Shaking the foundations of citizenship


The Intifada that began on 28 September last year has permanently changed the nature of the relationship between Israel and its Palestinian citizens in a way no other major development in the Arab-Israeli conflict has since 1967 — including the first Intifada and the Oslo agreements. In particular, its first few fateful days, and specifically Israel’s reaction to the demonstrations that erupted in various Arab localities inside Israel, raised deep doubts among Arabs as to the value of their Israeli citizenship and ruptured the relationship between Arabs and Jews. Israeli behaviour in the West Bank and Gaza since last October deepened the split that emerged between the two communities, and perhaps caused irreparable damage to the fabric of a relationship that was already frayed.

Of all the Palestinian communities, the Palestinians citizens of Israel showed the most support for the Oslo process. Furthermore, Arabs in Israel supported a two-state solution long before the PLO was promoting such a programme. Under the influence of the Israeli Communist Party, the main political force within this community until the early 1980s, they were the first Palestinians to endorse the two-state solution explicitly. They did so even though this solution was far from ideal, since it would have perpetuated their status as unequal citizens in an ethnic Jewish state. But they assumed that, once the larger Palestinian issue was resolved, it would be possible for Arab citizens, together with non-Zionist Jewish allies, to work on making the fundamental issues of equal citizenship and separation of state and religion a central focus for Israeli society. The political vision of a state for all its citizens advanced by their secular national leadership was widely accepted in the community as the programme that could gradually lead to a de-Zionised and democratic state.

The cornerstone of this assumption has always been shared citizenship with Jewish Israelis. Many saw Arab citizenship, while unequal to that of Jews, as the foundation for a collective democratising force that could push for change in Israeli society, together with democratic Jewish sectors. But this assumption was shaken to the core when Israeli police killed 13 Arab demonstrators, Jewish mobs attacked Nazareth, Arab citizens were assaulted in the streets of Israeli cities, and angry Jewish citizens damaged Arab businesses.

Initially, it was the killing of the citizens, not the Israeli behaviour so abhorred in the West Bank and Gaza, that stirred deep doubts among Arabs in Israel about the nature of their citizenship. They took to the streets in October 2000 motivated by nationalist sympathies for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In doing so, they believed that their citizenship would protect them from being treated like the Palestinians under occupation. What happened during those fateful days led them to realise that Arab citizenship in the Jewish state is not just unequal — a matter of degree — but that it is fundamentally, qualitatively different from Jewish citizenship. Subsequent developments only strengthened this realisation: Jews (informally) boycotted their towns and businesses, some out of fear, many out of revenge; and in October the Jewish public expressed “surprise” at their behaviour, rather than at that of the police and the state. These reactions exposed the depth of the gap. Since then, awareness of their grave mistake has grown among Palestinian citizens of Israel, and has guided their collective behaviour. For example, Arabs boycotted the Israeli elections last February — resisting pressure from the Palestinian Authority — because they could not support Barak, under whom the police received their orders to kill.

With the subsequent escalation of Israeli violence in the occupied areas, including assassinations and closures, supported by the Jewish public, Arabs in Israel found their views so far out of range that they could hardly be expressed openly. When some Arab Knesset members did speak out, they were ostracised by the their Jewish colleagues and the Jewish public. Arab leaders felt threatened; calls in the Knesset to place MK Azmi Bishara in front of a firing squad or to withdraw his citizenship after he delivered a speech in Syria were stunning reminders (as if more were needed) that their citizenship was not secure. Many in the Arab community now believe, with deep concern, that within the current political climate in Israel, their leaders are in genuine danger. For the first time, there is a sense among Arab elites that a governmentally induced political assassination of Arab leaders in Israel is becoming possible.

An even more fundamental dimension of citizenship has also been shaken: confidence that one is personally secure in one’s home. In comparison to other Palestinian communities, Arab citizens previously felt personally secure, believing that, despite their marginalisation, at least they could not be deported. But while that is true individually, political, public, and even academic discourse in Israel is again crying “demographic threat.” Calls for transfer are heard explicitly on radio talk shows and implicitly in political plans, academic forums, and the media. While transfer was unthinkable a year ago, many now believe that in the “appropriate” regional and international conditions, Israel might consider such moves. Furthermore, it is now unclear whether the Israeli left would be able or willing to oppose such moves in practice.

On the Intifada front itself, Palestinians in Israel helplessly watched the unfolding violence in the occupied territories. The daily scenes of killings, emotional funerals, destruction and closures reached the living rooms of average Palestinians via the Gulf states’ popular satellites. Interviews with Palestinian and Arab leaders (including some of their own) conveyed with vividness the Palestinian predicament. Arab citizens of Israel share the Palestinian and Arab view that Israel is using brutal force in fighting a mainly civilian population and is committing war crimes. By contrast, the Israeli media conveyed a message of popular support for Israel’s actions and a popular demand to end what became known in Israel as the “policy of restraint” in a context of self-righteousness shared by many Israelis.

The gap between the Arab community and the Israeli public developed into what could be called autistic communication — unwillingness even to talk about these issues. Whatever each side has to say would be so upsetting to the other that they avoid mentioning it. It is in this new climate that people like the suicide bomber from Galilee operated. There is no question among the Israeli Arab public and elites that Arab citizens’ participation in suicide bombings is wrong on moral, political, and strategic bases. Yet it is not obvious that the suicide bomber from Galilee was a lone actor, and it is quite possible that more Arabs from Israel could become involved in Palestinian operations.

With the unfolding of the Intifada, the helplessness of Palestinians in Israel increased. They watch their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza endure daily brutal attacks but can do very little — as citizens — in the current climate. The clear limitations on their ability to affect Israeli policy in matters concerning their rights as citizens are now magnified: they stand impotent in matters of vital national importance.

In the face of this crisis, new voices are emerging that question the essence of the Arab consensus in Israel and the framework within which their political struggle has progressed. The Arab consensus in Israel has centred around three main issues that developed over the years: equal citizenship for the Palestinians in Israel, a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and conducting any popular and political acts of protest within the framework of Israeli law.

Starting with the last element, obviously the Galilee suicide bomber and the few Arabs who were recently arrested and indicted for cooperation with “terrorist organisations” are signs that this consensus may be cracking. All Arab factions oppose the involvement of Arab citizens in armed struggle, yet if the climate described above continues, there is no guarantee that the Arab leadership can control such developments, which, by definition, are organised underground. Yet even if individual Arab citizens take part in such operations, I doubt the broad public consensus against them will change.

The main departure from this consensus is developing elsewhere: in the argument that international stage is the appropriate arena for promoting the cause of Israel’s Arab citizens. Arab NGOs and political movements have developed connections with UN institutions and international organisations. Arabs participated actively in the recent international conference against racism. And many are demanding that the economic and political predicament of Arab Israelis be brought before the UN and other international organisations.

The two-state solution as a slogan of consensus is also losing its value, because many believe that Israel cannot afford a just solution for the Palestinian question that includes a viable independent state and a solution to the right of return. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly obvious to Palestinians in Israel that a two-state solution might perpetuate their inferior status in an ethnic Jewish state rather then ameliorate their predicament. A one-state solution, binational or otherwise, is no longer seen as an unrealistic goal. It is no surprise that some of the most vocal supporters of a one-state solution are Palestinian Israelis.

The third element of consensus, equal citizenship, seems to have been a myth that exploded with the outbreak of the Intifada. The citizenship of Arabs, even as unequal citizens, was not taken seriously by the state itself.

What, then, are the Palestinian citizens’ political goals in their relationship with Israel? This is a difficult question. Various political forces are trying to fill the void left by disillusionment with the promise of equal citizenship. The nationalists — who once struggled to build bridges between Palestinian national identity and equal and democratic citizenship — are edging toward the quest for collective rights, cultural autonomy, and perhaps binationalism in Israel itself. The Islamist movement is successfully expropriating the issues of identity and culture that the nationalist movement has advanced in the last few years and is offering its vision of a return to Islamic values. It has posited itself as the real front facing Israeli intransigence — inside Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, and beyond. And the Israeli Communist Party is still working its way out of inertia to salvage what remains of Arab- Jewish coexistence.

But across all differences, many Palestinians are realising that the bases of their relationship with the state of Israel are changing. Citizenship, the essence of this relationship, must be redefined in a way that takes their history and that of their people into account. Equal citizenship means nothing if Israel does not face the issues of historic responsibility, injustice, and past wrongs that continue to this day. Indeed, the most important practical and symbolic issues the Arabs in Israel face emerge from an historic injustice: the destruction of the villages that belonged to them, the unrecognised villages, the “expropriation” of their land, and the immigration laws that do not allow their people, even relatives, to return to their homeland. These matters are obviously related to the larger Palestinian questions, particularly the right of return, which emerged after the collapse of the Camp David meetings as the single most important issue in the conflict.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the problem of the Palestinians in Israel is an integral part of the larger Palestinian problem. Arabs in Israel and to the Palestinian Authority, each for their own reasons, have accepted to deal with the two as separate issues — until now. A year into the second Intifada, however, the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict have reemerged as the most urgent, relinking the two problems and, accordingly, visions for a solution.

Only if Israel faces up to its responsibilities is there a chance that a just solution will be found to the conflict and that Arab citizens will enjoy equal rights. Until then, the Arabs in Israel coexist with the Israelis in a “working relationship” defined (for both sides) by domination, deep inequalities, and forced impositions. What the second Intifada has done so far is to challenge the Arabs’ fundamental assumptions about their collective status and their national consensus. It will be their enormously difficult task to develop a vision that brings back their own repressed history with Israel and explicitly links their problem and its solution to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The writer is founding director of the Haifa-based organisation Mada, the Arab Centre for Applied Social Research.