Last Tuesday, I traveled to Jerusalem with a friend for the latest in a series of demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the government, and the economic system. Along with thousands of protesters who represented an array of agendas, we walked from the Knesset to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street. Yet for all the different social groups present, I did not spot any Palestinian citizens among the demonstrators aside from myself, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation journalist Suleiman Maswadeh, and Joint List head Ayman Odeh.
In a different world, we would expect to see a greater turnout of the Palestinian public in Israel at a protest against the government’s failed response to the coronavirus crisis. After all, our society has been severely impacted by the outbreak. According to data released by the Israeli Employment Service, Palestinian citizens have been hit hard by the pandemic’s economic fallout, making up around 20 percent of the approximately 1 million citizens who filed for unemployment in March and April.
So why is a struggle against institutional injustice, waged by a coalition of groups, not attracting those who have historically been harmed by those same institutions? The answer lies in the Palestinian community’s existential struggle as a marginalized, discriminated national minority.
Palestinians in Israel are at a different starting point from most of the people taking part in the current protests. From our perspective, this is a struggle for change that does not include us, and that we therefore have little interest in. As a result, even though we have a clear interest in ousting Netanyahu, our enthusiasm and hope for what might happen next is very low — and we are indifferent to the identity of whoever will lead the next government.
History has taught us that no one really wants Palestinian citizens at the decision-making table. The Joint List’s dead-on-arrival recommendation of Benny Gantz, the head of the Blue and White party, to form a governing coalition instead of Netanyahu proves that our status in Israeli society still hasn’t changed, and that we’re not part of this political game.
Is there any chance that things could be different? The Joint List’s Odeh broadcast clips from Tuesday’s protest and invited Palestinian citizens to take part. But I doubt that will make a difference — the shift will only come once there is a sweeping change to the rules of the game, and when the rest of the Jewish Israeli public recognizes that Palestinian society has its own pains and needs. Outreach needs to be based on understanding and good will.
We are a scarred public. Government policies have shattered our society from within over the course of many decades since the state’s founding. We are heading for a crash due to neglect, racism, and discrimination that defined our reality well before the Jewish public realized that the establishment is misleading everyone and toying with all of our futures.
Three Palestinian men were shot dead in the span of 12 hours between Saturday and Sunday: one in Kufr Qasim, one in Kufr Ibtin, and one in Tira. Two more people were also killed by gunfire on Tuesday. Gun violence has become run-of-the-mill.
The use of weapons is spiraling out of control all around us, with no end in sight. The political establishment, which gave up on us long ago, isn’t doing enough to tackle this crippling violence and to improve infrastructure, the economy, and education in Palestinian society. We often hear of performative police operations to seize weapons and drugs, but these reports are inevitably followed by another murder, another shooting, and more violence — especially against women.
We need an attentive ear and a collaborative effort that addresses both short- and long-term issues. We need shared thinking that will envision a future for the next generations. But we already know that no one in the establishment is prioritizing the Palestinian population, not least because of the pandemic. Who has the time to talk about civic equality and human rights?
And yet, the Jewish public has a clear interest in the development of Palestinian society. Citizens in Umm al-Fahem must receive the same rights and opportunities as citizens in Herzliya. Productivity and prosperity depend on diversity, not differentiation.
If today’s protesters are truly thinking long-term, then a joint effort is possible. Any change needs to extend beyond the country’s leadership and place people at the center, establishing a system that does not exclude Palestinian citizens.
And who knows, maybe the Balfour protests could be the start of something new.
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.