Honesty is needed to wake Israelis from their delusions. Continuing to view Israel as a normal state will only prolong this bloody conflict and create yet more suffering for both sides.
By Awad Abdelfattah
Israel’s ruling elite continues to mislead Israeli society into believing that the Palestinians will one day submit to their enslavement. Israel’s colonization of the land and people is unceasing, suppressing and killing the indigenous Palestinian population in a quest for an illusionary individual and collective security.
The recent onslaught on Gaza – the third major offensive in seven years – and the continuing escalation in official racist policies and practices against Israel’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens have failed to make Palestinians submit. Rather, this endless warfare has only bolstered their resilience and commitment to struggle for their legitimate rights.
Israelis assume that the lessons of other colonized peoples’ triumphant liberations do not hold true for them. In this view Israel represents a “chosen people” and is immune to historical processes that drive human beings to fight for a free and decent life. This belief is sustained both by an obsession among Israelis with their self-image as an enlightened and superior society, and by a classic colonial racist worldview.
Israel’s repeated brutal assaults on the Palestinian people, and its failure to subjugate a small number of Palestinian fighters incarcerated in the tiny besieged enclave of the Gaza Strip have generated further cracks in this self-image of superiority. It will be many years before these cracks widen and reach the point where the whole colonial edifice crumbles. But the fact that it will crumble is a realization that increasingly haunts Israelis.
In the short and medium terms, Palestinians in general, including those who hold Israeli citizenship, will have to endure more suffering. Israel’s frustration with its inability to defeat a few thousand Palestinian fighters in Gaza, and disconnect the civil population from those fighters, is being translated into plans for further land grabs, Judaization, displacement of Palestinians and the ever-greater suffocation of their enclaves in the West Bank and Jerusalem. As for Palestinians inside Israel, officials issue new threats against them, either for showing solidarity with their brethren or for asserting their national identity. By these actions, the colonizer assumes he will win the next round.
The new surge of hatred, incitement and assaults on Palestinians in Israel is seen by observers as unprecedented in its intensity and gravity, even given the history of fragile Arab-Jewish relations. With the exception of a few thousand bold anti-Zionist Israelis and genuine liberals, polls show that the overwhelming majority continues to view Palestinian citizens as a demographic and security threat, and therefore wishes they would disappear.
During the onslaught on Gaza, such attitudes escalated, culminating in a wave of physical street attacks. This came as no surprise given the calls for transfer from senior government officials and the total silence that greeted these outbursts. For example, the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, termed all those who showed solidarity with the people of Gaza “traitors,” and urged a boycott of their communities.
Within the Palestinian minority in Israel, there have been people, under the influence of an obsolete Soviet-backed internationalism, who have engaged in Arab-Jewish coexistence, naively believing that it would be possible to reach peace and equality once Israel accepted the two-state solution. The unfolding of the Oslo Accords, which had seemed to concur with their political vision, slowly roused them from their illusions. Neither an independent Palestinian state nor equality for Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens was realized. Not just that: Both objectives look more distant than ever.
It is clear that this illusion was based on a poor understanding of the nature of the state of Israel, and the real intention of its leaders.
Some Arab citizens, those who favored Arab-Jewish parties, accepted at its inception that Israel should embody the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in Palestine. Independent Arab political activists who challenged this flawed analysis were quickly suppressed by Israel. In the first two decades, during repressive military rule, no effective or mass movement of Arab dissent was possible. Only the Arab-Jewish Communist Party was allowed. Although it never challenged the Jewish character of the state, its activists were harassed by the then ruling party of Mapai for their opposition to state policies of repression, discrimination and land confiscation.
The Israeli Declaration of Independence included an inherent contradiction, between the pledge to grant equality to all citizens regardless of religion and nationality, and the declaration of Israel as the state of the Jewish people all over the world. The Communist Party, contrary to classical Marxism, adopted an Israeli patriotism, while its leadership opposed independent Arab parties, including the Al-Ard movement, which was banned in 1963.
The declaration’s inherent contradiction translated into a policy of sweeping confiscations of Arab lands; strict control over Arab education and denial of a Palestinian narrative; persecution and intimidation of dissenting Arab political activists; and the isolation of Arab communities, segregated from Jewish ones. A form of apartheid was instituted.
The policy of control and containment eased a little beginning in the 1970s. This period was characterized by a growing liberalism, which gave impetus to new patterns of political behavior among Arab citizens. After the 1967 war Israel felt more confident of itself, and could afford to be relatively open toward the Palestinian minority, whose growing political consciousness was becoming harder to contain.
A new assertiveness
This development brought two trends. The first was a self-assertion of Palestinian identity, influenced by internal and external factors: The rise of a Palestinian national movement in exile, combined with a mounting political consciousness among Palestinian citizens in Israel nourished by the Israeli state’s continuing land grabs and discrimination.
The second trend was a growing understanding of the need for equal citizenship (some Israeli researchers term this trend “Israeliness”). It took many years for large segments of the Palestinian minority, especially among the elites, to grasp the idea that full citizenship was unachievable as long as the existing Zionist system remained in place.
As is true for all oppressed people, this political awakening required a vehicle to accelerate the process and transform it into a concrete political agenda. It was the Balad (or National Democratic Assembly) Party that assumed this historical role in 1995. The Party’s platform of a “state for all its citizens” required that the Zionist-racist character of the state of Israel and its colonial nature be terminated.
When we, the founders of the Party, spent three years reviewing our community’s historic experiences, and debating and devising the new vision, we were careful to address both Arabs and Israeli Jews in a truly democratic and humanistic manner. But it was imperative to emphasize, along with equal citizenship, the need for a revived Palestinian national identity. Only a nationalist and democratic vision could prevent deterioration into “Israelization,” a deformed national identity. Nonetheless, we avoided terminology that could be viewed as too radical or unrealistic. Our purpose was to provide a window to true cooperation between Palestinians and Jews, and open a way toward a just and lasting peace, and to true democracy.
Surprising to us, the most hostile reactions came from those who call themselves (Zionist) liberals. In his book published in early 2000, former head of the Shin Bet intelligence agency Ami Ayalon, a signatory with Palestinians to the Geneva Agreement, demanded that the Balad Party and its leader of the time, Azmi Bishara, be put on trial for refusing to recognize the right of the Jews to a state of their own. Ayalon illustrated the extent to which even liberals were antagonized by the idea of full equality, because it runs counter to Zionist ideology.
The strict system of control employed between 1948 and1966, both physical and psychological, weakened the ability of the colonized Palestinian citizens to challenge it on a mass scale. Instead the colonized sought to cope with their new situation, and relate to it in a way that ensured their survival. They faced a complex reality: opposing the nature of the state while in daily life being entirely dependent on it. Palestinian intellectuals and elites also learnt to cope with this contradiction: “Equality” in the state of Israel had to take priority over the demand to overthrow the colonial regime.
In raising our new political vision, the Balad Party helped to create an ideological and terminological shift. Over time Palestinians in Israel have become more, not less, vocal in resisting Israel’s racist and colonial policies, as we saw in the mass demonstrations in the Negev against the Prawer Plan last year.
As a result Palestinian citizens and their leaders were accused of an extreme and provocative anti-Israel discourse. Israeli society, a settler society that has gone through a long ideological indoctrination concerning its relationship to Palestine and the Palestinian people, rejected any sort of tolerance. Palestinian citizens were expected by the state to refrain from effective protest at Israel’s assaults on their people, and from demonstrating support of the right of their brethren to defend themselves. Not only that: They were required to drop their demand for full equality and accept a perpetual inferior status.
Israel was always a colonial and racist entity, but it had for many reasons succeeded in concealing this policy. Through a well-financed propaganda machine it promoted itself to Western governments and civil societies as enlightened and the only democracy in the ”barbaric and backward Middle East.”
To serve this objective, it granted the Palestinian survivors of the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) the rights to vote and run for its parliament, or Knesset, and argued that the occupation that began in 1967 was a temporary arrangement. But the recent behavior of the State of Israel toward its own Palestinian citizens and toward those living under a colonial apartheid regime in the 1967 occupied territories has placed a question mark – even for outsiders – over Israel’s legitimacy as a supposedly normal democratic state.
Finding an alternative
It must be admitted that there is no real peaceful settlement in sight. The two-state solution was never a genuine one, given the scale and depth of the colonization in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and given the right wing’s domination over Israeli polity and society. More importantly, the two-state paradigm provides no solution to the issue of the refugees or the Palestinians in Israel who live under a system of structural discrimination, exclusion and hostility.
Palestinians in Israel are not part of the decision-making process in Israel. Conversely, as a national group they are not involved in the intellectual and political efforts made by the Palestinian national movement to create alternative political visions and strategies. Except for limited involvement by individuals, their political parties and movements are ignored by the Palestinian leadership.
Some Arab parties inside the Green Line that adhere to the two-state solution reject a debate about other alternatives or paradigms. These groups hold that any move beyond this paradigm, or further rapprochement with the Palestinian national movement, would motivate Israel to take more repressive and hostile measures. But with the Israeli reality ever more antagonistic it has become harder for Palestinians and for progressive Israelis to operate inside the current paradigm.
Since there is no future for the two-state solution and no hope for the demand for equality without challenging the Jewish essence of the Israeli state, why continue wasting time on this delusion? Why not start to radically redefine the paradigm and derive a new vision and strategies, as several intellectuals and politicians, Arabs and Jews, have been doing? Both Palestinians and Jews in Israel should no longer be afraid of the hysterical Israeli reaction as we move toward a more radical but more truly democratic paradigm. Recent history shows that Arab citizens inevitably come under severe abuse and accusations even when they abide by the rules of the Israeli system.
There must be further serious intellectual and political effort and cooperation between all Palestinians and Israeli Jews interested in a shared life based on justice and a lasting peace in this country. The cooperation and joint struggle can take place on two trajectories.
The first should deal with an alternative vision: namely the one-state solution. This vision requires Israel’s redefinition as an aggressive, apartheid colonial entity. I know this makes many jump from their seats, but this level of honesty is needed to help people awake from their delusions. Continuing to adhere to the view of Israel as a normal state will only prolong this bloody conflict and create more suffering for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Joel Kovel, the American Jewish progressive writer, notes in his book Overcoming Zionism: “There is nothing that says that a single person has to be harmed in the passage from one form of the state to another, excepting those who have to stand trial for human rights abuses.” He adds of other states’ experiences: “Nazi Germany, American confederacy and South Africa have changed fundamentally in recent times with remarkably little harm.”
The second trajectory is cooperation between Palestinian citizens and true Israeli liberals and leftists, be they from the Israeli Communist Party or other smaller groups, to combat the recent surge in racism, both from the establishment and the street. There is a need for a united front and broad coalition to take on this challenge. Cooperation must extend to a struggle against Israel’s brutal policies in the 1967 occupied territories. Such broad cooperation would create the climate needed to discard obsolete thinking.
A long struggle, and many sacrifices, lie ahead. But this is the only way to free people from the ideological chains of Zionism and its inevitable results: colonization, and death and destruction. The new generations continue to seek a meaningful life in this region. It is our moral duty to help them.
Awad Abdelfattah is the secretary-general of the Balad Party, which holds three seats in the current Knesset.