What is normal about normalization?

The anti-normalization movement plays into the hands of the state of Israel’s policy of separation. By refusing to engage and even on some level cooperate with Israelis, Palestinian anti-normalizers accept this policy.

Anti-normalization is one of the hottest topics in the Palestinian community, although very few people can define exactly what it should mean. It is a term that gained strength in the 1980s against accepting the status quo of the occupation. Those who supported anti-normalization then were concerned about the occupation becoming a secondary issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A growing number of Palestinians working for Israeli businesses, a lack of political vision or a strategy for ending the occupation and the absence of the Palestinian case from the international discourse were alarming trends for Palestinian activists.

However, since the Oslo Accords “normalization” has become an out-moded term, a catch-all argument against Israeli-Arab cooperative efforts and a cover for character assassination in Palestinian politics.

When it comes to Arab countries and Israel, normalization is commonly understood as any relationship or ties between an Arab country with the state of Israel. However, some would accuse an Arab who visits Jerusalem of normalization, even if he did not meet any Israelis on his trip. That also means that visiting occupied East Jerusalem could be considered normalization. The same goes for meeting with Israelis for any reason, anywhere in the world, which can result in an Arab being labeled as a normalizer.

In Palestine, there are many definitions for normalization – it seems there are as many definitions as there are Palestinians themselves.  Some Palestinians would define normalization as any contact whatsoever with Israelis or even Jews, regardless of their political stances. They would describe joint protests in the West Bank against the separation wall or settlements as normalization, and refuse to take part in them.

Others define it as contact with the official institutions in Israel, or any cooperation with people who work in these institutions. Joint work or attendance at events featuring Israeli academics who have been outspoken against the occupation could also result in accusations of normalization.

Perhaps the most confusing definition of normalization is any contact with Israelis who do not recognize the occupation, and are not actively working for the freedom of Palestinians. But this definition is problematic because the interpretation of it has led to different conclusions.

As an intellectual exercise, consider a Palestinian activist who meets Israelis in order to describe to them the effect of occupation on his life. Is he a normalizer? What if the meeting is with right-wingers, or even soldiers? What about a joint meeting between Israelis and Palestinians who support a bi-national state or a confederation? Many people who engage in these kinds of activities are labeled normalizers.

Organizations like the Parents Circle, Combatants for Peace and others who speak to classes at schools in Israel and give students an introduction to the implications of the occupation and conflict on the Israeli and Palestinian communities could be labeled as normalizers by some of the definitions above. The Israeli Ministry of Education doesn’t share the anti-normalization notion and therefore has recently banned the Parents Circle from having Palestinians speak in Israeli schools.

Another example would be +972 Magazine, which is sometimes criticized for not having more Palestinian bloggers. Many Palestinian bloggers are hesitant to write on a site with Israelis for the fear of being painted as normalizers. They don’t want to be smeared by the anti-normalization campaign and lose their reputation.

There is nothing normal about these “normalization” activities. Writing about life under occupation on a magazine with Israeli writers is not normal. Speaking to classrooms about life in Palestinian cities is not normal. Meeting with Israelis in a dialogue group to discuss how to change the current status quo is not normal. Normalization better describes armchair critics who complain about the occupation without taking action. Normalization is pretending that Palestinians can end the occupation by ignoring Israelis.

It is sad that some anti-normalization activists are so focused on protesting “normalization” activities that they have forgotten to show up to protest against growing settlements in Jerusalem.

Instead of mobilizing Palestinians to protest a joint Israeli-Palestinian event, Palestinians should be mobilizing to increase the numbers of Palestinians protesting in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.  It is ironic that many of the Palestinians constantly present at these protests are labelled “normalizers.”

East Jerusalem and the anti-normalization dilemma

Growing up in East Jerusalem, I was very active in the Fatah youth movement. I was an anti-normalization activist, and at that time, I opposed any dealings with Israelis. I attacked people for being normalizers, and I used my writings to taint peoples’ names for working with the “enemy.”

Years later, I have come to understand that this position was immature and blind. My high school, Al-Rashidiyeh, which was the only school my parents could afford, was supported by the Jerusalem municipality. My parents had to pay taxes to keep their residence in Jerusalem.  My father was hospitalized for heart problems in an Israeli hospital, while I was telling others that talking to Israelis is an unforgivable sin.

The reality in Jerusalem is too complex for some anti-normalization activists to understand. When my brother Tayseer was killed by Israeli soldiers, we had to get a permit from the Israeli government to bury him in Jerusalem. However, some extreme activists would say we were normalizing with an Israeli institution.

Anti-normalization activists ignore the reality in places like Jerusalem. Most Palestinians in East Jerusalem work with or for Israelis in West Jerusalem. If they work in the West Bank, they could lose their Jerusalem residency on grounds that their center of life is outside Jerusalem. Should they quit their jobs and endanger their residency status? If so, why has this not been brought up by the anti-normalization movement in Jerusalem?

Most Palestinians in East Jerusalem use the Israeli health care system, pay taxes to Israel, and receive social security benefits. The anti-normalization movement is blind to these realities, and is unable to define itself because of the implications.

Now, I wonder how many of those who protested the Israeli Palestinian Confederation gathering at the Ambassador Hotel and the Palestine Israel Journal event at the Legacy Hotel are subscribed to these services from the state of Israel. Would that make their protest hypocritical?

Anti-normalization activists and separation policy 

A few weeks ago, a group of Palestinian and international activists boarded Israeli buses in the West Bank, to highlight the separation policy implemented by the Israeli state. Their message was that they don’t accept being treated as inferior to Jews in the West Bank. They wanted to show that roads and buses for Israelis only is not an acceptable practice.

According to many of the definitions above, their actions would be considered acts of normalization. They wanted to ride Israeli buses supported by the Israeli government. They wanted to ride buses with settlers who confiscated their own lands. These activists could have been painted as supporters of integration with settlers and therefore normalizers. It is true that the overall goal of these activists was to highlight the separation policy in the West Bank, but the Palestinian activists’ challenge to it was implemented through a normalization action.

The anti-normalization efforts play into the hands of the separation policy that the state of Israel is implementing in the West Bank. By refusing to engage and even on some level to cooperate with Israelis, Palestinians accept the state separation policy, they accept segregation and then cry foul about the separation and segregation policies.

This is not to say that all cooperation with Israelis is good, there is a place for non-cooperation as a method of  nonviolent resistance. However, a clear strategy must be drawn – not emotional reactionary behavior that leaves the definition of non-cooperation or normalization vague and broad. I myself practice some of these non-cooperation strategies which I cannot discuss due to an Israeli law.

Perhaps the most confusing argument against normalization is the one made by those who support a one-state solution, yet at the same time consider themselves anti-normalization. If one supports a bi-national state of Israelis and Palestinians living together with equal rights then the best way to achieve that is to increase contact between the two sides and not limit it. A bi-national state with two separate populations is an apartheid state, therefore, those against “normalization” and for one-state are advocating apartheid.

Supporters of a bi-national state shoot themselves in the foot by refusing to create a model to advocate for. Demonstrating how a bi-national state would function by working together would be much more effective in achieving their goal than disengaging from Israelis.

In effect, some anti-normalization activists actually enforce the Israeli government strategy of segregation. If Palestinians believe that the current Israeli government is turning the West Bank into a ghetto, then they should be challenging the policy and not reinforcing separation.

Cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians recognizing the goal of ending the occupation is an important act.  It is not IPCRI and other types of joint Palestinian-Israeli organizations that Palestinians should be fighting, as some campaigns in the West Bank have been focusing on.  It is the occupation. We as Palestinians must rethink what is normal so that we can truly fight normalization, which is accepting the status quo without action. Israelis standing hand in hand with Palestinians for freedom and human rights are brothers in arms and there is nothing “normalizing” about that except common humanity.