If a single person deserves the title of serial thorn in the side of the Israeli state, Uri Davis, a professor of critical Israel studies at al Quds University on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, might be the one to claim it.
The crowning moment for Dr Davis arrived last weekend when he became the first Israeli Jew to be elected to one of Fatah’s governing bodies, the Revolutionary Council.
It is a public relations breakthrough for Fatah –” which held its sixth congress last week, this time under occupation in the West Bank city of Bethlehem –” in which Dr Davis clearly takes some pride.
His presence on the 120-member council, sometimes referred to as the Palestinian parliament, is unlikely to make a significant difference to Fatah’s policies, which will continue to be largely dictated by Mahmoud Abbas, the president, and his inner circle. But it does have huge symbolic significance.
His polling in the 31st place for one of 80 seats contested by more than 600 Fatah members, he said in an interview, challenged Israel’s suggestion that the Palestinian people and its leaders regard the Jews as their enemies.
Or as one local Palestinian pundit noted of the vote’s message: “It is not Judaism that Palestinians are fighting, it is Zionism.”
It also finally puts Dr Davis in a position from which he hopes to shake up the complacency that has bedevilled the Fatah leadership and the PLO in their neglect of supporters outside the Palestinian fold.
“In my view [Fatah] is conducting a struggle with one hand tied behind its back,” he said, sipping Arabic coffee in the garden of St George’s cathedral in East Jerusalem.
“The PLO represents a democratic alternative for all, including the current coloniser people, the current perpetrator of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” he said in reference to Israel and its Jewish population. “In the 25 years since my joining the Fatah and PLO, this message has been marginalised. The mainstream went another direction, the Oslo accords direction.”
He is loath to discuss the current tensions between Fatah and Hamas, claiming it is “not my area of competence”. However, he denounces Hamas for fanning the threat of civil war.
His chief task, he said, will be to push Fatah to become a broad-based resistance movement modelling itself on the African National Congress, which brought down apartheid in South Africa.
The reference to South Africa is not unexpected. Dr Davis started describing Israel as an apartheid state in the early 1980s, long before it had become fashionable even on the far left.
His most recent book is Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within, published in 2003, in which he argues that discrimination against Palestinians is embedded in Israeli law and sets out what he regards as the four classes of citizenship established by Israel’s parliament.
The country’s six million Jews, he said, occupied the most privileged place in this hierarchy, followed by the country’s 1m-strong Palestinian minority with its second-class citizenship. Lagging behind both are a quarter of a million refugees living inside Israel, who are stripped of their right to inherit property, and in final place come a further 5m refugees who had their and their descendants’ citizenship nullified after the 1948 war.
Over the years, Dr Davis has experienced life in each of these categories.
He was raised an Ashkenazi Jew in Jerusalem and schooled in Kfar Shemaryahu, a wealthy suburb of Tel Aviv. He then spent a decade in exile from Israel starting in 1984, after his recruitment to Fatah by one of the founders of the PLO, Khalil al Wazir, known as Abu Jihad.
He ran the party’s London bureau until the mid-1990s, when he was allowed to return under the Oslo accords. He surprised friends by choosing to move to Sakhnin, a Palestinian community in northern Israel, from which he led a campaign against laws and practices that force Jewish and Palestinian citizens to live almost entirely apart.
He is more circumspect about discussing his current circumstances. His marriage to a Palestinian woman from Ramallah a year ago, his fourth, violated yet another Israeli taboo.
Before the ceremony he converted to Islam, though he continues to describe himself as a “Palestinian Hebrew of Jewish origin”.
While he admits to no longer living in Israel, he is wary of saying more, possibly for good reason: it is against Israeli law for an Israeli citizen to be living in an area under the Palestinian Authority control. Equally, his wife, Miyassar, has been denied a permit to live in Israel, as is the case for almost all Palestinians in the occupied territories. A perfect illustration of the apartheid nature of the Israeli state, he said.
The plight of the Palestinians under occupation has come into much sharper focus since his marriage.
Last month, he had to watch the indignities heaped on his wife after her brother, suffering from cancer, was transferred to a hospital in East Jerusalem, which is illegally annexed to Israel. She was denied a visitor’s permit and could only hear about her brother’s slow demise from Dr Davis and friends.
“This situation is not unique to my family, of course. It is part of the cruelty perpetrated by the occupation authorities against the mass of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Dr Davis has yet to find out how Israel will respond to his regular attendance at Revolutionary Council meetings in Ramallah.
He said his election had been greeted with an outpouring of support both internationally and from the broader Jewish community that has surprised him. The main hostility has come during interviews with the Israeli media, which have taken offence at “my language referring to Israel as an apartheid state, to Zionism as a settler colonial project, to the criminality of the Israeli leadership”.
His unpopularity among the majority of Israeli Jews is likely to grow as he uses his new platform at the Revolutionary Council to push for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
The ultimate goal, he said, was the enforcement of United Nations resolutions that would in practice bring about a one-state solution.
Dr Davis concluded the interview with a story about the defining moment in his disillusionment with Israel and Zionism. He was doing alternative civilian service in the early 1960s guarding the perimeter fence of a kibbutz, one of Israel’s collective agricultural communities, on the edge of Gaza. As a pacifist at that time, he refused to carry a gun.
After one of many shouting matches, an exasperated kibbutz member led him into a eucalyptus grove inside the fence and pointed to piles of stones. “Those aren’t stones, they’re the ruins of a village called Dimra. Our kibbutz is cultivating the lands of Dimra,” he told the teenage Davis. “The families are refugees on the other side of this fence [in Gaza]. Now do you understand why all the Arabs must hate Jews and want to throw us into the sea?”
Dr Davis says he understood better the look he was shot by the man when he replied that the kibbutz members should invite the refugees back to share the agricultural land.
That way, the young Davis suggested, the kibbutz could “turn an enemy into a friend”.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.