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The political fading of the Green Line

ben-whiteBen White’s Blog Archive

Standing with Palestinian Bedouin activists on the traditional lands of al-Araqib, we watched as Jewish National Fund workers in the distance continued preparing the ground for the ‘Ambassador’s Forest’. Earlier in the day, I had stood on a hillside: in front lay an ‘unrecognised’ Bedouin village, denied basic infrastructure and services. Across the road was a fully integrated Jewish community.

Separation and inequality – it could have been anywhere in the Occupied Territories, where Jewish settlements lie alongside impoverished Palestinian communities threatened with demolition orders for ‘illegal’ construction. But it is not just in the West Bank colonies that the Israeli authorities work with ideologically motivated para-state agencies to ‘protect’ and ‘redeem’ the land. The phenomenon is as familiar in the Naqab (Negev). Demolitions, housing shortages, and politically driven Jewish settlement of the kind faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are also everyday challenges confronting Palestinian citizens of Israel. With all the significant differences in conditions on either side of the Green Line, the Israeli state’s policies towards its minority citizens and the militarily occupied Palestinians have been shaped by similar strategic goals.

By the mid-1970s, and just before the Begin government expanded dramatically the colonisation of the West Bank that had begun on a smaller scale after 1967, the average Palestinian village inside Israel had lost an average of 65%-75% of its land. On both sides of the Green Line, Palestinian communities have had land expropriated through a mix of military rule and legal provision to create space for Jewish settlement. In Israel, the frequently discussed initiatives to ‘develop’, or Judaise, the Naqab and Galilee areas are spoken of in the same way as settlements like Ma’ale Adumim: the discourse and strategy have to do with demography, territorial control, and fragmenting contiguous blocks of Palestinian population. Religious nationalists and settlers raise the same slogans in Acre as they do in ‘Judea and Samaria’.

Part of the enemy

While these realities are not new, what has changed is the way in which Palestinian citizens of Israel increasingly think of themselves politically not as ‘Israeli Arabs’, but Palestinians facing the same challenges as their compatriots in the Occupied Territories. The Israeli state also increasingly views them as part of the same Palestinian threat.

Many feel that a crucial moment in this process, both in its direct impact and its symbolism, was the killing of Palestinian citizens in October 2000 during protests in solidarity with the Intifada in the Occupied Territories.

Ameer Makhoul, of the Haifa-based civil society network Ittijah, remarks that while his contemporaries were shaped by Land Day in 1976, “this generation has grown up with October 2000. The Green Line disappeared – in terms of thinking, behaviour, and consciousness.” Where previously ‘rights’ had been the focus of Palestinian citizens, “now the issue is Israel’s legitimacy.” Mohammad Zeidan, head of the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) also identifies October 2000 as “a turning point that clearly impacted on the identity of the Palestinian youth.” This was not a mere matter of ‘radicalisation’. While ”more people are ready to challenge”, he points out that others “are more calculating in their attitudes and want to face things in a different way.” To all Palestinian citizens, however, “the message of the state” was that they are “part of the Palestinian people, part of the enemy.”

This is certainly borne out by the attitude of the security apparatus in Israel over the past 10 years, notably in 2007, when the head of the Shabak, Yuval Diskin, was reported to have warned then-prime minister Ehud Olmert that the “radicalisation” of the “Israeli Arabs” was “a strategic threat.”

Others trace the shift in approach by Israel further back than the Second Intifada. Awad Abdel Fattah, secretary-general of the National Democratic Assembly (NDA) party, points to how Israel’s post-1967 confidence dissipated with the First Intifada, withdrawal from south Lebanon, and then the Second Intifada. Sensing that it could not crush the Palestinian national movement, Israel resorted to “recharacterising the Palestinians as a security threat – which legitimises all means against them.” Its policies, “pushing Palestinians together, under the same apartheid rule”, forced the latter “to reconsider their approach and conception of the struggle, and how to be part of efforts that could be made by all Palestinians.”

Israel’s crisis
A defining factor in the state’s relationship to the Palestinian minority is the changing situation in the Occupied Territories and the condition of the ‘peace process’. This linkage has manifested itself in a number of ways over the years, sometimes unpredictably. Makhoul points out that while the Oslo process completely neglected the Palestinians inside Israel, this very marginalisation encouraged the community to develop its own tools to counter the ‘Israelisation’ tendency.

Moreover, apparent progress in the official peace process can directly lead to a renewed emphasis on the Jewish identity of the state and the Judaisation of areas like the Galilee and the Negev. This particular ‘dissolving’ of the Green Line was seen clearly in Ariel Sharon’s ‘disengagement’ plan of 2005, which – in the words of Sharon’s letter to President George W Bush – was the “context” for bringing “new opportunities to the Negev and Galilee.” The policy of unilateral ‘separation’ in the Occupied Territories was thus part of a cohesive whole that included plans for the ‘development’ of areas inside the state’s pre-1967 borders deemed to have too high a proportion of Palestinian residents. More recently, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also made a direct linkage between Palestinians across the Green Line when – in the context of stalled negotiations with the Palestinian Authority – he introduced the condition of recognising Israel as a Jewish state.

Most of the Western media’s coverage of the issues facing ‘Israeli Arabs’ over the past year has focused on a raft of proposed bills targeting the minority put forward by members of Netanyahu’s right/far-right coalition government. Since the last election, there has been an overtly racist political discourse in Israel, with Arab MKs threatened with prosecution for visiting ‘enemy’ states and political dissent suppressed (hundreds of Palestinian citizens were arrested during protests against Operation Cast Lead).

But aggressive as the current government may be, many of the most problematic of these legislative initiatives revive proposals made under Olmert’s premiership. Makhoul feels there is no substantial difference between the two governments as far as the Palestinian minority is concerned. Furthermore, he argues that the drive to impose further curbs says more about Israel’s problems than those of the Palestinians. “The legislation is not giving more tools to oppress the Palestinians. They have all the tools already. These laws are not going to give Israel more control and power – this, in fact, is the Israeli crisis.”

Third Intifada?
What is the significance of these developments and what implications do they have for the future of the relationship between the Israeli state and Palestinian citizens? One possibility is that a third Intifada will either begin within the Green Line or be joined to a greater extent than previously by Palestinians inside Israel. The prospect of a widespread violent uprising is deemed unlikely, however, not least because such a course of action would not be encouraged by the community’s political parties.

Yet uprisings by their very nature begin spontaneously. HRA’s Zeidan speaks of an “explosion” that is coming, regardless of what may happen in the Occupied Territories. “The pressure is growing, it’s boiling, and you’ll need only a spark. It could be a house demolition, or someone being shot at a demonstration. It doesn’t need to be a nationalistic issue, like al-Aqsa – it could be something small, or it could be something in the Occupied Territories. But the explosion will be worse than October 2000, and it’s building.” Down in the south, amongst Bedouin in the Negev, community activists know that the combination of poverty, house demolitions and stark inequality caused by ethno-religious discrimination could provide fertile ground for revolt.

Across the Palestinian community in Israel, however, there are also many young people who shy away from political involvement – through fear of the state’s response, and a sense that (compared to Palestinians in, say, the Gaza Strip) they have more to lose than gain.

But as both Palestinian citizens and Israeli leaders contribute to a process that is seeing the Green Line fade, what about the relationship between Palestinians across the divide? This will surely play a key role in defining the future direction of the community inside Israel. Dialogue and cooperation have strengthened since 2000, when the first conference bringing together civil society groups from inside Israel and the Occupied Territories was held in Cyprus (a second such event was held in 2007).

For now, however, these links and relationships – with all their potential significance for a future political solution – are being driven by NGOs and civil society rather than politicians. Support for a bi-national or ‘one-state’ solution, for example, is not being led by major Palestinian parties in either Israel or the Occupied Territories. There is still no alternative to the PLO, despite the desire of many to think seriously about restructuring or replacing the organisation. At the moment, then, if defragmentation is the future, civil society in Palestine will need to be the seedbed for change rather than its leader.

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