Despite the racism and violence, Palestinian citizens must not despair. Instead they should nonviolently challenge the majority as part of a discussion on rights, democratic values, and opposition to the occupation.
By Marzuq Al-Halabi
Although there exists a multitude of Palestinian political parties and movements in Israel, there are three main currents among them that cross boundaries, find expression in different organizations and lifestyles, and crop up in day-to-day practice and discussions. However, the borders between these currents have hardened as a result of internal social, local and national developments.
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The central current tries creatively and with all its might to reconcile its Israeliness with its Palestinian national character. It tries to mediate between its past and collective memory as part of the “people of the Nakba” and day-to-day necessities, as well as the latent opportunities in the present and the future. This movement has, over the past few years, advanced the discourse on rights at the expense of that on identity.
The second stream is tired of exclusion, of deprivation, of the inflammatory racist discourse, the injustices of the occupation, and Israel’s stubborn refusal to agree to or even imagine two states. This movement is returning to a discussion concerned with identity alone, a pre-state discourse about existential struggle and not about rights — one that places the “existential” before the “day-to-day.”
The third stream rarely speaks out, continuing to integrate itself into the Israeli experience and the opportunities it presents, without asking questions or being party to public discussions and debates. This stream sees in the Jewish city its future and self-fulfillment; it works alongside Zionist parties and tries to improve economic positions and enjoy the mobility that being Israeli brings.
Establishment indifference and internal weakness
Although these three streams are expressed through various political organizations in one way or another, I do not want to discuss them in the political context. It would be a mistake for us to try and examine the internal dynamics of Arab society in Israel solely through the lens of political entities, if only for the fact that the voter turnout among Arab citizens over the last three elections stands at around 60 percent. In other words, 40 percent — and sometimes more — do not, for various reasons, participate in general elections.
This group cannot be omitted from the discussion about the internal transformations taking place in Palestinian Arab society in Israel. Indeed, we would be mistaken in continuing to speak in the language of messianism, optimistic, or pessimistic, or of the “opsimist,” as the late Emil Habibi would have had it. Only a strategic analysis will enable us to understand the processes and opportunities facing the public of these three groups.
Over 15 years have passed since the events of October 2000, during which the state, at its own initiative, torpedoed the option of full citizenship for Palestinians in Israel. It has been a decade since “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” a joint document put together by the Arab elites in Israel that tried to draw up their desired future relations with the state, and to put forward what they want out of life here.
This document, whose aim was to establish a dialogue between Arabs and the state, was struck from the agenda in a single blow. The establishment rejected it and the government ignored it entirely, aside from a few months in which the powers that be exploited the document’s publication in order to bolster its racist campaign of delegitimization against Arabs and their elected officials. To a large extent, the Jewish majority forced the state’s Arab citizens into a discussion on rights: not only was their nationality the subject of repeated attacks, their status and legitimacy as citizens and representatives was also thrown into doubt.
Moreover Arabs were saddled with the damaging label of being part of a Middle Eastern landscape that had seen the Arab Spring stray from its origins. For the most part they were framed against their will as part of a nefarious worldview that focused on ISIS, violence and terrorism, Arabs killing Arabs, godless peoples, despisers of human life and more.
Other factors levied additional difficulties on Arabs in Israel: the overall weakening of the Palestinian and Arab political center; the substantial improvement in Israel’s strategic position compared with that of the Arab world; the decline of the Israeli Left and the shrinking of Israel’s democracy. None of this has been easy on Israel’s Arab population: they have come to seem self-justifying, retreating into a defensive stance, taking on a discussion around rights that has been forced upon them by the establishment. But they have not, so far, taken decisions on the matter in hand and are hoping that they can remain vague due to the multitude of streams discussed above.
In my opinion they will continue to proceed without making a decision for as long as they can, although this will become impossible in the foreseeable future. The Jewish majority, primarily its right-wing circles, will continue to press them up against the wall. Should the government for some reason decide to ban Balad, as it did the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, the Joint List will be hard-pressed to carry on as before. It will need to decide whether to remain in the Knesset or to seek a divorce from Israel’s legislature.
But such a decision would be difficult for several reasons. What if a large proportion of Arab citizens were to move over to Jewish parties in order to continue benefiting from being Israeli? Would it be smart for them to leave behind such a vast political vacuum? Each time the Arab leadership tries to decide on a strategic direction, it is faced with hard questions. And who wants to take upon themselves such dramatic steps?
The end of politics as we know it
The three currents are in a fraught situation, albeit at varying levels of difficulty. The greatest challenge is faced by the group that tries to combine discourses around identity and dialogue while better positioning itself. This stream will suffer in its attempt to prove it represents the good citizen who is also a loyal Palestinian, a citizen who is a partner as well as a Palestinian who takes part in her or his people’s struggle against the occupation, who accepts the discourse on rights while praising the discourse on identity. This stream will need to navigate both the Jewish majority and the two other streams in Palestinian society in the hope of successfully consolidating and preserving political and moral power.
The stream which has taken “Israeliness” upon itself will likely try to draw closer to this first stream and push it toward this mode of being. I do not buy the assessment that the third and fourth generations of the Nakba will get rid of the “national” issue; the name of the game is not one of aspirations and words of self-support — but one of the balance of power. This balance is predisposed in favor of the Jewish majority, or at least the forces of the racist right-wing that claims the state for itself and refuses to discuss an agreement or the establishment of a proper democracy.
Moreover, the Right abrogates the state and brings the ideological and the civil into full alignment; it wipes out democratic checks and balances and declares war on anyone who dares criticize it; and it eliminates any chance of a change of government. The Right will continue to gather speed for the foreseeable future, becoming even more intimidating, aggressive and violent.
It will continue to pressure Palestinian Arabs in Israel and in the territories while significantly diminishing the democratic arena. The Right will have no qualms about expelling every authentic Arab representative from the Knesset. And of course, the campaign of dehumanization and delegitimization against Arabs will continue, in order to subdue them and bring them to their knees.
This state of affairs is bringing us toward the end of politics as we know it, and the Arab leadership in Israel needs to be prepared. The Right will maneuver between the three streams in order to fulfill its wishes. It will force a wedge between them, it will try to set one against the other, to separate the first from the third, to exclude one and to fight another until it submits. A situation such as this will amplify the voices of despair. Desperation will lead to surrender or uprising. And once again, the outcome will be brutal government practices, either using force or force wearing silk gloves.
A strategy of integration and minimizing damage
I am making an unequivocal suggestion here: not to be drawn to despair, but rather to fight for a political place in Israel by adopting a clear civic line on the side of democratic forces in Jewish society, both here and abroad, Zionist and not-so Zionist. To adopt the discourse of citizenship and to refrain from acts of heroism and ostentatious rhetoric that will be used against the Arab population. To recognize the balance of power for now and to understand its political significance. To be more pragmatic, to challenge the majority and the government as part of a discussion on rights, and to have a discourse based on democratic values and opposition to the occupation and its injustices.
I know full well the meaning of these statements. They are a call to strive not for violent clashes but to keep the conflict as far away as possible from deliberate violence.
There is an implicit, conscious choice to show restraint and self-control in light of the Right’s policies. I am aware of the possibility that the right-wing establishment may try to inflame the situation. Thus I call to drive a stake through these attempts, by adopting nonviolent struggle as a strategic choice that allows for creating new relations with different circles among the Jewish public in Israel and abroad. In the meanwhile this kind of attitude is necessary to minimize harm to the Arab public, as well as to neutralize the possibility of brutal suppression by the right-wing government.
If this government takes the wrong path, we should rethink the way ahead. As long as we do not lose the ability to think strategically.
Marzuq Al-Halabi is a jurist, journalist, author. He writes regularly for Al-Hayat. This article was translated by Natasha Roth first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.