How Israeli leftists trivialize the Palestinian cause

Ending Israel’s military rule in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 will not solve the problem of a state built for one group at the expense of another.

By Zena Tahhan

Palestinians march through the streets of Bethlehem to commemorate the Nakba, May 14, 2013. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/
Palestinians march near the separation wall in Bethlehem to commemorate the Nakba. (File photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/

Ask any Palestinian on the street and they will tell you that the 1948 territories—those areas that now make up Israel—are occupied. It does not matter that the world accepted and recognized Israel on those borders, nor does it matter that the 1.8 million Palestinians who live there have Israeli passports in a so-called “democracy.” To Palestinians, Israel in the 1948 territories is the same Israel in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

It is the same Israel that killed six Palestinians in the Galilee protesting against the theft of their land in 1976, leading to what is now known as Land Day. It is the same Israel that killed 500 children during the 2014 war on Gaza. It is the same Israel that carries out home demolitions in the Negev and in East Jerusalem. This is what the majority of Israelis who consider themselves “leftists” do not understand, or do not want to.

Their answer to the conflict is a two-state solution—that both Palestine and Israel have a right to exist.

They spend their time fighting the occupation as they define it—Israeli military rule in the territories occupied in 1967—by going to the Palestinian territories, participating in protests, standing in the face of Israeli soldiers, and raising awareness in their communities in Israel.

But the divide between reality on the ground and what most Israeli human rights activists think is the answer to the conflict could not be wider. If Israeli leftists truly believe in equality before the law for Palestinians, then their fight must take place at home in Israel.

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As prominent Palestinian human rights activist Amany Khalifa said when I interviewed her in Jerusalem last year: “Why is it that they’re leaving the 1948 [territories] and going to the 1967 [territories] to support Palestinians? Shouldn’t we expect them to talk with their own Israeli communities and families? It’s much easier to speak to Palestinians.”

“They go to a protest and then after the protest they know there’s Maqloubeh [a traditional Palestinian dish] somewhere in one of the villages,” she continued. “They know Palestinians will welcome them. But it’s the fight at home that’s going to cause them much more of a headache.”

From my many conversations with Israeli activists, most of whom call themselves leftists and who claim to be supporters of Palestinian rights, it feels as if most of them do so only as long as it serves their interests as well.

I posed this question to Israeli human rights activist Sahar Vardi earlier this year; I asked her why the discussion about 1948 in Israel is non-existent.

“There is an easy solution for 1967,” Vardi told me. “I don’t think it’s realistic, but at least at the level of public discussion, the Israeli left has a solution for the problem born out of the 1967 war.”

While it is true that the military occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza is brutal and needs to end immediately, the issue is much larger than the occupation of 1967. In fact, by focusing only on 1967, Israeli leftists trivialize the Palestinian cause for justice and dilute our right to self-determination. If equality is really what they hope to achieve, the scope of the discussion needs to fundamentally change.

To begin with, Israel’s crimes are not limited to the occupied territories. The problem is the essence of the state itself: an ethnocratic state built on the ruins of another country to serve one group at the expense of another.

Whether you believe there was a Palestine before 1948 is immaterial; there were more than one million people whose fate was sealed because a European power occupying the land decided to support a movement—Zionism—whose goal could only be realized by the subjugation of the native population.

Palestinian refugee Laila Abdel Meguid Tafesh 78 years old, from the Rafah refugee camp, holds up a key she says is from her house in Jaffa. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)
Palestinian refugee Laila Abdel Meguid Tafesh 78 years old, from the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza, holds up a key she says is from her house in Jaffa, now part of Israel. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The question that needs to be asked is why any people should have a right to their own exclusive state at the expense of another people. Why must more than five million Palestinian refugees live in camps, unable to return to their homes in the 1948 territories, so that Jews can have their own state? Why must more than 1.8 million Palestinians live as second-class citizens inside Israel, facing persecution if they oppose the very movement that led to the displacement of their people? Why must they live in a state that places the interests of its Jewish citizens before their own?

By defining Israel as a “Jewish state,” discrimination and racism are an entrenched reality for Palestinian citizens. Among the dozens of laws that only entrench the “Jewish character” of the state, some of the most salient examples are the Law of Return and the Citizenship Law, which allow any Jew in the world to move become an Israeli citizen while Palestinian refugees, including those who were born in the country, are forbidden from returning to their homeland. The list goes on and on.

As long as such exclusionary, ethnocentric laws define the relationship between Palestinians and the state—whether in the 1948 or 1967 territories—Israel will continue to face Palestinian resistance.

A two-state solution is not the answer to the conflict. Ending military rule in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 does not solve the problem of a state built for one group at the expense of another. The answer is to reject Zionist ideology, abandon the idea of a Jewish state, and replace it with a state of all its people, premised on true equality for all human beings—not as Palestinians, Jews, or any other label.

 Zena Tahhan is a journalist at Al Jazeera English.