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From Haifa to Beirut: '48 Palestinians challenge regional isolation

It is difficult to comprehend what it means for Palestinians who have only an Israeli passport to live in the Middle East, isolated from the region around them. An interview with one of a handful of activists challenging that reality by crossing seemingly forbidden borders.

Michael
Omer-Man

For Palestinian citizens of Israel, especially those from the Haifa area, Beirut holds near mythical stature. The two cities share near-identical Arabic dialects, cuisine and the cultural elements, and just a few decades ago traveling between them would have been a mere two-hour drive. Today that is almost unimaginable

That disconnection between the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel, or “’48 Palestinians” as they are sometimes called, and the wider Arab world has been a source of pain and resentment ever since the borders slammed shut in 1948. The majority of Palestinians were locked outside, but over 1 million live in Israel today.

“Who gave anyone permission to separate us from our natural environment,” Maisan Hamdan poses to me when we meet in Haifa a few weeks after she made a rare, and seemingly impossible visit to Beirut. Hamdan, a 24-year-old activist against the conscription of Druze and others Arabs into the Israeli army, had been invited to take part in a series of workshops at the American University of Beirut.

And while the trip may seem impossible and unlikely to many, a small but growing number of Arab citizens of Israel have been quietly traveling to Lebanon in recent years — from journalists like Majd Kayyal to two contestants in the Arab Idol singing competition last year to academics and others.

Israeli citizens are forbidden from traveling to enemy states, Lebanon does not accept Israeli travel documents, and the vast majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel have only an Israeli passport. But, it turns out,’48 Palestinians who have an official invitation from a Lebanese institution can obtain a special travel document from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, which can then be used to visit Lebanon via Jordan. (All Israelis, Jewish and Arab alike can legally travel to Jordan and Egypt.)

Hamdan had been invited by the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship to speak about her activism in Urfud (“refuse” in Arabic) a movement that encourages and supports Druze citizens of Israel who refuse or resist mandatory conscription into the Israeli army.

We meet on a cold, quiet morning at a Palestinian-owned café in Haifa to talk about her still-fresh visit to Beirut, the city’s striking similarities to Haifa, how it’s different for a Jew and an Arab to refuse conscription into the Israeli army, and why recent stabbing attacks might be increasing the rate of refusal in the Druze community.

***

How did you end up to Lebanon? And why?

I was in Tunisia for the World Social Forum in March 2015, as part of my activism with Urfud. We ended up meeting Lebanese members of civil society and academia who wanted to invite Urfud to visit Lebanon. I never expected it to happen so I didn’t take it seriously. Lebanon, for me — for many Palestinians and for many Arabs — is an emotional place.

But then I got an invitation from the American University for a week of academic workshops discussing the overall Arab Middle East region, and specifically civil society in each country. We took part in two panels: one about the civil and political aspects of what’s happening in East Jerusalem, and one about Urfud.

Maisan Hamdan speaks on a panel hosted by the Asfari Institute at the American University of Beirut, October 20, 2015. (Courtesy photo)

Maisan Hamdan speaks on a panel hosted by the Asfari Institute at the American University of Beirut, October 20, 2015. (Courtesy photo)

It used to be that ’48 Palestinians had a hard time in the Arab world because there was very little knowledge of the issues Palestinians face inside Israel. Did you find you had to explain very basic things about your status and position in society? Was there any hostility?

I can’t really say about the whole of Lebanese society but the people I encountered and those who invited me had very broad knowledge. The people who participated in the panels were thirsty, they really wanted to know more about what is going on and they were very interested in just listening.

They were very, very sympathetic and supportive and even asked, in an ironic way: are you really here? You exist? Random people we met knew about Urfud, said they had heard a lot about us, and that they supported us.

But to address your question, I didn’t feel afraid. It wasn’t a feeling of fear or alienation. It also didn’t even feel like it was my first time there. The culture was very similar to the Palestinians’ in Haifa, for instance. Even the food is much more similar to ours than even in the Naqab…

Haifa is actually closer to Beirut than it is to the Negev. What were your expectations before going there, about the place itself or connecting to the wider Arab world?

We are very deprived of a lot of the Arab region and our ability to go there; we are deprived of Lebanon. Who gave anyone permission to separate us from our natural environment in the Middle East? Why did I have to feel the whole time that this would be the first and last time [I go to Beirut]? It was the most natural place for me to be, and a natural environment, talking to people, having discussions. Why would anybody deprive me of that?

With everything I imagined, it was even more beautiful when I went there. And I know the political situation in Lebanon is very bad, and yet, you still can’t criticize me for having a romantic view of it.

A view of the lighthouse off the coast of Sidon (Saida), Lebanon. (Photo by Maisan Hamdan)

A view of the lighthouse off the coast of Sidon (Saida), Lebanon. (Photo by Maisan Hamdan)

You have described your activism with Urfud as focusing on Israel’s divide-and-conquer tactics of ruling over Palestinians. Lebanon has seen even worse — as far as divisions, how society and politics are divided along ethnic and religious lines. Is that something that you discussed with other activists — in a comparative way?

I encountered activism that is similar to what is taking place here, opposing the divide and conquer policies like here.

The discussions in the American University workshops were about political activism in the West Bank, about Palestinians in ’48, by refugees in Jordan, refugees in Syria, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and also local Lebanese activism. It was really important for us Palestinians to look at local Lebanese activism vis-a-vis their government, and to get perspective about how it works in other places.

What was the most unexpected thing that happened to you?

Seeing these people, not somewhere overseas, but in their natural place — in their homes. That was the most amazing moment. And however hard I try, I can’t even imagine things being reversed, that they might see me in my natural place, in my home. I can’t even imagine that they could visit my natural place, here. Because it’s unnatural.

Stop asking me before I start to cry.

What happened when you got back? When Majd Kayyal returned from Lebanon the Shin Bet held him incommunicado for a week. (More on that here.)

I had a three-hour interrogation at the King Hussein Bridge crossing (between Israel and Jordan). They asked me about everything. Where did you go? What did you do?

You told them where you were?

Yes. I also published it on Facebook. The point was to not hide where I was, even specific places. I published everything on Facebook and I also told the interrogator everything. I was honest about every question he asked because I had been in my natural place, meeting with people in a very similar culture with a similar ethnic identity.

An Israeli soldier locks a fence at the border with Lebanon. (Shutterstock.com/Maxmacs)

An Israeli soldier locks a fence at the border with Lebanon. (Shutterstock.com/Maxmacs)

Were you surprised that you didn’t get into any trouble?

Before coming back, I called my mom and told her if you don’t hear from me for a few hours just know that I am crossing the border. But yes, I was surprised that nothing happened.

***

We shift gears. Imposed divisions among Palestinian citizens of Israel have been a hot topic in recent years, as the government has launched public campaign to increase Palestinian Christian enlistment into the army. Pulling in the other direction has been a slowly resurgent Palestinian national identity among Arab citizens of Israel, largely in response to discriminatory policies that highlight and amplify cleavages between Jewish and Arab society.

“As Israeli politics and society shift rightward Palestinian citizens grasp onto their Palestinian heritage and nationality ever more tightly,” Henriette Chacar wrote in +972 last year in her profile of the new generation of Palestinian activists in Israel. “Even those who wouldn’t otherwise be drawn to Palestinian nationalism embrace it as a defense against the parallel radicalization and intensification of Zionist nationalism.”

Most Jewish Israelis have trouble accepting or even acknowledging that Arab citizens of Israel are also Palestinians, however, or that Bedouin Arabs, Christian Arabs and Druze Arabs might also consider themselves to be Palestinian just like their Muslim countrymen. According to Hamdan, that attitude and understanding is the byproduct of Israeli divide-and-conquer tactics of control.

In recent years there have also been a small but growing number of Druze young men who have openly refused to join the Israeli military for reasons of conscientious or political objection and served time in prison. The most famous was Omar Sa’ad, who was sentenced to military prison six times and served 150 days before contracting a serious liver infection and being released.

Omar Sa'ad, a Palestinian-Druze conscientious objector, walks into the Tiberias induction base, where he will state his refusal to be drafted to the Israeli army, December 4, 2013. Over 100 family members, friends and activists protested on Wednesday morning to support Omar, who is expected to sent to military prison after refusing the draft. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Omar Sa’ad, a Palestinian-Druze conscientious objector, walks into the Tiberias induction base, where stated his refusal to be drafted to the Israeli army, December 4, 2013. Sa’ad would go on to serve 150 days in prison before being released on medical grounds related to a liver infection he contracted in military prison. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

***

How do you identify the differences between the Druze communities here and the Christian and Muslim Palestinians?

The Druze community is divided from the rest [of the Palestinians] because the Israeli system approaches it differently, and the Druze feel they are more special in the eyes of the Israelis.

The Israeli government imposed military service on them in 1956. The Druze education system was separated from the rest of the Palestinian community in 1976, and the local municipalities were also separated from the rest of the Arabs’. Not only that, Israel identified the Druze as a separate ethnic group as well. So there became Arabs, Jews and Druze.

If you go to a community and you want to rule it, you have to divide it into separate groups in order to strengthen your rule.

Tell me about your activism. Describe what Urfud is and what it does as an organization?

There are two aspects. Firstly, we are a young and inclusive feminist refusal movement that isn’t affiliated with any political party, geographic religion or religious group. Secondly, we don’t see refusal as a Druze issue: Urfud concerns the Palestinian community as a whole. That is why our activists are Palestinians from all geographic regions and from all religions.

There’s a lot of talk in Israel these days about creating divisions between Muslim and Christian Palestinians, while trying to get Christian Palestinians to join the army. What is your group’s success rate? How many Druze who would otherwise go to the army do you think are not going?

In the past year and a half since the campaign started, more and more people refused. We have over 70 Druze who approached us, who told us they want to refuse.

Not all of them go to prison. The army gives young Druze options for not serving: medical and mental issues, conscientious objection (which is rarely granted, especially not for men, m.s.o), and for socio-economic reasons. So when a young man sees all of these options, he often prefers to take a psychiatric exemption instead of going to prison. Unless he really wants to make a statement and say I don’t want to do the service because of x, y or z — then that’s a different issue.

We give these options to all of the youths and they can choose whatever option they want. But in the end, we prefer that they refuse by statement, on principle.

The difference between Jews refusing to enlist in the army and Urfud’s activism is that the Jewish Israelis are refusing to serve in their own country’s military. Urfud is refusing to serve in the occupying country’s army.

(Top photo: The Beirut skyline, by Shutterstock.com)

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    COMMENTS

    1. Gustav

      I wonder how the remnants of Jews who are unlucky to still live in Arab lands would fare if they would become activists against what has happened to Jews in Arab lands? Nobody seems to want to talk about that. All the sanctimoneous do gooders who post here care only about the “poor, poor, poor….poor” Palestinian Arabs. The lot of Jews at the hand of the Arabs never matter to them. Human rights anyone? Conscience? Caring for the underdog? Poppycock. It is pure hatred, hypocrisy and bias.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        It’s not that nobody wants to talk about the miserable state of affairs in Arab countries – they talk about it all the time at the Middle East Monitor – https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/ – it’s just that this is a website devoted to human rights in Israel. It’s just that no rational person thinks that what’s going on in Arab countries could possibly serve as some sort of justification for human rights abuses in Israel; when the Iranians held Americans hostage no sane person thought America should hold Iranians hostage.

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          BRUCE:”when the Iranians held Americans hostage no sane person thought America should hold Iranians hostage.”

          Some did think of retaliating harshly. Jimmy Carter didn’t and guess who I think were the sane people?

          Hint: Not Jimmy Carter.

          You disagree, Bruce? Then I guess you are not unhappy about the Islamo Fascism that is in vogue in the Iranian Theocracy of today.

          Oh and for the umpteenth time. Israel is doing what it is doing not because what OTHER Arabs do, we react to Palestinian Arabs who observe NO rules. They deliberately target our civilians. We need to stop that, no matter the cost.

          Last but not least why are you in favor of a dedicated site to bash ONLY Israel, a site which is not critical of what Palestinian Arabs have been doing to us for nearly 100 years now? You think we take notice of obviously biased people? Nobody does. In fact you achieve the opposite effect. You stiffen our resistance because nobody takes notice of a party that is perceived to aid and abet one’s enemies.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      “Israel Dramatically Ramping Up Demolitions of Palestinian Homes in West Bank”:

      http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.704391

      I guess it’s ok because there are human rights abuses in Lebanon.

      Reply to Comment
      • Whonoze

        Listen Achmed, you have posted this nonsense many, many times before and has been corrected as often as you posted it. But you insist on repeating yourself over and over again and hiding behind Jewish sounding name such as “BruceGould”, “Ben”, “Eliza”, “Lauren”, etc. Here, lemme edukat you again:

        When you construct illegal structures on land that is not yours, it may be demolished. That is what the law say in all Western countries. When you decide to violate the law, refuse to apply for building permit and construct structures without permit, it will be demolished. Such structures pose a risk to public health and public security, among others.

        Israel did NOT demolish “homes”, but rather tents and wooden shacks built without permit on a land that does not belong to those who built them and who does not have building permit to build them. Those whose “homes”, i.e. tents and wooden shacks, have been demolished by the IDF have real homes elsewhere and do not live in the tents and shacks demolished by the IDF. They construct their tents and shack on the instruction of the Palestinian Authority on land that does not belong to them, that is under Israeli jurisdiction and without building permit in order to grab land.

        Do you understand it now, or, are you going to continue copying and pasting the same debunked nonsense over and over again?

        Reply to Comment
        • Bruce Gould

          The point is exactly that the Palestinians do not get to vote for the people who give out the building permits; they are subject to rules and regulations for which they have no input whatsoever. The ‘building permits’ are controlled in most areas by one ethnic group and applied arbitrarily to another ethnic group; that’s the meaning of ‘occupation’. All of this is explained by many human rights groups in Israel, most notably ICAHD: http://icahd.org/

          Reply to Comment
          • Whonoze

            Your original claim that Israel demolishes Palestinian homes has been shown to be false. Those are tents and wooden shacks built on land that does not belong to the builders. Now you are changing the topic. Your new rant is that the “building permit is controlled by one ethnic group”, blah blah blah.

            Do you even understand the subject you are rambling about, Achmed? “The Palestinians”, you say? Who are those “Palestinians”? You mean Israeli Arabs? Perhaps you mean the Palestinians living in Area A and Area B who make up 98-99% of the Arabs who live under PA jurisdiction in the West Bank, who vote in PA elections, apply to the PA for building permits and who following instructions from the PA and using funds provided by the PA construct tents and wooden shacks on land that does not belong to them in Area C which is under Israeli jurisdiction, while having real homes in PA territory (Area A and Area B)? Enlighten us, Achmed.

            While you are at it, take a look at Rawabi. It is an astonishingly very beautiful NEW Palestinian city made possible by Israel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQvcr7XAX9Q

            Tens thousands and thousands of apartments there are still EMPTY! What’s your complaint again, Achmed?

            Reply to Comment
        • Carmen

          A tent is not a home? Since when? Israel destroys and has been in the destruction business over 70 years.

          The link you provided regarding the Palestinian city being built? So you expect Palestinians to leave their land in the west bank to be relocated by the largesse of the occupier? And you wonder why it’s empty? What a dick.

          Reply to Comment
        • Carmen

          “Listen Achmed, you have posted this nonsense many, many times before and has been corrected as often as you posted it. But you insist on repeating yourself over and over again and hiding behind Jewish sounding name such as “BruceGould”, “Ben”, “Eliza”, “Lauren”, etc. Here, lemme edukat you again”.

          You’re not in the education business “whonoze” but the miseducation one. Jewish sounding names – Eliza, Lauren, and etc.? Really? Doesn’t take much to get you spinning around in circles does it? Also, there’s no limit on the amount of nonsense and repetition posted and you and yours are the proof of that. Read it and whatever.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Carmen

      @whonoze
      “hiding behind Jewish sounding name such as “BruceGould”, “Ben”, “Eliza”, “Lauren”, etc. Here, lemme edukat you again”.

      Lemme give that a try. If you believe the torah, then we are all descendants of Noah. So your remark above is just an antisemitic riff by a european wannabee. Why do you hate Jews so much?

      Reply to Comment
      • Whonoze

        Keep stewing in your own juice and making a fool of yourself, Ben alias BruceGould alias Carmen alias Lauren alias Eliza alias etc. It is a nice movie to watch.

        Reply to Comment
        • Whonoze

          Keep stewing in your own juice. That’s what you jihadis do best.

          Meanwhile, your fellow Muslim Arab brothers are slaughtering civilians en mass right now, moron. Here is the latest handiwork of the beasts YOU are talking about:

          “BAGHDAD—The death toll from a massive Islamic State suicide bombing northeast of Baghdad rose to 120 on Saturday in what has become the group’s deadliest single terrorist attack in Iraq. The suicide bomber injured at least 140 others when he detonated a small tanker truck laden with heavy explosives Friday evening in a crowded shopping district of Khan Bani Saad, a mostly Shiite town in Diyala province about 20 miles northeast of Iraq’s capital, said Muthana al-Tamimi, the governor of the province”.

          http://www.wsj.com/articles/iraq-suicide-bombing-kills-at-least-86-people-1437169364

          We are going to prevent you and your fellow jihadis from penetrating into Israel to slaughter our people. Ya got that, moron?!

          Reply to Comment
          • Carmen

            I’m a jihadi? That makes you a jewhadi, right?

            Reply to Comment
          • Whonoze

            Keep stewing in your own juice, little jihadi.

            Am Yisrael Chai!

            Reply to Comment