Confident Palestinians change Israeli state
Palestinian demonstrators in E. Jerusalem’s Shuafat refugee camp burn an Israeli flag to mourn the Nakba [AFP]
By Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, Jadaliyya
June 18, 2012
“Politics is the continuation of war by other means,” Michel Foucault wrote in “Society Must Be Defended” (2003), reversing Clausewitz’s well-worn dictum. Foucault’s point is that there is a continuous battle of sorts that takes place in times of peace, and the public space that hosts civil society, with all its depth, substance, and methods of influence, is the ultimate field of battle. Foucault asserts the importance of replacing the juridical discourse with the discourse of war. According to him, the law and official political agreements are imbued with violence and the modern ”achievements” of establishing governmental political institutions only serve to obscure a continuous infrastructure of war that is inherent to such institutions. Utilizing this interpretation, I hope to show how the war waged on Palestinians in Israel rages on.
The 1948 war has not ended for Palestinians from within the borders of Israel established by the 1949 armistice (the so-called Green Line). The establishment of Israel and the cease-fire agreements with neighboring Arab countries set the stage for “the continuation of war by other means” through the imposition of Israeli law over the Palestinian population. This war that started with Zionist settlement in the pre-state era lies within the system of Israeli citizenship.
Following the establishment of the Israeli state, this war was waged through the enactment of legislation to enable the conquest of as much Palestinian land as possible; attempts to forbid Palestinian internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their homes even as they remained in Israel; and the deportation of residents of some villages even after the armistice. One such case of the latter is the villages of Iqrit and Biram. This war has been quite explicit: from 1948 to 1966, Palestinian-populated areas were governed through a military government inside Israel. After the military government ended, the implementation of policies discriminating against Palestinian citizens in the political, social, and economic fields continued. Among other Israeli ambitions, this “war” sought the Judaization of entirely or predominantly Arab areas. Since 2000, following the start of the second intifada, these practices have only escalated, and there has been an unprecedented pursuit of aggressive legislation targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Most academic literature that examines Palestinian citizens’ collective activism and organization attributes their activity to reaction against state policy. However, if we analyze the dynamic of the relationship between the Israeli state and its Palestinians citizens, starting in the mid-nineties after the Oslo agreement, we notice a central shift in this dynamic. Israeli’s policy toward Palestinian citizens took on much more reactive character. This is due to a shift in political discourse among Palestinians in Israel, taking place on two main levels. First, the events of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe that coincided with the foundation of Israel, have become front and center in Palestinian political discourse. Until the mid-nineties, any discussion of the Nakba was depressed in the public sphere. Second, Palestinians have expanded efforts to challenge the Jewish identity of the state and to demand that it become a state for all of its citizens.
If Israel has succeeded, to a certain extent, to portray the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as ”terrorists,” it has had no such success in conjuring the same image of the Palestinians in Israel, who operate within the framework of limited citizenship to challenge the Jewish hegemony. This brings us back to politics as war, and helps us understand the war by Israel against its own citizens, waged through a variety of arms and even during times of peace, to silence the political discourse that heightens Palestinian history and Nakba in proposing solutions for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Over the last two decades, the Palestinians in Israel have organized to advocate the right of Palestinian refugees and IDPs to return to their displaced villages and towns. Activists have worked to rebuild the Palestinian collective memory associated with the Nakba. In 1998, ADRID- Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel collaborated with the High Follow-up Committee (HFC) to organize the ”March of the Return” in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Nakba. Since then, every year on Israel’s Independence Day, this march highlights the other side of the independence of Israel: the Nakba (disaster) of the Palestinian people. Among the march’s participants are ADRID, the HFC, members of certain political parties, NGOs, and independent citizens.
The commemoration of the Nakba has become a fulcrum of Palestinian discourse in Israel, and the return of IDPs and refugees has become a central issue since 1998. This development followed a multigenerational absence of collective action or any discourse claiming the right of return for refugees. As a response to this shift in discourse, in 2011, Israel enacted the “Nakba Law,” which limits funding for any organization that commemorates the Nakba. This law illustrates the serious fear the Israeli state has of the revival of discussion of the Nakba and Palestinian history. The Nakba Law followed the “Ensuring Rejection of the Right of Return Law- 2001,” passed by the Knesset to disallow the return of refugees to areas located within the borders of Israel, except by approval of an absolute majority of Knesset members. While it is true that the 2001 law concurred with the entry of the Israeli government into negotiations with Palestinian Authority (PA) on a permanent solution, it is important to understand this legislation in the context of the overarching Israeli reaction to the shift in the Palestinian discourse in Israel.
The reactive Israeli state policy is also conspicuous in the escalation in the frequency and force of political persecution of Palestinian leadership in Israel, showing concern and anxiety about the new discourse that rejects the Jewish identity of the State. In its last two terms, the Knesset has enacted laws restricting the rights of Palestinian citizens and consolidating the Jewish character of the state.
One salient question this raises is: why now? Some would attribute this uptick in legalistic repression to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the Israeli demand that it be recognized internationally as a Jewish state; I tend to agree with this view, but it is not sufficient on its own. I believe it is important to see these practices in the broader context of the historic and evolving relationship between Palestinians citizens and the State of Israel. Before the emergence of the National Democratic Alliance party in the mid-nineties, there was no political discourse calling for the transformation of Israel into a state of all of its citizens. That trend has changed. If we review documents issued in the last several years by any of several Palestinian organizations, we find a clear image of what Palestinians in Israel expect of their relationship with the State of Israel. We find that these documents reject the exclusive Jewish character of the state and demand democracy and equality.
The Knesset responded to this shift as it did to the revival of discourse about the Nakba: by attacking civil society. Most of its fire has been aimed at Palestinian NGOs—especially those trying to break the taboo (i.e., the legal prohibition) of challenging the Jewish identity of the state—but there has also been an attack on some Jewish NGOs for equal rights and anti-occupation advocacy as well, though those attacks take on a different character. This concentrated attack attempts to withhold funding from associations or research centers that publicly challenge the Jewish character of state.
Instead of acknowledging the the reality of the Nakba and trying to resolve the conflict on the basis of historical reconciliation and democratization, we are witnessing an ongoing attempt by Israel to silence the history of the Palestinian Nakba.
To refer back to Foucault, this policy of Israel to exclude and discriminate, bind and gag, constitutes the continuation of the war on the Palestinian citizens who managed to remain in Israel. Israel wages this war to get them to accept its authority and recognize the state as Jewish, a character the majority of Palestinians have rejected since the state’s establishment in 1948. This rejection has come to be the focus of the collective discourse, and manifests as raised voices in the battle over history and truth, over their presence (existence?) in their homeland, and the demand of the right of return of refugees.
Despite the ever-increasing effort of the Israeli government to restrict the ability of Palestinians to discuss their history freely, they continue to make new strides. On the sixty-fourth anniversary of the Nakba led by the High Follow-up Committee, Palestinians all over Israel participated in a general strike to commemorate Nakba Day. Such a move has never happened before, and it signals that the important issues of the Nakba and the right of return among Palestinians in Israel continue to penetrate Israeli political society.
Areej Sabbagh-Khoury was born and raised in the Galilee, Israel. She is a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University. Her work focuses on the Israeli Zionist left in the context of colonialism, socialism, and nationalism, as well as on Palestinian collective activism and memory. Since 2008 she has been an Academic Coordinator of the Political Participation Project of the Palestinians in Israel at Mada al-Carmel—Arab Center for Applied Social Research. She co-edited with Nadim N. Rouhana ‘The Palestinians in Israel: Readings in History, Politics, and Society’ (2012. Haifa: Mada al-Carmel) available for free download in English, Arabic, and Hebrew.