The personal and the political: Territorial swaps and population exchanges

When Israeli politicians talk about land swaps, they rarely consider the rights of those affected – or at least the Palestinian ones. As personal as it is political, the entire situation shows the lack of civil discourse in so-called peace negotiations.

By Muhammad Jabali

I will never forget that night at a birthday party in Jaffa when a drunken friend began approaching guests with the question: “What’s your address as registered at the Interior Ministry?” He then joked that everyone should change their residency to Tel Aviv as soon as possible before they find themselves on the other side of the separation wall, suffering segregation in the West Bank.

Those who answered “Nazareth,” or anywhere in the Galilee, were met with humorous replies: “Oh, you’re okay, your turn hasn’t come yet!” Next, he demanded that the bunch of us from Taybeh, Tira, Umm al-Fahm and other parts of the Triangle region show our ID cards. After checking where we were registered, he declared those who had already changed their addresses to Tel Aviv-Jaffa or Haifa were “the smart ones.” Anyone who was still registered in our hometowns and villages was told: “I’m checking your IDs next week and I want them to read ‘Tel Aviv’ or ‘Haifa.’ I’m not even gonna make the effort to visit you if it involves crossing checkpoints and separation walls.” Without a doubt it was the joke of the night. Our kind of black humor.

The background was this: earlier that same day, Shimon Peres had made some kind of statement about the possibility of exchanging the Arab Triangle region – a mainly Palestinian-populated area inside Israel – for the “settlements blocs” in a future agreement with the PA. That was six or seven years ago. Today, such proposals have become a relatively common part of various proposed “resolutions” for the conflict; some are short-term plans, some are designs for a “final resolution.” Each plan has its own definition of what constitutes the West Bank and what level of independence the almighty and generous Israel grants the Palestinians “over there” in the West Bank. Territorial swaps and population exchanges have clearly become a routine part of the terminology used by a wide range of politicians, from Avigdor Lieberman to Tzipi .

I couldn’t help but think of that birthday party while taking the train from Kfar Saba to Tel Aviv last Wednesday to DJ at my weekly gig in Jaffa. The Arab League had just announced the possible renewal of the Arab Peace Initiative, including these “agreed-upon territorial swaps.” Riding the train, I read Facebook status updates from my Palestinian friends, describing their irritation with this clause.

Although I have lived in Jaffa for the vast majority of the past 11 years, I have never managed to fully “move” – that is, I have never changed my official residency with the Interior Ministry. This despite the fact that in many of my public talks, interviews and Jaffa-based activism, I try my best to promote young Arab immigration to the historic city. I fully believe that this is the only way of rescuing the Palestinian community there from ghettoization. I preach that the Tel Aviv Municipality must start urban planning for its new Arab residents and not only deal with the remnants of the older Palestinian community, as if dealing with archeological findings.

But perhaps I am the best example of the impossible nature of my own activism and attempts at implementing change.

It is hard to explain the complexities of the situation. The primary obstacle is economic: I will probably never manage to fully finance my life in the city. The second obstacle is the deep alienation I feel from Tel Aviv. No matter how deeply involved I become in the city’s cultural life, I am still amazed at how much the city and its residents appear to me to be from outer space. We come from different planets.

The third, and most deeply psychological barrier between me and Tel Aviv is the feeling of betraying my family and hometown if anything other than Taybeh were to be written on my ID card. This fear is rooted in a history of displacement and the prevention of free movement by a strange system of borders. Just imagine if I fully moved to Tel Aviv-Jaffa and suddenly some crazy politician decides that residents of Taybeh are no longer “citizens of Israel,” and that from now on they can’t visit the coast freely. Wouldn’t that mean that I separated my destiny from that of my family? Wouldn’t that mean I left my brothers to face segregation alone? This continual threat prevents any normalization between me and the city.

The funny thing is that we in the Triangle area were never conquered during the 1948 war. We were “given” to Israel in the ceasefire agreements with King Abdullah I (grandfather of the current king) as part of a territorial swap.

As personal as it is political, the entire situation shows the lack of civil discourse in so-called peace negotiations. Diplomats meet in New York and look at maps, thinking about one kilometer here or one kilometer there, and the interests of the two “sides.” Rarely do they think about the people who live in that kilometer. Peace talks fail to deal with the human rights of the people involved. And the message to Israel always seems to be: “Settle in the West Bank as much as you can. You will always win.”

We Palestinians will always be contingents under a Zionist regime, never fully part of the system, though the system has been imposed on us from above since the beginning of the 20th century. Divided already between Palestinians of the occupied territories and Israel, the system even manages to create divisions and a sense of hierarchy among the Palestinian citizens of Israel. We exist in the system through different points of displacement, land confiscation and access to economic mobility.

These divisions have come to define us. In the Negev desert, Bedouin are still threatened by an old system that uses the technique of ‘Nakba creation.’ In the North, Arabs are still facing Judaization of the Galilee. The message is that we in the Triangle area should be nice and quiet in order to hold onto our jobs in the cities of the coastal region. Notwithstanding the fact we have historical connections to and economic dependency on these cities; these cities are as much ours as they are anyone else’s. All the while, more than 250,000 of us Palestinians in Israel are still displaced as internal refugees from 1948, with no possibility of returning to home villages — even when the land remains unsettled to this day. And that’s not even to mention the military regime Palestinians face in the West Bank, the situation in Gaza, or the refugees outside of Israeli-controlled territories.

As for the Jewish Israelis? They cling to their mantra that, “No, of course there is no apartheid here.” Well, Israelis have first-world psychological and medical support available. In order to stay sane, they are probably given prescriptions to consume at least two hours of Hasbara (propaganda) a day.

Muhammad Jabali is a Palestinian Israeli activist and facilitator. He is a coordinator for the Ayam Association’s Jaffa Project-Autobiography of a City, which works to reconcile memory and space for a cosmopolitan Jaffa. He writes for Palestinian media and blogs within Israel, and has published poems in both Hebrew and Arabic. He is also a part of the Palestinema Group, which promotes films from the Arab world inside Israel-Palestine. He is also an occasional DJ. Visit his personal website here.