Israel sees its Arab citizens as a security threat, and their leaders are increasingly under attack. While cooperation and political participation once seemed feasible, systematic discrimination has led to an untenable situation. Balad’s secretary general on missed opportunities and grim predictions.
By Awad Abdelfattah
More and more voices among the 1.2 million Palestinians in Israel have been asking whether Israel is trying to redefine the rules of the game that have governed the relationship between the state and the Palestinians since 1948. In recent years, and especially since the outbreak of the second intifada in October 2000, Arab citizens have been re-characterized by the state of Israel as a security and demographic threat, like they were between 1948 and 1966, when they were subject to military rule.
Since 2000, a new series of repressive and discriminatory practices and laws have been implemented and legislated. Palestinian leaders in the Knesset have been systematically threatened and some have been prosecuted. The continued campaign of delegitimization has taken almost unprecedented forms. MK Haneen Zoabi, an MK from my party, Balad, has repeatedly received death threats from unknown right-wingers, and was been stripped of her diplomatic passport after participating in the 2010 flotilla that tried to break the siege on Gaza. Voices from the ruling Likud party have called to remove her and her party from the Knesset.
Attempts by the right-wing ruling coalition to further marginalize the Arab community and its political parties in the Knesset are manifested in a flood of racist laws aimed at restricting their political movement and expression. Our party – the National Democratic Assembly, known as Balad in Hebrew – is the most heavily targeted. Its former leader, Azmi Bishara, faced a fabricated security charge in 2007 involving alleged collaboration with Hezbollah. He preferred to leave the country and remain in exile rather than face such a charge, for which lawyers cannot properly defend their client, since they are not given access to all of the material in the investigation.
But the campaign against him started long before, and it is ideological and political in essence. It was cited clearly in a book written by the former head of the Israel Security Agency, Ami Ayalon, who demanded in 2001 that Bishara be brought to trial for allegedly crossing “red lines.” Ayalon accused Bishara of rejecting the right of the Jews to a Jewish state. The party itself has been subjected to repeated attempts at disqualification from Knesset elections.
The goal of the party as stated in its platform is to reinvent Israel as a state of all its citizens. That would mean that 20 percent of the citizens of the Jewish state, who are an indigenous ethnic minority, would be entitled to full equality, and would have genuine legislative and political power to improve their status and their lives in a democratic secular state.
The emergence of Balad and its platform in 1996 quickly gained wide support from Arab citizens and scores of non-Zionist Jewish Israeli intellectuals. It was viewed by many as the most modern and liberal democratic formula to emerge among the Arab Palestinian community in Israel since 1948.
This community had undergone major social, economic, and political changes since the 1970s. A new intelligentsia emerged, looking for ways to express its needs and aspirations. This epoch witnessed the start of a new national and civic consciousness among the Arab elites who sought collective and individual rights and equal citizenship. Political thinking changed with regard to participation in elections for Knesset, which had been viewed by many Arab citizens as a predominantly Zionist institution. Most of the founders of Balad, both individuals and groups, had previously refrained from engaging in the parliamentary game, and others had previously advocated a one-state solution.
The transition to a norm of participation – i.e., voting in Knesset elections – was painful and has been viewed by many inside the party as a major compromise. The leaders of Balad had hoped this new approach of seeking parliamentary representation would help create a more convenient climate for a dialogue with liberal Israelis and pave the way for the future bi-national entity.
However, the campaign against the party that began with the second intifada has continued and escalated, as members are routinely harassed and interrogated by the police. Israeli officials continue to claim that Arab citizens are not as extreme as their leaders, in order to drive a wedge between them. For most Palestinians in Israel, this claim is a worn-out cliché. Israeli officials can no longer deceive Arab citizens, as was the case in the 1950s and 1960s, when they were subjected to a tight system of control under military rule.
The continued incitement campaign against Arab parties like Balad and their leaders is perceived by many Arab citizens as a tactic to distance them from their representatives. Many also see it as a way to shift attention from Israel’s plans to complete the takeover of Arab lands. Coupled with the discriminatory policies Israeli implements, these land takeovers have led to the impoverishment of the Arab citizens.
The Israeli ruling coalition’s campaign to restrict Arab representation in the Knesset has deepened the Arab citizen’s distrust in the electoral process. In the last two rounds of elections in 2006 and 2009, the percentage of Arab voters dropped, from 90 percent at its peak and an average of 78 percent up until 1999 – to 56 percent. It is expected to drop further in light the ongoing and rapid shift of Israeli politics and society to the extreme right. Like in 2001 – after the incidents of October 2000, where 13 Arab citizens of Israel were killed in demonstrations – more and more voices call to boycott elections.
There are two reasons behind this call. First, if they vote, the Arabs legitimize Israel’s ethnic democracy, which systematically exclude them. Second, voting slows or curbs the prospects of real mass struggle. Those who call for a boycott hold that hostile plans by Jewish Israeli politicians against Arab leaders are being drawn up, and they believe that in a few years, a new and harsher reality will emerge. This reality – which could entail separated and besieged ghettos, poverty, violence and social fragmentation – could lead to wide internal civil unrest.
The Arab region is boiling, and revolutions are in the making. Palestinians inside and outside Israel are watching these upheavals closely.
The international community began only recently to shift some of its attention to the plight of the Arab citizens of Israel. It tended to praise Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, despite the fact that 20 percent of the state’s citizens are being rapidly stripped of their basic rights.
In his 2003 book, Sleeping on a Wire: Conversations with Palestinians in Israel, Israeli writer David Grossman wondered, “How long can a relatively large minority be assumed by the majority to be an enemy without in the end actually turning them into one?”
He continues: “Slowly and steadily, as if slumbering, Israel is missing its chance to rescue itself from a horrible mistake. It is creating for itself the enemy it will run up against after other countries have made their peace with it.”
Awad Abdelfattah is the secretary general of Balad, which holds three seats in the current Knesset.