Unafraid: The new generation of Palestinian activists in Israel

For decades, Palestinian citizens of Israel lived in fear of the internal security services. But the new generation of political activists are simply not that impressed by Shin Bet intimidation anymore. 

By Ala Hlehel / ‘The Hottest Place in Hell
(Translated from Hebrew by Dimi Reider)

When I was in my second year of university and my father found out I became politically active, he was terrified. “The Shin Bet will snatch you in the middle of the night and throw you out to Lebanon!” he told me. The generation of my parents, who came of age in the shadow of the military regime imposed by Israel over all Arab-majority areas within its  territory, grew up on Shin Bet fairy tales; tales of its tyranny and, most importantly, of its perceived omnipotence. “They can know your dreams before you even dream them,” warned one uncle, who worked as a subcontracted maintenance man with the police and therefore considered himself immune.

The difference between Majd Kayyal and the generation of the military regime is immense; the threat to chuck us out to Lebanon is not that terrifying anymore. In fact it is not threatening at all, and my own feeling, from my own acquaintance with Kayyal’s generation, is that his generation does not really give a damn that much about the Shin Bet. It is a generation bereft of anxiety and devoid of inferiority complexes, a generation that already a while ago changed its strategy. Instead of constantly producing reactions to the activities of the establishment, this generation is taking it own initiatives, breaking new ground in both political thought and political action. The budding campaign against the Prawer Plan marked a new peak in Arab political activity in Israel proper, in a vivid display of the sheer determination of the new activists vis-a-vis the Israeli establishment. Moreover, it amply demonstrated the new ways of thinking practiced by this new generation, which stand in sharp contrast to the tactics of the old, traditional Arab party establishment.

Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrate against the Prawer-Begin Plan, BeerSheva, May 12, 2013 (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
Young Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrate against the Prawer-Begin Plan, BeerSheva, May 12, 2013 (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Majd Kayyal is not alone. Thousands of young Arab-Palestinian citizens are no longer afraid to confront the Israeli establishment and its agencies. They are intelligent, passionate and brave, sometimes too brave; but who can really find fault with a 22-year-old woman or a 24-year-old man who look at what is going on in the state itself and in the territories it occupies, and wonder if they will have “a place under the sun” in the world of  Netanyahu and his ilk. Most of these activists make no distinction between the political-national struggle and the internal, social one. They believe you can’t cherry-pick your freedoms, and this is where the secret to their power lies: when Kayyal writes about struggles against the Israeli establishment and the Sisyphean attempt of the Palestinian to survive, he also writes against everything that ails Arab and Palestinian societies from within. He, and dozens like him, do so from every possible stage, and especially in the great arena of our time, the social networks.

On Thursday night, hours after he was released to house arrest from detention, I was sitting with Kayyal and another friend on the porch of his house in the Halisa neighborhood of Haifa. We wanted to hear about what happened in the five days of interrogation, but all he could talk about was Beirut. The spell cast on him by that city from the moment he set foot in had yet to fade. “You spend three weeks there and already you feel you have memories to tell your grandchildren,” he told us. He said, simply, that he walked the streets of Beirut and felt he was walking through the alleys of songs and poems we grew up on, brimming with the names of the streets and the quarters of that bleeding city.

Read +972’s interview with Majd Kayyal

No Jewish Israeli can ever fully grasp that metaphor, or this unbreakable bond – unbreakable even by sweeping, anachronistic laws. While to most Israelis Beirut is a memory of conquest and carnage, to us Beirut is a princess, murdered in cold blood while the Arab regimes watched, impassively, from the sidelines. How can you explain to the average Israeli the immensity of love and sorrow that compose the word “Beirut?” There is an abyss between us and the Jewish majority in Israel in all walks of life, and our desire to be an integral part of the rich Arab culture around us is one of the things of which this abyss is made. When former IDF spokesman and Channel 2 evening news host Oded Ben Ami attacks Kayyal live on air, he does so in the name of the Jewish-Zionist consensus that cannot (but really, cannot) begin to comprehend this incongruity: How is it that an Arab plus Lebanon plus “nationalist newspaper” plus a violation of security laws does not necessarily equal treason, punishable by hanging at Cyber Square?

This incomprehension stems largely from the fact that to most Israeli citizens history, as a whole, begins with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. It is a blind eraser that does not allow an observation of history in any colors beyond black and white. The entire history of this whole country can, to them, be summed up in the eucalyptus trees planted to dry up Hula Lake and military Palmach songs.

The Shin Bet has been after young political activists for years. They are invited for “clarification” chats, and the duty interrogator tries to keep spinning the same yarn that put the fear in all our parents: we know everything about you. And this, frankly, is a bit ridiculous. It’s enough to visit someone’s Facebook page these days to know everything about them. These young people are warned they are putting their futures at risk; that their path is a risky one and that their kind security service cousins are keeping an eye on them. But these young people simply don’t give a damn. This is why the Mukhabarat-style detention of Kayyal is, first and foremost, an attempt to school everyone at Kayyal’s expense. But how do you school someone who’s already an expert on the innermost complexities of politics and life?

This entire pathetic affair peels away yet another layer off the aura the Shin Bet cultivates around itself. It seems it is not omnipotent after all, and that intelligence is not necessarily its second nature. In fact, the one word that keeps bouncing around my head as I write is, rather, stupidity. Can they truly be so stupid, the Shin Bet? Is Captain Abu-Whatever really unable to extract information on espionage from a 23-year-old guy? Or has framing people become too difficult with this savvy generation? Majd Kayyal cruised easily through a Shin Bet lie-detector test; can the Shin Bet itself pass one?

Be that as it may, the anger at this violent, bullying organization is mixed today with a fair bit of gloating and the feeling of a small victory. Some of the little luxuries we can afford ourselves, from time to time, in Securistan.

Ala Hlehel is an author and journalist. A previous attempt to stop him from traveling to Beirut was shot down by Israel’s High CourtThis post first appeared in Hebrew on ‘The Hottest Place in Hell.’

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