By Hossam Shaker
Once again, the Israeli authorities have thrown another Palestinian leader into prison. Once again that leader is Raed Salah, who has a defiant smile and whose life shares characteristics with liberation leaders known to the world through their civil, non-violent struggles, the price of which has been repeated imprisonment and sometimes assassination.
Raed Salah, who is quietly approaching sixty and living an active life, is one of the most prominent Palestinian leaders today. He has gained support from Muslim and Christian religious leaders for his defence of the Palestinian sanctities — mosques, churches, monasteries and historical monuments — threatened by the Israeli authorities and extremists. What is unique in his case is that his experience is closely linked to Jerusalem, even though he was born in the very core of the Palestinian presence, which the Israeli propaganda calls “Israeli Arabs”. He is a Palestinian leader who is forced to carry Israeli citizenship.
The Israelis around David Ben-Gurion who were in ecstasy at their military victory in 1948 imagined that they had accomplished the task of ethnic cleansing, the details of which have been set out in successive studies by Israeli historians in recent decades. The task of dealing with those left behind seemed easy; there were about 100,000 Palestinians who managed to survive the Nakba in the territories occupied in 1948. They were forced to be Israelis in terms of documentation, and it seemed like an easy task to assimilate them, using them as propaganda for “the only democracy in the Middle East”.
It was not only demography that has since evolved dramatically, with the “Israeli Arab” population jumping from 100,000 in 1948 to 1.5 million today. The sense of the Palestinian collective identity, experience of the challenge, cultural resistance and civil society activism has also grown. The “Israeli Arabs” complain about this nomenclature, which links them to a state established on the ruins of their homeland. They call themselves in terms that express their identity more clearly, such as “Palestinians in Palestine” or, more usually, “1948 Palestinians”. The use of the year indicates explicitly that the Nakba is the founding event for their collective consciousness.
What Israel wanted them to do was to stand up in May every year to glorify the “independence” that crushed their people and displaced them in places of exile that could be seen with the naked eye beyond the borders of their country. However, over time, this has become the anniversary that worries the Israeli government most, because of the marches in which “1948 Palestinians” carry the names of their villages from which they were displaced, the keys to their homes and Palestinian flags. The Nakba occurred entirely within Palestine as well; Palestinians were displaced from their cities and towns to other areas under Israeli military occupation in 1948. They were then prohibited from going back to their homes, despite the fact that they were living under the same occupation/state. The “1948 Palestinians” declared their commitment to their land in a mass march in 1967, and they were rewarded by Israeli forces shooting and killing six protesters, wounding 100 and arresting hundreds more. Land Day has become an annual event on 30 March, to mark their defiance.
The Israeli authorities have done everything in their power to prevent the emergence of coherent and effective formations among the “1948 Palestinians” who fall under their direct rule, although according to the law they are “Israelis”. Thus, the local civil society groups and movements that emerged after the Nakba were targeted by means of prohibition, persecution and harassment, and continue to be so. As part of these efforts, many institutions and associations have been banned and popular leaders are still being prosecuted. Israel is full of excuses to justify every one of these measures. In November 2015, the largest wave of banning orders included the Islamic Movement, the largest and most organised grassroots organisation, with the most number of affiliated institutions, associations, specialised centres and public initiatives; the orders were issued in one fell swoop. This expansion of the bans reflected the thinking within the extreme right-wing government that abuses the legal system to serve its own purposes.
By cracking down on civil society institutions and prosecuting popular leaders of the local Palestinian community, the Israeli authorities are relentlessly crushing any opportunity for an effective leadership to mature among what the media calls “Israeli Arabs”. The latter are meant to behave in the way that Israeli propaganda portrays them; smiling and feeling overwhelmingly content because they are “citizens of the State of Israel, the only democracy…” I am sure that you get the point.
The game seems to have ended a while back. The leaders of the Israeli government have realised that this “Israelisation” project has not succeeded; instead, “Palestinianisation” has emerged with the revival of a strong awareness of Palestinian identity. This project has grown by engaging in mass events and major programmes, even in the southern Bedouin communities where most refuse to serve in the Israeli army and the youth are quick to express their anger towards the authorities in various ways. This was apparent in the early summer of 2014, when a youth uprising broke out in their areas, similar to the uprising in the West Bank. In 2000, the first young men who were shot by the Israeli forces in the Aqsa Intifada were Palestinians from the areas occupied in 1948. The “1948 Palestinian” poets, including the late mayor of Nazareth, Tawfik Zayyad, who was known for his intense poems in which he declared “we are here stay”, predicted the growing awareness of identities and challenges.
The summer of 2017 has witnessed an important development in this regard. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government implement “security” measures in Al-Aqsa Mosque with its usual degree of arrogance; it closed the mosque and banned not only the call to prayer but also the prayers themselves. It also imposed measures affecting the sovereignty of the Noble Sanctuary, such as electronic gates and surveillance cameras. A popular outrage and rejection movement emerged immediately from among the residents of Jerusalem and large numbers of Palestinian “Israeli Arabs”. In the years since the occupation authorities isolated the West Bank from Jerusalem by means of walls, checkpoints and travel bans, a vibrant relationship between the “1948 Palestinians” and Jerusalem has formed. Sheikh Raed Salah has played a key role in encouraging and developing this.
This is the context of the decision and timing to re-arrest the Palestinian leader; Raed Salah’s detention has a retaliatory nature to it, retaliation against the Palestinian presence that the Israeli government system simply cannot handle. This presence was demonstrated during the recent events in Jerusalem, and it was able to break the Netanyahu government’s decision.
Sheikh Raed’s arrest is also part of a wave of prohibition and criminalisation that started in 2015. It is worth noting that the Israeli government “allows” civil society organisations to operate in the open rather than underground. However, it felt the danger of the growing sense of Palestinian identity through popular, cultural and media activism, and specialised institutions, and so it began to destroy them with the force of the law.
Over the years, the decision to participate in elections to the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) was a bone of contention among “1948 Palestinians”. Some rejected it on principle, insisting that it will give the Israeli government a democratic mask of plurality that hides the reality serving the “Jewish state”, as Theodor Herzl put it. Others saw political participation as a chance for defiance and to have their voices heard. Whatever the position taken, everyone admitted the inability to achieve actual progress from such participation. The Arab MKs have won 12 seats in the Knesset by means of coordination between their lists. This has prompted the Knesset to take inflexible and racist measure after sensing the emergence of the Palestinian identity in the political arena.
Israeli logic cannot recognise and accept Palestinian identity in any way, because it is saturated with the ideology of the Zionist establishment, which is a mixture of the speeches of 19th century European nationalist movements and the culture of colonial supremacy that indigenous peoples do not primarily see.
As such, Israeli legislators have mobilised their efforts to eradicate inspirational — for Palestinians — words such as Nakba, and have worked hard to prevent the revival of the shocking memory of the Catastrophe in the Palestinian collective consciousness. They have also enacted legislation to enforce allegiance to the “Jewish state” and to promote the Israeli national anthem, which has been adapted from European folk songs.
We have witnessed a wave of draft laws proposed in the Knesset in recent years which aim to tighten the oppression against the “1948 Palestinians”, such as limiting the use of Arabic, in road signs, for example, and banning the call to prayer from mosques, some of which were built before the founding fathers of political Zionism were even born. There have been persecution and slander campaigns against the few Arab legislators in the Knesset, threatening them with the lifting of their parliamentary immunity and prosecution for their statements and positions.
Thus, Israeli democracy shows loyalty only to its Jewish constituents, provided that they are supporters of the occupation, of course. For the victims of this “democracy” also include Jewish Israeli civil society organisations which defend human rights and monitor, for example, grave violations committed by the army. Israel is, in practice, not the state of all Jews. In fact, there have been vicious decisions and incitement campaigns aimed at suppressing independent Israeli organisations, while trying to stifle them by preventing them from receiving funds from overseas, notably from the EU. Only “good” Israeli organisations should make use of external donations if their priorities are focused on recruiting young foreigners to the Israeli army, supporting the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, controlling Arab homes in Jerusalem, or intensifying the obsessive and fanatical propaganda calling for the destruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the construction of a temple on its ruins.
Hence, ever more Israelis find themselves outside the framework of this official obsessiveness, as well as groups of Israeli youth looking for their own free future in Europe, as indicated by the high level of migration to Germany in recent years. There are no longer bleak grey walls being erected in Berlin, but there are plenty being built by the Israeli occupation authorities in Palestine.
Despite the Israeli concern with portraying a democratic front, the reality of its practices towards the Palestinians who had Israeli identity imposed on them clearly indicates that it stems from the mentality of an occupation regime committed to the interests of one group over the other. Anyone who examines the scenario will see that the Palestinians are not wanted, even if they do have Israeli citizenship. There is an abundance of evidence of institutional discrimination in the system.
The authorities that imposed military control over this land in 1948 do not recognise some of the “1948 Palestinian” villages in the Negev Desert, and so they demolish them relentlessly. The images of such demolitions, in villages like Al-Araqeeb and Umm Al-Hiran, have become familiar. The authorities demolish and the Palestinians rebuild, and then the process repeats itself over years. It is yet another bold expression of the Palestinians’ defiance and will. These images do not align with the image of the Arab Bedouins as portrayed by Israeli propaganda, which shows them pouring coffee and welcoming the leaders of the government and army which occupied their land.
The internal displacement of Palestinians is ongoing, by soft and hard means, while the same authorities are pushing their illegal settlers across the occupied West Bank in order to establish settlement blocs under the watchful eyes of their security forces. These settlements are built on the land seized forcibly from the Palestinians. Some of the settlers even occupy seats in the Knesset and the government — more so now than at any time before — and they are tailoring the laws, policies and procedures to their liking. These settlers, along with others, have a problem with a growing Palestinian demographic in the heart of the country, which they are marketing to the world as the “Jewish state”. Part of the Israeli strategy is to divide the Palestinian people and isolate them in geographically fragmented areas; in disconnected Bantustans, to use the Apartheid South Africa analogy.
The Israeli government is harnessing all of its efforts and institutions in an attempt to divide the Palestinian people under occupation across historic Palestine. Each section of land has its own governing system and means of social control. We see the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; the latter is divided into areas A, B and C, with each having its own system based on the Oslo Accords. Then there is occupied East Jerusalem and the Palestinian presence called the “Arab population” or “Israeli Arabs” by Israeli propaganda. They are also subject to various systems based on unofficial categorisation of their areas, based on the Palestinian population density, its significance and geostrategic aspects. The government is persecuting local Palestinian communities, while unleashing racist political parties, neo-fascist organisations and Israeli settler gangs which all receive official support and backing. Successive Israeli governments have prohibited the return of Palestinian refugees to their land and homes, holding on to their property by means of the “law” while granting the privilege of “return” only to those who are Jews, regardless of what part of the world they are from, also in accordance with the “law”.
However, the methods resorted to by the Israeli authorities out of necessity seem to be proof of the collapse of its project to dissolve the Palestinian presence, the movement of which it can feel on its insides. The “1948 Palestinians” have not succumbed to Israel’s attempts to subjugate them, but have instead developed their own culture of smart defiance. This culture is present in their rhetoric and discourse, as well as in their literature, culture, arts and various civil and specialised activities. It is apparent that, in the years to come, the “1948 Palestinians” will be even more involved and at the heart of events.
Previous colonial and occupation experiences suggest that the arrest of popular leaders and the pursuit of local leaders was an easy task for the colonial occupation authorities, but prison was often a sign of defeat; the failure of the comprehensive control project and the beginning of the inevitable end. When the “1948 Palestinians” see their leading figures challenging prison sentences, standing with smiles on their faces as they listen to their comical indictments, the new generations will not be prevented by anyone from raising the standards and levels of defiance and raising their voices to declare, “This is Palestine, not Israel”. It is likely that “former Israelis” — Jews who choose to leave the country — will openly support them; some are already doing so today.