocence of things he does not consider illegal, such as maintaining broad contacts with the Arab world of which he feels a part, he poignantly reflected that ultimately he faced a choice between prison, exile or martyrdom. These indeed are the only choices Israel has ever placed before Palestinians who refuse to submit to the racist rule of Zionism.

What he was clear about was that he is the target of a campaign, coordinated at the highest levels of the Israeli state to destroy him and his movement politically. He is undoubtedly right about this and there is long precedent. In 2001, Israel’s attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein charged Bishara with “endangering the state” because of comments he made during a visit to Syria, and the Knesset voted for the first time in its history to lift the immunity of one of its members so Bishara could be prosecuted. In 2003, the Israeli Central Elections Committee attempted to disqualify Bishara and his party from standing in national elections, on the grounds that the party did not adhere to the dogma that Israel must remain a “Jewish state.” Under Israeli law all parties are required to espouse the dogma that Israel must always grant special and better rights to Jews, meaning truly democratic parties are always flirting with illegality. That decision was eventually overturned by the courts. (Though it should be noted that the ban was supported by former attorney general Rubinstein, who is now a Supreme Court judge!). Such persecution against Palestinians in Israel has been the norm since the state was founded. Until 1966, they lived under “military government,” a form of internal military occupation similar to that experienced by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza today. Laws, practices and policies that continue to deny their fundamental human rights are well described in Jonathan Cook’s recent book Blood and Religion: Unmasking the Jewish and Democratic State. In recent years opinion polls show that a majority of Israeli Jews consistently support government efforts to force Palestinian citizens out of the country. (In recent weeks, former Israeli prime minister and current Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu declared that it would be best if Bishara never returned).

Bishara sees Israel’s latest gambit as signalling a change in the “rules of the game.” If he, an elected official, a well-known public figure can face such tactics, what will the rest of the community face? Indeed, the recent publication by leading Palestinians in Israel of a report calling for mild reforms to the Israeli state prompted Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet (which operates torture and death squads in the occupied territories) to warn that it would “disrupt the activities of any groups that seek to change the Jewish or democratic character of Israel, even if they use democratic means” (“Arab leaders air public relations campaign against Shin Bet,” Ha’aretz, 6 April 2007). (There is precedent for such disruption not only against Palestinians, but even against Israel’s Mizrahi Jews whose attempts to organize against Ashkenazi discrimination were destroyed by the Shin Bet — see Joseph Massad’s book The Persistence of the Palestinian Question.)

Palestinian solidarity activists must understand and act on the signal Israel is sending by persecuting Bishara. For years, the mainstream Palestinian movement and its allies have buried their heads in the slogan “end the occupation.” If it ever was, this vision is no longer broad enough. We must recognize that Israel’s war against Palestinians does not discriminate among Palestinians, sparing some and condemning others. It does however take different forms, depending on where Palestinians are. Those in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip live under an extreme form of military tyranny now often called “apartheid,” though it is increasingly apparent that it is something even worse. Palestinians inside Israel’s 1948 borders live under a system of laws, policies and practices that exclude them politically and oppress them economically and socially. Millions of Palestinians outside the country are victimized by racist laws that forbid their return for the sole reason that they are not Jews.

In practice this means that the Palestinian solidarity movement needs to fashion a new message that breaks with the failed fantasy of hermetic separation in nationalist states. It means we have to focus on fighting Israeli racism and colonialism in all its forms against those under occupation, against those inside, and against those in exile. We need to educate ourselves about what is happening all over Palestine, not just in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We need to stand and act in solidarity with Azmi Bishara and all Palestinians inside the 1948 lines who have for too long been marginalized and abandoned by mainstream Palestinian politics. Support for the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is particularly urgent (see http://www.pacbi.org/). In practice we need to start building a vision of life after Israeli apartheid, an inclusive life in which Israelis and Palestinians can live in equality sharing the whole country. If Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and hardline Northern Ireland Unionist leader Ian Paisley can sit down to form a government together, as they are, and if Nelson Mandela and apartheid’s National Party could do the same, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility in Palestine if we imagine it and work for it.

Azmi Bishara is the only Palestinian leader of international stature expressing a vision and strategy that is relevant to all Palestinians and can effectively challenge Zionism. That is why he is in fear for his life, safety and future while the quisling “president” Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah receives money and weapons from the United States and tea and cakes from Ehud Olmert.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006)

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