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Protests against gun violence trigger a political awakening for Palestinians in Israel

A wave of demonstrations against gun violence and police negligence has inspired a renewed sense of solidarity among Palestinian citizens of Israel, according to veteran activist Fida Tabony. After years of division, ‘we’re acting like a people,’ she says.

Tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel protest against gun violence and under-policing in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum, northern Israel, on October 3, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel protest against gun violence and under-policing in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum, northern Israel, on October 3, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Fida Tabony remembers leaving her office in Nazareth around 2 p.m. one day, about two months ago, as a motorcycle whizzed past her. There would have been nothing unusual about that particular journey home if that same motorcycle hadn’t then stopped only two cars ahead and opened fire.

The incident happened in broad daylight as children were heading home from school, Tabony recalls over the phone. “There are these first five seconds of wondering how you’re going to react, not knowing what to do,” she says. “I remember feeling afraid and nervous, but also angry.”

Tabony mentions another incident from last May when Tufiq Zaher was shot dead merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A law-abiding citizen, Zaher was walking in Nazareth with his granddaughter when he was hit by a stray bullet.

“I was away at the time and my daughters were supposed to take the bus home from school. The bus passes through that same area where [Zaher] was shot. I went into full panic mode and thought, ‘This could happen to any one of us,’” says Tabony.

At least 74 Palestinian citizens of Israel have been killed as a result of gun violence or criminal activity inside the Palestinian community since the beginning of the year. In 2018, the number of victims for the whole year stood at 71. Those numbers are only the tip of the iceberg, since they do not account for incidents of daily gunfire or organized crime that have come to define the day-to-day reality of so many Palestinian citizens.

Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of Palestinians in Israel have taken to the streets to protest gun violence and under-policing in their communities. The killing of two brothers in the northern Galilee town of Majd al-Krum seemed to spark the demonstrations, with local leadership mobilizing the public relatively quickly after the incident, in coordination with the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee — an umbrella organization that represents the country’s 1.9 million Palestinian citizens.

Tabony, a co-director of the Mahpach-Taghir nonprofit and member of the Committee to Combat Violence in Nazareth, is a veteran social and political activist who has been involved in organizing the recent wave of protests. I asked her about the demonstrations, what they reveal about the Palestinian community’s relationship with Israeli authorities, and what the organizers hope to accomplish.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Why are these protests happening now? What’s different about this moment?

“This is an indication of how harrowing the pain has become. That’s it, we’ve run out of patience. People will not accept this any longer. This is a positive indication, in my view, when we, as a community, decide to organize again. We’re acting like a people, which is a good thing after such a long period of division.”

What do you mean by that?

“As a Palestinian community living inside Israel, we know that since 1948 until today, the state has sought to weaken us, to undermine our identity as Palestinians and our unity as a people in a number of ways. I think they haven’t been successful in doing so, but over the past 20 years, especially since October 2000 and even more so in the last decade under the Netanyahu government, a path was paved for extremely racist laws. We experience a lot of racism,” says Tabony.

In October 2000, shortly after the beginning of the Second Intifada, Israeli police shot dead 13 Palestinians, of whom 12 were citizens, while protesting in solidarity with demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza. The government eventually issued a commission of inquiry to examine the killings, but not a single officer was indicted. The violence marked a turning point for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, further eroding the scant trust they had in state institutions and law enforcement.

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This severe breach of trust, however, was accompanied by economic policies that better integrated Palestinian citizens into Israel’s workforce, explains Tabony, creating a peculiar equilibrium: “On the one hand, the racism is constant,” she says, and on the other hand, “we are presented with new work opportunities,” such as Resolution 922, in which the government pledged $3.7-4.2 billion in December 2015 for the promotion of economic development in Arab society over the following five years. This gave rise to individualism, spurred by the rat race of modern life, “which often distances us from our sense of identity and from our main struggle — to end the occupation.

“By the way,” Tabony adds, “women have taken a clear central role in this struggle.”

In what way?

“When we shut down Road 6 [one of Israel’s central toll highways], the number of women who were themselves driving cars, alone, was notable. There was an impressive group of women who were protesting in the front, as well, leading chants and taking an active role. The number of women and girls at the protest in Majd al-Krum was striking. In two of the Nazareth protests that I helped organize, women were both part of the planning and made up a significant part of the participants. This shows a more genuine partnership in our community,” says Tabony. “The space for women has expanded.”

According to Tabony, another reason that these demonstrations are happening now is the feeling among Palestinian citizens that they are united under one leadership “in the face of a severely racist government and regime” — especially with the comeback of the Joint List, the slate uniting Palestinian and Jewish non-Zionist candidates, in the September national elections. “With every protest, more and more people are joining, and I hope our numbers will only keep growing,” she says.

Palestinian leaders and Knesset members hold a demonstration against under-policing and gun violence in Arab cities and villages across Israel, in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90

Palestinian leaders and Knesset members hold a demonstration against under-policing and gun violence in Arab cities and villages across Israel, in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90

But they are the same people, the leadership hasn’t changed. What’s different now?

“Everyone is fed up. I’ve been attending protests since as long as I can remember. Now, I see people whom I never would have imagined to see at these demonstrations. There’s a rush of momentum, coupled with a heightened social and political awareness,” explains Tabony. “There is a bigger sense of responsibility among the people.”

Tabony believes the Majd al-Krum shooting is what triggered the protests partly because of classism in Palestinian society. “When the violence was in the ‘Triangle’ area, or in Ramleh, Lyd and Yaffa, how much did we mobilize? Did we really act like one people? No.”

You mean, based on socio-economic inequality?

“There is certainly classism in our community. The north differs from the south,” says Tabony.

Most of Israel’s Palestinian citizens live in the “periphery” regions, away from the country’s economic and cultural center. Around 57 percent of Arabs live in the north, including Haifa and Galilee. The ‘Triangle’ refers to a cluster of Palestinian cities and towns closer to the geographic center of Israel, where, together with the “mixed cities” of Jaffa, Ramleh and Lyd around 10.7 percent of Israel’s Palestinian population lives.

Palestinians in all-Arab cities and towns in the north take pride in their relative sense of autonomy from the state, which is unavailable to Palestinians in “mixed cities.” While the government still exerts significant control on all-Arab localities in terms of budget allocations and planning, for example, there is a shared sense of political agency that inspires collective action.

“Poverty plays a significant role in perpetuating violence. I mean, these two kids who zoomed past me on the motorcycle, they are mercenaries; they are paid to kill. The prospect of making large sums of money in a short period of time, when they can’t find employment elsewhere — of course they’d consider this work.”

Based on 2014 statistics, the poverty rate among Palestinians in Israel is about three times that of Jews. According to 2011 data, an average of 47 percent of high school seniors in Arab localities are eligible for matriculation, as opposed to 61 percent in Jewish areas.

Palestinian children who are citizens of Israel play under the bridge at the "Train" neighborhood in the city of Ramleh, December 31, 2007. (Michal Fattal/Flash90.)

Palestinian children who are citizens of Israel play under the bridge at the “Train” neighborhood in the city of Ramleh, December 31, 2007. (Michal Fattal/Flash90.)

There are several other issues that Palestinian citizens suffer from as a marginalized and underserved community, including disparities in funding, segregation and land confiscation. Why are the protests focused on gun violence?

“It’s connected to our hierarchy of needs. After securing food and shelter, there is a need to feel safe. Personal safety is a basic need.”

According to Tabony, there is a sense that the authorities have “lost control.” Israeli police and state institutions have themselves come to the conclusion that this situation is no longer sustainable, she says.

The relationship between the Palestinian community and Israeli law enforcement has historically been a difficult and complicated one. On the one hand, in order to feel safer, we’re asking police to go into Arab cities and towns and do their jobs properly. On the other hand, we don’t trust them.

Tabony quotes findings from a 2019 poll by the Abraham Fund, according to which only 26.1 percent of Palestinian respondents stated that they trust Israeli police, and 24 percent expressed satisfaction with the police’s functioning. However, based on that same report, 58 percent of these respondents said they would turn to the police if they or someone in their family has experienced violence.

“This shows that we do want the police to do its job,” says Tabony. “But when they don’t, everyone loses faith in that institution.

“The police itself — the whole system — is racist toward us and engages with us as a national threat, not as citizens who are entitled to the very same rights and services that Jewish citizens get. The starting point for the police is that we are enemies of the state seeking to kill. Only after proving that we do not pose any threat do they begin serving us.”

A Bedouin protestor is detained by Israeli police during a demonstration against the Israeli government's Prawer Plan, in the southern city of Beersheva on July 15, 2013. (David Buimovitch/Flash90)

A Bedouin protestor is detained by Israeli police during a demonstration against the Israeli government’s Prawer Plan, in the southern city of Beersheva on July 15, 2013. (David Buimovitch/Flash90)

But the other side of that equation is that, because we don’t trust the police, we don’t engage with it as a legitimate body.

“When a young man fired gunshots in the middle of Tel Aviv, the country stopped in its tracks until he was found and his firearms were confiscated. When shots are fired in an Arab town and the police does nothing, what does that mean? That the police are interested in Arabs killing each other. That they’re interested in the proliferation of guns. What we want is for the police to actually do their job, and not just go into our cities and towns to issue more tickets or show us who’s boss during political protests.”

Has the occupation come up at these protests? Do you talk about it as organizers?

“First, we fly the Palestinian flag in almost all our demonstrations, and this is essential. The chants, too; some of them are about our prisoners, others are about ending the occupation. There were people who criticized this, who said, ‘What does the Palestinian flag have to do with this? Gun violence is an internal issue.’ But of course they’re related.”

How would you explain this to someone who can’t see any connection between how Israeli authorities treat Palestinian citizens and the way they control Palestinians under occupation?

“First, that most of the firearms come from the police and the army is the clearest evidence of the fact that [the authorities] are in on this, that they are interested in maintaining this violence. Why are they interested in perpetuating this situation? We should ask ourselves. Violence makes us weaker. Why? Because it distances us from the central issues as we get bogged down by everyday threats to our existence, by trying to survive.

“Even modernization and capitalism, what is their goal, in the end? To give us a sense of control over our lives, that we can go out and have coffee at a nice cafe, that life is all good. People might be suffering on checkpoints, but that’s there — over here, everything is fine. It makes us feel like we are masters of our fate, that all we have to strive toward is our personal wellbeing.

“Do you know how many people on my Facebook are saying things like, ‘the solution is for us to leave?’ Isn’t this directly related? Do you know how many [Palestinian citizens] have already emigrated as a result of this reality?”

You mean to say this is another way Israel is kicking Palestinians out?

“Indirectly, yes. By pushing us to emigrate, by severing our connection to this land, by making us feel like we should only exist as individuals and distance ourselves from others. This makes us weaker. It reduces our sense of solidarity, our identity as a group.

“This is ideal for the state, not only because we are Arabs, but because this is how it prevents all marginalized groups from forming alliances. If during the Ethiopian struggle, after the young man was killed, we had all stood together, imagine the protests we could organize. It’s a clear divide and conquer strategy.

“But I’ll also say that we have a responsibility as a community. Let’s say 70 percent of solving the problem is up to the government — to instill a sense of safety, to collect all the weapons, and to come up with a clear economic plan that provides opportunities for the Arab community, including a cohesive social plan for our youth. The other 30 percent of the problem is holding our own community accountable. We must acknowledge our part in this as well.”

Palestinian women, joined by Israeli and international solidarity activsits, march to the Qalandiya checkpoint during a protest against the Israeli occupation on International Women's Day, West Bank, March 8, 2012. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Palestinian women, joined by Israeli and international solidarity activsits, march to the Qalandiya checkpoint during a protest against the Israeli occupation on International Women’s Day, West Bank, March 8, 2012. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Lately, Palestinian citizens have also organized notable demonstrations on violence against women and LGBTQ harassment. Are these issues overlapping in this current wave of protests?

“More than 50 percent of women killed in Israel are Palestinian, and we make up only 20 percent of Israel’s population. The same is true of killing in general: around 60 percent of the murder victims in Israel are Arabs. This is partly because we are shifting from a traditional society into modernization. The other aspects have to do with awareness regarding gender and women’s rights.

“Domestic violence is important to talk about, but it differs from the broader epidemic of violence in our community. We must talk about women’s rights and LGBTQ rights all the time within our wider national struggle.

“The threats that people face as a result of their gender is a sign of the patriarchal dominance and control over us as women. The rampant crime in our community, however, is a consequence of economic and political — as well as patriarchal — factors. Meaning, women are killed because of society’s desire to control our decisions and our bodies, simply for being women. When it comes to violence and criminal incidents, though, the perpetrators targeting each other hold equal power. So, the power dynamics are different.”

Are there specific goals you’re trying to accomplish with these protests?

“We are demanding a comprehensive plan for combating violence and crime in Arab society. It feels like the ministries are finally waking up to this reality. The Interior Ministry sent a letter to various municipalities saying they are interested in moving forward with programs on this issue. It is clear that this is not a problem we can solve on our own, and the authorities must play their part.

“We’re submitting these plans to the government, while keeping in mind that there is no government yet, and we might be approaching a third national election. But our demands are clear: first and foremost, putting an end to the violence by arresting perpetrators and collecting all firearms. This is essential. However, it will not succeed without a wider plan that also addresses the social and economic contributing factors.”

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    1. Israel is restless. A war has been going on for a long time. It’s hard to live in such conditions.

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