Sidelining Palestinians in Israel will doom prospects for peace
In mid-April, the United States state department published its annual human rights review – and the country report for Israel makes for interesting reading. An ally praised in public as the embodiment of liberal democratic values in a “tough neighbourhood” is described as practising “institutional discrimination” against its own Palestinian citizens (the so-called Israeli Arabs).
Even in a far-from-comprehensive summary of Israel’s systematic racism, the report notes discrimination in the education system, the land regime and housing, and the legal restrictions on a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza living with his or her spouse in Israel.
These were not unprecedented observations – previous state department reports have said similar things – but the study provides an opportune moment to think through some important, neglected questions.
Palestinians in Israel continue to get far less attention from the international community than those in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, even though this omission makes for bad history, poor analysis and even worse long-term peacemaking.
By coincidence, at the same time the US government published its report, Amnesty International called on the Israeli government to “scrap plans to forcibly evict Bedouin” in the Negev. The so-called Prawer Plan would involve Israel expelling tens of thousands from communities that it refuses to recognise and moving them into approved shanty towns.
Amnesty says that the plan for “house demolitions and forced evictions” is one that “blatantly violates international law”. It is criticism echoed by other human rights groups and not least by the Bedouin community itself.
But it is not just discrimination and segregation that raise concerns. There are those in Israel who would like to be rid of Palestinian citizens altogether – and see an opportunity to do so in the context of the “peace process”.
Responding to recent protests by Palestinian citizens to mark their expulsion in 1948, the former foreign minister and current chair of the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee, Avigdor Lieberman, called the Nakba commemoration events proof that “any arrangement with the Palestinians must include Israeli Arabs as well”.
Mr Lieberman added that “any arrangement that doesn’t include [Palestinian citizens] won’t be a permanent arrangement, but merely a ceasefire until the next round and the additional demands that will come from that direction”. The Yisrael Beiteinu party head concluded by suggesting that “these people need to find their places as citizens of the Palestinian Authority”.
Mr Lieberman has aired similar views before – in 2010, for example, he told Newsweek that he believed in “exchanging territory and populations”, specifying that he would draw a line so that “at least half” of Palestinian citizens would no longer be part of Israel.
But I would argue that there is one sense in which Mr Lieberman is correct, though not in the way he intended: that in contrast to their exclusion by the framework of the official peace process, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship do need to be part of the overall solution.
The world has looked at the question of Palestine for the last few decades through the prism of “negotiations” between the PLO/Palestinian Authority and Israel, an approach that is a product of and contributing factor to misconceptions about a “conflict” between “two sides” – as if the Palestinian national struggle were in essence about the borders of a statelet.
Referring to the focus on establishing statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, an Arab Knesset member, Haneen Zoabi, wrote in the foreword to my book on Palestinians in Israel that “the paradigm of occupation approached the Palestinians inside Israel as an internal Israeli matter. In response, this segment of the Palestinian people reformulated their national project in a manner that was to … guarantee their place as an integral part of the Palestinian issue, both as part of the conflict and as part of the solution”.
The case of the Palestinians inside Israel provides an instructive way to understand core questions that in the mainstream discussion are silenced or answered with trite clichés.
First, it means a fuller understanding of the history of the dispossession of 1948. In contrast to the official peace process’ marginalisation of the Nakba, the Palestinians found in towns and villages from the Galilee down to the Negev are a reminder that this story begins long before settlements on West Bank hilltops. In contrast to the timeline that begins with the Six Day War, the Palestinians who emerged from the rubble of the Nakba as second-class citizens of a Jewish state are a reminder of Palestine pre-1948 and a history of settler-colonialism.
Palestinians in Israel live to this day with the consequences of the Nakba and its aftermath: many are internally displaced and denied the right to return to their land, while Palestinian communities face a shortage of land and subsequent housing and economic problems due to the expropriations that took place in the aftermath of Israel’s creation.
Second, to take seriously the problems facing Palestinian citizens of Israel means a different – though complementary – conversation to discussions about ending the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
There is no security excuse for the segregation and discrimination experienced by residents of Haifa and Kafr Kanna, Nazareth and Umm Al Fahem – the colonial logic that shapes Israel’s laws and policies towards the Palestinians is laid bare.
Here we see the roots of the “conflict” in the obsession with demographics and the fury when Palestinian citizens call for a state for all – rather than a Jewish state. We are reminded that the “Jewish majority” that Israel’s leaders are so keen to preserve was only established in the first place by ethnic cleansing, and a continuing denial of return.
Including Palestinian citizens of Israel in an approach to a just resolution encourages an analysis more reflective of the reality on the ground: a regime from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River based on privilege and exclusion. Different rights for land ownership, housing, water access, movement and education are experienced by Jews and Palestinians. Refugees both inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders and in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are denied return to and ownership of their property. So are refugees outside of Palestine.
In other words, the “institutional discrimination” observed by the state department, and the impending expulsion of Bedouin in the Negev slammed by Amnesty, are inextricably linked to the attacks on Palestinian shepherds in the south Hebron hills and the bombing of refugee camps in the Gaza Strip.
A solution that does not reflect this will inevitably be lacking in justice and sustainability.
Where are there signs that this might happen? In the increased links among Palestinian youth on both sides of the “Green Line”, a generation growing up that resists the divisions imposed by Israeli colonialism; in the moves to shake up Palestinian representation not just for the sake of accountability – but also to reflect the interests of all the Palestinian people; in the growing calls for and discussion of a one-state solution.
It won’t be the old guard that unites the demands of the Palestinians inside Israel, those in the West Bank and Gaza, and those in camps around the region. But if Palestinians inside Israel end up being part of the “solution”, it won’t be as Mr Lieberman imagines.
Ben White is a freelance journalist and author of Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide and Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy