by Lutfi Mash'our
The uprising in the Arab areas inside Israel at the outset of the al-Aqsa Intifada [October 2000], which led to the fatal shooting of 13 Palestinian Israelis at the hands of the Israeli police, was undoubtedly an extremely critical turning point in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. It had significant implications for Israel itself and even more so for the Palestinian minority in this part of its homeland. Both in their momentum and outcome, these unprecedented events drew attention to basic facts and issues, the discussion of which has been put off only too long by both parties.
Of prime importance is the issue of defining the identity of the Palestinian citizen in Israel, so as to strike a balance between national belonging and citizenship. The facts, in this case, show only too well that, in the past, all talk about an identity definition was merely an exercise in semantics, aimed solely at finding an equation that would enable the Palestinian to merge into the life of the Jewish state. This attempt to assimilate on the part of the Palestinian is in reality not a search for nationality, but rather the acquisition of civil legitimacy. However, our national belonging is a deeply rooted and immutable fact, and the denial of our civil rights springs from one sole source — our belonging to the Palestinian people.
What’s in a Name?
Since the establishment of the Israeli state, attempts to formulate a definition of the identity of the Palestinian in Israel have taken a number of forms, divided into two major periods: The first began in 1948 and can be characterized as a period of expectancy — waiting for a solution that would revert to status quo ante and back to normalcy, obliterating the effects of the Nakba. The second period followed the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It basically led to the conviction that what happened during the Nakba is a new reality that cannot be changed; it is here to stay. (Some would prefer me to add “for the time being.”)
The Palestinian minority inside Israel — in all social segments and generations — was always watchful of developments on the Arab scene, in general, and the Palestinian, in particular. It was especially sensitive to issues related to discrimination and isolation between the various categories within the Palestinian people. The issue of proclaiming or displaying one’s identity, however — and I do not mean defining — remains essentially dependent on the reality of the existence of a Palestinian minority living within the State of Israel, as well as on the policy of the successive Israeli governments towards it. It has been contended that the Palestinian minority in Israel was basically seeking the means to assert its civil legitimacy and not necessarily a national identity. Nevertheless, the fact cannot be ignored that over half a century of living in Israel has, naturally, resulted in discrepancies — some basic — between this minority and its fellow nationals around the world.
Perhaps one of the most interesting issues, clarifying the “stratagem” used in presenting the national identity in such a way as not to prejudice the search for civil legitimacy, is the invention of various designations to describe the Palestinian minority inside Israel. These run the gamut from “the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael” (the people of the Land of Israel, which comes from the Hebrew–Jewish–Zionist name for Palestine, and was used right after the Nakba), to the label “Arabs of Israel,” to “the Arabs in Israel,” and so on.
In the wake of the 1967 occupation, which brought about the reunification of most of the Palestinian people, and put an end to the dream of going back to pre-1948 conditions, the designations “Palestinian citizens of Israel” and “the Palestinians in Israel” came into use. The restored continuity between the two Palestinian peoples (those of 1948 and those of 1967) automatically shook off the dust from the name “Palestinian.” It should be noted that during the same period, many other labels made their appearance, such as “the Arabs of the inside” and “the Arabs of 1948.” Those, in fact, were devised and imposed by our brethren the Palestinians and the Arabs to distinguish between the Palestinians living in Israel and those living in the rest of the homeland, in the Arab countries and in the diaspora. Evidently, the name “Palestine” is an important external symbol, even though the label “Arabs of Israel” remained in use and probably won’t disappear for reasons that go back to force of habit, to tactics, or even to the disinterest of some in demonstrating their identity.
Palestinian, Arab, Israeli
Whatever their source and however important they are, labels have neither saved us, nor have they released us from the duty to declare openly and frankly that our personality is made up of two components, Palestinian and Israeli, and that they have to coexist. In this context, I should mention the response of the late Dr. Sami Mer’i (the Palestinian thinker from Ar’ara and lecturer at Haifa University), who said: “I am first a Palestinian, then an Arab, and then an Israeli.” This sequence gives each component its allotted weight and proportion. As for me, I would prefer a situation combining the two components whereby the Palestinian in Israel is 100-percent Palestinian and 100-percent Israeli. This, however, is impossible and will certainly remain so. It would be more realistic for the Palestinian in Israel to be 50-percent Palestinian and 50-percent Israeli, on condition that, at some point, coexistence is achieved between the people to whom we belong and the state in which we live.
Also, neither of the two components making up our personality should threaten the other. Since I am forced to live this dichotomy — the Palestinian and the Israeli — the threatened Palestinian component within me usually grows at the expense of the Israeli. Indeed, it is almost always the Palestinian constituent that is threatened, and hence it pervades most of my personality. Were I able or willing to liberate myself from the Israeli component inside me, it would cease to exist at all.
The most important element brought into focus by the October events is the absence of frankness and moral rectitude between the authorities in Israel and its Palestinian citizens. It is no secret that the lack of an open discourse has been enforced by Israel, pending a “solution” for the Palestinian minority that remained on its land, despite miscarried attempts to expel it or force it to emigrate. In fact, Israeli efforts to effect demographic changes at the expense of Palestinian Israelis have not stopped for one day, as seen through the many successful land-grabbing operations, as well as the failed attempts at the Judaization of the Galilee and the Negev. At the end of the day, the meaning of a demographic change is nothing less than “transfer.”
The failure to address vital issues has led to slogans more dangerous than the labels mentioned above. Labels remain peripheral, while slogans can touch the very core of issues, engendering the acceptance of negative compromises.
My Homeland but Not My State
The above distinction has led to a sort of blatant yet questionable cooperation between the governments of Israel and the leaderships of the Arab citizens: old leaderships (mukhtars, clergymen and Knesset members) and current leaderships represented by the High Monitoring Committee for Arab Affairs in Israel. This is reflective of what I consider a most critical issue regarding our presence in Israel: The Jewish citizen is “resident” of a city and “citizen” of a state, while the Arab is “resident” of a village or city, but, in any case, only a “resident.” As the Israeli governments do not fully consider the Palestinian a “citizen” but “a resident,” they have, accordingly, created and developed a barrier made up of the “leaderships” through which they can deal with the Palestinians.
This is true of all levels of discourse. It is easier for the government in all cases to deal with a limited number of persons, say, about 100, than to deal with over a million. Even at a time when Israel did not recognize these leaderships, it did deal through them with the Arab citizen. Also when it wanted to level accusations against the Arab citizen, it did so, and still does, by pointing a finger at the leadership.
The crux of the issue then lies in the fact that the Arab in Israel is a resident and not an equal citizen. I am a Palestinian living in my country and in my own land. No one, old or new immigrant, can vie with me regarding my knowledge of this country. As for the state, in reality it is not my state; it does not want me; it tries to exclude me and to divest me of my legitimacy as a citizen.
If the Arab citizens are engaged in a struggle, albeit a drop in the ocean, it is a struggle to transform the homeland into a state, to turn the Palestinian from the son/daughter of a homeland into a citizen of a state. It goes without saying that, faced with the choice of a homeland over a state, I would choose, and have chosen, the former. I wish to avoid going back to a thankfully defunct slogan: “The Arabs of Israel are a bridge to peace.” There was no bridge, for nobody desired nor built one.
‘Peace and Equality’
The basic motto adopted by the Arab leaderships, regurgitated by the public, and most shamelessly exploited by the authorities, is that of “Peace and equality.” In fact, no one can be absolutely certain that it is not the government of Israel that has come up with this slogan, and then made us adopt it as though it were our only legitimate child.
The consequences of this slogan are crystal clear: the conditions of the Arab citizen in Israel are in constant deterioration. The October events and their aftermath attest to that. Palestinian Israelis are excluded from the state, although they live in it. This situation will possibly lead to the collapse of the fledgling Palestinian economy, to emigration and other dire developments. This slogan was the best cover for the Israeli government, allowing it to unscrupulously undermine our legitimacy and our interests.
Put simply, the slogan says: “Yes, we recognize your rights; we acknowledge the harm we have done you through discrimination and deceit. We will rectify the situation and we will bridge the gaps.” As if it were possible to bridge gaps, to restitute confiscated lands and to redress over 50 years of political, social and economic devastation. But the slogan also says, “But before all this takes place, peace has to be achieved.” Peace in this and every context means Israel’s security, as it perceives it, of course. There is a dangerous consensus, then, that there will be no equality for the Arab citizen before Israel’s security is attained. It is doubtful that Israel ever meant what it said; the highly elastic issue of security is merely used as a pretext for the non-implementation of equality.
Myth and Falsehood of Security
In 1967, the Israeli army reached the outskirts of Damascus and the Suez Canal, and totally occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, yet it did not feel secure enough to give us our rights, or, for example, to allow those expelled from Ikrit and Bir’im1 to return to their villages in accordance with the Israeli High Court of Justice rulings, and the promises made by the successive Israeli governments. The “security” of Israel was not assured either when its planes bombed the nuclear reactor in Iraq or with the assassination of Abu Jihad; when its army invaded Beirut to liquidate the Palestinian leadership or when it occupied the south of Lebanon; even after the visit of Anwar Sadat and the signing of the agreement with Egypt (1977), nor after the signing of the Oslo agreement (1993) and the conclusion of a peace agreement with Jordan (1994).
It is worth noting that the government of Israel reached a peace agreement with the Palestinian leadership in the occupied territories and gave them legitimate symbols, which it had been withholding from its own Palestinian citizens and their leadership on the “inside.” The Palestinians of Israel are not included in any negotiations. The most notable case is that of the poet Mahmoud Darwish. Before he left Israel in the early 1970s, Darwish held Israeli nationality, but to this day he is barred from entering Israel; whereas this ban does not apply to the Palestinian leadership, not even to those formerly involved in freedom fighting and those whose hands are allegedly “stained with Israeli or Jewish blood.” (To date, Mahmoud Darwish has been allowed three visits to the Galilee on special occasions and through the intervention of figures on the highest level.)
“Peace and equality,” then, is not the real issue. It is rather that of legitimacy — the legitimacy of the Palestinian citizen in the state that was created on his/her homeland. Only when viewed from this perspective can we hope to make progress towards some tangible resolution of the issue of the Palestinian in Israel.
The question of our legitimacy has its beginnings with the inception of the State of Israel and will go on indefinitely. Our legitimacy has been wrested from us on all levels: from the avowal of our identity, to the use of certain terminology (aren’t we forbidden to use the word “Nakba”?), including everything that has befallen and still befalls us, like land confiscation, the destruction of our traditional crops and our economy, the tampering with our education, housing and infrastructure, and the denial of our right to express solidarity with our fellow people. Our unrecognized legitimacy is also behind the Israeli police shooting at us during the October 2000 demonstrations — it wasn’t our first demonstration, nor was it the most violent and, certainly, it wasn’t the first or most violent demonstration witnessed in Israel. Our denied legitimacy was most clearly seen in the attempts to appoint an “inspection committee” in the wake of the killings instead of an official committee of inquiry.
It is exemplified in the presentation during Barak’s premiership of two motions in the Knesset and in their subsequently passing the first reading. The first is the Golan law that, in effect, denies the Arab citizens the right to participate in a national referendum regarding the future of the Golan Heights. The second is the law that stipulates the need for more than a simple majority (i.e., more than 50 percent) for the Knesset to pass important laws (this relates to the Golan and to the Palestinian territories), openly directed at the Palestinian members of Knesset.
Legitimacy Is Indivisible
It is only after we are given our legitimacy that our problems will be solved. It is my firm belief that this will not be forthcoming in the foreseeable future, and that it will not be given us within the context of a constitution or a Basic Law (presently used in lieu of a constitution). I have put forward two propositions that were rejected outright both by Jewish personalities and public opinion. In both cases the swift and inevitable response was that “you are asking for the abolition of the Jewish state and hence its destruction”! Does the legitimacy I am asking for pose such a threat to Zionist theory and practice?
The slogan I proposed to Ehud Barak, and that he adopted in his election campaign , was “A state for all” (not even “A state for all its citizens”); it was later ignored by him and his government. So too was “Israel is the state for the Jews and all its citizens.” In my opinion, the state cannot be for the Jews without it being for us too: legitimacy cannot be divided. The legitimacy of one side derives from that of the other; it cannot be exclusive. Our only hope is probably for the state to become the state of all its citizens, in which the Palestinian would be able to achieve citizenship — a complete citizenship — through being and remaining Palestinian. In this context I should mention two very important points: the Jewish business community, for whom the Arab minority in Israel is an important target group, has joined the ranks of the politicians and security people in denying our legitimacy, in spite of their business interests. Even recognition of our music is problematical. Israelis prefer to call it “folk” tunes and not “Arabic” tunes, and claim that the Andalusiat (Arabic poetry and music composed during Arab rule in Spain) are purely original Jewish music. Even hummous and foul and za’atar and our bread that is now called pitta (even among the Arabs in America and in some English dictionaries) became, ironically, nothing more than another form of stripping us of our national and ethnic legitimacy.
Israel’s Ultimate Test
Regardless of whether Israel reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinian people and the rest of the Arab and Islamic people, and whether it does or does not give up its perception and interpretation of security, it has to achieve peace with us, the Palestinians of the inside. However long the procrastination lasts, ours is the first and ultimate test for Israel, and the state will not be really defined until our question is addressed. This will not materialize without a solution to the problem of our fellow Palestinians, a solution that cannot be less than the establishment of a Palestinian state on the national soil within the 1967 boundaries, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
My reading of the facts is that the governments of Israel know very well what they want to do with the crucial issue of its Arab citizens. It is for that reason that they keep on delaying the opening of our file, although not one day passes without their studying it, with each government getting more uncompromising than its predecessor.
The final decision will come when a comprehensive peace is achieved (I do not say a lasting peace, for as long as our problem remains unsolved, there will be no lasting peace in the region), according to which a Palestinian state is established. The Arab citizen in Israel will then be told: “This is the State of Israel, the state of all the Jews worldwide, their only state; this is how it was established and this is how it will remain. As for you, you will have, as you did in the past, rights of a second-class citizen or less, and the only legitimacy you can aspire to is one of unequal rights. If you perceive your problem as a national one, there is a state close by called Palestine; go to it, or choose one of the other Arab or Islamic countries.” With this new–old declaration by the State of Israel, the Arab citizen will find himself/herself in the grips of an internal, indeed, an existential struggle.
To my mind, legitimacy can be extended to the Arab citizen without the state becoming binational in the sense that Israel rejects a binational instead of a Jewish state. Israel at present is, in effect, a binational state. Israel’s fear of the Right of Return and a change in the demographic make-up of the state as a result of a high birth rate among the Palestinians is not realistic.
If Israel maintains its position and does not urgently address the question of legitimacy of its Arab citizens, it might be confronted with the reality of having to revert to partition or to giving us autonomy — a national and not merely cultural autonomy. Alternatively, it might consider the internal displacement of the Arab population (exchanging, for example, some areas within the state with West Bank areas heavily populated with settlements), or, in the worst scenario, engage in a civil war that will lead nowhere — for it is unthinkable that the solution can lie in the expulsion or the eradication of one of the two peoples.
Events make it incumbent upon Israel to cease procrastinating and to address the issue of its Arab citizens now. Regardless of Israel’s other plans and wishes, such an undertaking cannot wait for a solution to all the problems relating to Israel’s relations with the Arab world. Courageous action is needed, and it should start at once.