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The personal and the political: Territorial swaps and population exchanges

When Israeli politicians talk about land swaps, they rarely consider the rights of those affected – or at least the Palestinian ones. As personal as it is political, the entire situation shows the lack of civil discourse in so-called peace negotiations.

By Muhammad Jabali

I will never forget that night at a birthday party in Jaffa when a drunken friend began approaching guests with the question: “What’s your address as registered at the Interior Ministry?” He then joked that everyone should change their residency to Tel Aviv as soon as possible before they find themselves on the other side of the separation wall, suffering segregation in the West Bank.

Those who answered “Nazareth,” or anywhere in the Galilee, were met with humorous replies: “Oh, you’re okay, your turn hasn’t come yet!” Next, he demanded that the bunch of us from Taybeh, Tira, Umm al-Fahm and other parts of the Triangle region show our ID cards. After checking where we were registered, he declared those who had already changed their addresses to Tel Aviv-Jaffa or Haifa were “the smart ones.” Anyone who was still registered in our hometowns and villages was told: “I’m checking your IDs next week and I want them to read ‘Tel Aviv’ or ‘Haifa.’ I’m not even gonna make the effort to visit you if it involves crossing checkpoints and separation walls.” Without a doubt it was the joke of the night. Our kind of black humor.

The background was this: earlier that same day, Shimon Peres had made some kind of statement about the possibility of exchanging the Arab Triangle region – a mainly Palestinian-populated area inside Israel – for the “settlements blocs” in a future agreement with the PA. That was six or seven years ago. Today, such proposals have become a relatively common part of various proposed “resolutions” for the conflict; some are short-term plans, some are designs for a “final resolution.” Each plan has its own definition of what constitutes the West Bank and what level of independence the almighty and generous Israel grants the Palestinians “over there” in the West Bank. Territorial swaps and population exchanges have clearly become a routine part of the terminology used by a wide range of politicians, from Avigdor Lieberman to Tzipi .

I couldn’t help but think of that birthday party while taking the train from Kfar Saba to Tel Aviv last Wednesday to DJ at my weekly gig in Jaffa. The Arab League had just announced the possible renewal of the Arab Peace Initiative, including these “agreed-upon territorial swaps.” Riding the train, I read Facebook status updates from my Palestinian friends, describing their irritation with this clause.

Although I have lived in Jaffa for the vast majority of the past 11 years, I have never managed to fully “move” – that is, I have never changed my official residency with the Interior Ministry. This despite the fact that in many of my public talks, interviews and Jaffa-based activism, I try my best to promote young Arab immigration to the historic city. I fully believe that this is the only way of rescuing the Palestinian community there from ghettoization. I preach that the Tel Aviv Municipality must start urban planning for its new Arab residents and not only deal with the remnants of the older Palestinian community, as if dealing with archeological findings.

But perhaps I am the best example of the impossible nature of my own activism and attempts at implementing change.

It is hard to explain the complexities of the situation. The primary obstacle is economic: I will probably never manage to fully finance my life in the city. The second obstacle is the deep alienation I feel from Tel Aviv. No matter how deeply involved I become in the city’s cultural life, I am still amazed at how much the city and its residents appear to me to be from outer space. We come from different planets.

The third, and most deeply psychological barrier between me and Tel Aviv is the feeling of betraying my family and hometown if anything other than Taybeh were to be written on my ID card. This fear is rooted in a history of displacement and the prevention of free movement by a strange system of borders. Just imagine if I fully moved to Tel Aviv-Jaffa and suddenly some crazy politician decides that residents of Taybeh are no longer “citizens of Israel,” and that from now on they can’t visit the coast freely. Wouldn’t that mean that I separated my destiny from that of my family? Wouldn’t that mean I left my brothers to face segregation alone? This continual threat prevents any normalization between me and the city.

The funny thing is that we in the Triangle area were never conquered during the 1948 war. We were “given” to Israel in the ceasefire agreements with King Abdullah I (grandfather of the current king) as part of a territorial swap.

As personal as it is political, the entire situation shows the lack of civil discourse in so-called peace negotiations. Diplomats meet in New York and look at maps, thinking about one kilometer here or one kilometer there, and the interests of the two “sides.” Rarely do they think about the people who live in that kilometer. Peace talks fail to deal with the human rights of the people involved. And the message to Israel always seems to be: “Settle in the West Bank as much as you can. You will always win.”

We Palestinians will always be contingents under a Zionist regime, never fully part of the system, though the system has been imposed on us from above since the beginning of the 20th century. Divided already between Palestinians of the occupied territories and Israel, the system even manages to create divisions and a sense of hierarchy among the Palestinian citizens of Israel. We exist in the system through different points of displacement, land confiscation and access to economic mobility.

These divisions have come to define us. In the Negev desert, Bedouin are still threatened by an old system that uses the technique of ‘Nakba creation.’ In the North, Arabs are still facing Judaization of the Galilee. The message is that we in the Triangle area should be nice and quiet in order to hold onto our jobs in the cities of the coastal region. Notwithstanding the fact we have historical connections to and economic dependency on these cities; these cities are as much ours as they are anyone else’s. All the while, more than 250,000 of us Palestinians in Israel are still displaced as internal refugees from 1948, with no possibility of returning to home villages — even when the land remains unsettled to this day. And that’s not even to mention the military regime Palestinians face in the West Bank, the situation in Gaza, or the refugees outside of Israeli-controlled territories.

As for the Jewish Israelis? They cling to their mantra that, “No, of course there is no apartheid here.” Well, Israelis have first-world psychological and medical support available. In order to stay sane, they are probably given prescriptions to consume at least two hours of Hasbara (propaganda) a day.

Muhammad Jabali is a Palestinian Israeli activist and facilitator. He is a coordinator for the Ayam Association’s Jaffa Project-Autobiography of a City, which works to reconcile memory and space for a cosmopolitan Jaffa. He writes for Palestinian media and blogs within Israel, and has published poems in both Hebrew and Arabic. He is also a part of the Palestinema Group, which promotes films from the Arab world inside Israel-Palestine. He is also an occasional DJ. Visit his personal website here.

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    1. The Trespasser

      >We Palestinians will always be contingents under a Zionist regime, never fully part of the system

      Correct. A Palestinian could never be a part of Israel, pretty much like an Israeli could never be a part of Palestine – these toponyms are mutually exclusive.

      There are quite a lot of Arabs who are more than happy to be a part of Israel, pity that it is not polite to mention them.

      Reply to Comment
      • rsgengland

        The Jews in the Arab/Muslim lands were always “contingent under Muslim regimes” and could never be fully part of the country they lived in.
        Jews were always “tolerated” as a minority, subject to the whims of the ruling classes.
        That is why Israel is so necessary for the Jews.
        It is the only country in the world where Jews do not have to hide the fact of who they are or be embarrassed about it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Jan

          Israel is not the only country in the world where Jews do not have to hide their identity. Israel’s main benefactor, the United States, has some million or more Jews and while we are a small minority we have a great influence on our government and on many other aspects of American life.

          There may have been a time when some Jews hid their identity but those days were long ago.

          Jews are far safer in America than they are in Israel.

          Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            No kidding. I went to college there and Jewish culture/religion is celebrated there. Some people even take pride in being ‘hononary jews’ (I’ve got a Catholic american friend who is in a Jewish sorority and her freinds refer to her as an hononary jew). I would say Jews there have faired better in the US than Israel, because atleast in the US you can be an anti-Zionist Jew and not be regarded as an anti-semite (I’m talking more about every day life than media/politics).

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >I would say Jews there have faired better in the US than Israel

            I’d say that people of most ethnicities/nationalities fare better in USA that in their countries of origins.

            Reply to Comment
          • rsgengland

            America is a wonderful country, and has delivered big on its promises to all, but no place is perfect.
            America is a big place, and there are enough people there who would love to see Israel and the Jews gone.
            In Europe Antisemitism is once again rearing its ugly head.
            Many communities in Europe recommend that Jews stop wearing recognizable Jewish gear, due to the rise in Antisemitic abuse and/or violence.
            Europe before the Second World War was for a wonderful place to be Jewish.
            Hindsight, being the perfect science it is, shows what happened in this wonderful place for Jews, not yet seventy years ago.

            Reply to Comment
    2. sh

      9 years ago, before the term “land swaps” had become common currency, Sayed Kashua was already imagining one in his book Let it be Morning. I mentioned that to someone very pro-Israel as recently as 3 or 4 years ago who dismissed such an idea as pure fantasy. That’s the thing about status quo. It isn’t static at all.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        It is still fantasy, but it is instructive to notice that the biggest fear Israeli Arabs have is to get stuck inside of an Arab state.

        Reply to Comment
        • six

          first of all its not a state, as you know.. it’s still an occupied territory. And the reasons why Palestinians do not want to move to the West Bank is because it’s not their land. Why should someone from nazareth or from lod or from tira move to ramallah or tul karem? You people are so blinde and have no understanding to what israel has done and what the occupation really is.

          And to the writer of this blog, I do think that you should all start abstaining from using phrases such as “we palestinians.” I am sick of every Palestinian academic, writer, or unemployed blogger attempting to represent an entire population and people. You are one of those Palestinians who does choose to use the lavishes and luxuries of Israeli colonialism and does choose to mingle with the leftist Israeli elite of Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, one of the previous comments about particular Palestinians enjoying the israeli state is true. And they are the ones who admit it… I think that one of the main ways that Palestinians DO suffer is the enjoyment of the Israeli state. Many victims are usually unaware and in self denial of their situation. The intellectual bourgeois of the Palestinian society have a problem of fooling others into thinking they don’t take any advantage of living in israel.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Huh? The author is afraid that upon reaching a peace treaty with the Palestinians his village will be placed under the authority of the state of Palestine. Who said anything about moving? At least us people have basic reading comprehension skills.

            “the way the Palestinians do suffer is the enjoyment of the Israeli state”

            Hahahahahaha. That is the most retarded statement ever written. Amazing.

            Reply to Comment
          • Six

            True that’s badly written and i was typing quickly but no reason to be an asshole about it you asshole.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Yeah, it does sound like you didn’t have time to actually read the article and just skipped to the comments and also didn’t have time to come up with a thought that isn’t retarded. That certainly is one explanation. Another is that you are incapable of consuming information and can only regurgitate nonsense sprinkled with generalizations and insults.

            Reply to Comment
          • Tony Riley

            Somebody should break it to the writer that he’s not actually a “Refugee”. Time he served in the IDF.

            Reply to Comment
    3. A.

      Doesn’t Tzipi Livni deserve a last name?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Kolumn9

      So.. You work as a DJ, studied in both Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities, live in Tel Aviv, and the only thing stopping you from ‘moving’ permanently to Tel Aviv is YOU. You are complaining about a fantasy scenario which is unlikely to ever come to pass. Which part of this should make Jewish Israelis question their opinion?

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        “Unlikely ever to come to pass”. So what *is* the land swap everyone’s waffling about at the moment as though it was a big breakthrough? I note your choice was an equivocal “unlikely”, rather than a robust never.

        Where do you see that the purpose of this article is to make Jewish Israelis question their opinion and what makes you think there is only one?

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Every land swap idea I have seen presented in negotiations has traded empty territory on the Israeli side for land the settlements have been built on. My personal view is that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with moving borders even if it leaves some people on the other side. This is true for forcing some Israeli settlers to accept Palestinian citizenship and for forcing some Israeli Arabs to accept Palestinian citizenship. However, neither of these is every likely to happen.

          “Where do you see that the purpose of this article is to make Jewish Israelis question their opinion and what makes you think there is only one?”

          Did you read the article? Read the last paragraph.

          Reply to Comment
    5. yo

      again, Mohamed write’s is so clear and smart. so much important things, a new point of view. Shukran ktir and SAHA!

      Reply to Comment
    6. The idea of expunging a natural born citizen is repulsive. A land swap would have to provide internal compensation to citizens forced to move–within Israel, not outside of it. Unless Arab Israeli citizens are not really citizens.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Shmuel

      Broadly speaking, the author identified two problems:

      1. He is against land and population swaps because he sees that as apartheid and a disadvantage to Arab Israelis.

      2. He is against the Jewish character of Israel because it makes him feel isolated as an Arab.

      It therefore begs the following questions about what he would like to see instead of the status quo:

      1. Is he asking that Israel should legislate against Jewishness just to make him feel more at home?

      2. Or is he asking that Jews should vacate Israel and leave it to be an Arab land?

      3. Or is he asking that Israel should make Israel a majority Arab state by consenting to the right of return demand?

      It would be nice if he would spell out not only his problems with the status quo but mention what he would like to see instead too.

      As it is, like all good activists, he confuses the crap out of me because all one keeps on hearing from them are a litany of problems that they see.

      Reply to Comment
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