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Israeli apartheid puts people AND places into unequal camps

Sami Abu Shehadeh, Balad Party member and Jaffa councillor on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality council. He is studying at Tel Aviv University for a PhD on Jaffa as an Arab cultural centre during Mandate Palestine. His essay on Jaffa is in the post below. 

Sami Abu Shehadeh breaks down the reality of life for Palestinian citizens of Israel

“People do not realise that there are Palestinians living within Israel.”

By Shazia Arshad, MEMO
March 05, 2013


On his first visit to London, Palestinian Israeli political activist, Sami Abu Shehadeh, spent a week exposing the harsh reality of life for Palestinian citizens Israel. The population of 1.2 million Palestinians, who live within Israel as Israeli Palestinian citizens, often get little exposure in discussions on the Israel -Palestine conflict. In an interview for the Middle East Monitor, Sami detailed exactly what life is like for the 20 per cent of Israel’s citizens that seem to live in a different world to their Israeli Jewish counterparts.

Explaining why he felt that the Palestinian population within Israel were forgotten, Sami said that when “people, all over the world, think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they usually think of it as two sides, the Palestinian side and the Jewish side” – those in the West Bank and Gaza and those in Israel. “When they think about war, they think about 2 states… (what) people do not know is that Israel is built on the ruins of Palestinian people” and this is why people do not realise that there are Palestinians living within Israel. Sami went on to argue that Palestinians were living “on the margins” at all levels of Israeli society, having first been expelled in 1947, then prevented from returning to their homes and then being controlled by the Israelis.

Turning to Jaffa, Sami felt that it was impossible to look at the situation in Jaffa without examining the overall geopolitical situation of the Palestinians in Israel. With 50 per cent of Palestinians citizens of Israel living in the Galilee, 20 per cent in the Negev, 25 – 30 per cent in the Triangle Area, the remaining 10 per cent live in “mixed cities”, such as Jaffa. Yet despite Palestinian Israeli citizens living all over Israel, Sami described the reality as being one of “total separation” and that as “a result of the Nakba  there are no developed Palestinian cities” within Israel. Sami, a historian currently undertaking his PhD at Tel Aviv University, described the mixed cities as the classical Palestinian cities prior to the Nakba. With the advent of the Nakba and Jewish immigration into the city, the population statistics changes and now Palestinians are just per cent of the population in Jaffa and all the neighbouring cities are Jewish Israeli cities only.

Sami was unequivocal about his frustration with the situation for Palestinian citizens of Israel and it was clear to see why. Despite Tel Aviv’s reputation as a modern, indeed ‘Western’ city (despite it being in the heart of the Middle East), Tel Aviv has no Arab population. Sami compared this to other Western cities and could not find an example of where else this is the case. The 20, 000 Palestinians that do live in Jaffa are surrounded by 2 million Jewish Israelis. Sami went on to explain that those Jewish Israelis who do live side by side with Palestinians, do not think of them as anything more than “servants and sellers”, there to provide a service in a shop perhaps. He said therefore, that this provoked a mentality which encourages Jewish Israelis to assume that Palestinians should be grateful for their advantages (living side by side, working etc.) and if they are not, then they should be punished. An example of this is the fact that during the recent Gaza war of 2012, any Palestinians who protested against the war found their shops boycotted. Sami summed up this attitude as being part of their “colonialist mind-set”.

The situation in Palestine and Israel is constantly evolving and when I asked Sami about recent unrest in the city, brought about by an attack on Palestinian citizen by three Jewish youths, he told me about the growing Palestinian movement campaigning for change that had sprung up in the last three years, the “Jaffa Youth Movement”. The group are doing “great work” according to Sami, having organised demonstrations, protests and political responses to the Israeli authorities – they were certainly highly praised by him. Yet the problem is, as he went on to explain, that the Israelis take all demonstrations as a personal attack against them. As a “small state with a big army” with everyone having been to the army or at least having members of their family in the army, “criticising the army’s policies gets personal”. So when one is talking about the policies of the army, an Israeli will respond to this as a personal slight against them. As a result, this has caused responses to Palestinian actions and protests to include not just the verbal, but the physical too. Exacerbating this further are the right wing politicians. Sami explained that when politicians use terms such as “demographic bomb” or “strategic threat” to describe the Palestinian citizens of Israel, it is expected that Jewish Israeli attitudes will worsen. With incitement being added to this by religious right wing extremists, such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an increase in physical attacks has also been reported.

Sami had been addressing a lecture entitled ‘lessons of apartheid’, so I asked him about this term. Controversial though it may be to some, it is being far more widely used today. Sami explained that there were indeed a lot of similarities between apartheid South Africa and Israel – “apartheid usually means that you have different legal systems for different communities that are living under your control … in Israel this also exists, you have a different system dealing with Gaza, another different legal system dealing with the West Bank, another different legal system for the Arabs in Jerusalem, then another different legal system for the Arabs citizens of Israel and then another for the Jews living in all of Israel, this is proper apartheid. But, in apartheid there is no need to transfer the population”. Here lay the difference for Sami -Israel’s fear and desire for population and land control has resulted in forced population transfer i.e. the situation in the Negev where Palestinians are being forced from their homes. Sami felt that Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman would like to ‘transfer’ 20 per cent of the population from within Israel, thus implementing a policy of being a democratic state for the Jewish population and a Jewish state for the non-Jews.

Keen to provide an example, Sami recounted the story of the unrecognised villages where tens of thousands of people do not exist. As Israel plans to move 30, 000 people and force them into a concentrated area under their “developing the Negev” policy – there will be no benefits to this Palestinian population who will be disrupted and moved from their homes. The contrasting approach to dealing with Palestinians and Jewish citizens is exemplified by the Galilee – where, because of its Arab population, it will not benefit from any development programs. Arab areas in Israel are undeveloped and there are no plans to change this; towns such as Umm al Fahm have had no public transportation or public services since 1964.

Keen to learn more about the impact of this system of apartheid and its effect on the people’s lives, I asked Sami about the case of (West Bank) settlers purchasing land in Arab neighbourhoods in Israel itself. This campaign, entitled “to settle in the heart”, has seen settlers from the West Bank purchase land in Palestinian areas – in Jaffa, the Palestinian community appealed to the High Court but the purchase went through regardless. Clearly not content with stealing Palestinian land in the West Bank, Sami explained that this was an attempt to develop further “Jewish only” areas. He also explained that this was a policy pushed forward by a plan to provide Jewish Israeli citizens with a “clean future” and prevent the “catastrophe” of the Palestinian and Jewish communities mixing. Sami told me that Jaffa was not the only case – there were examples of such plans in Lot and Acre. Indeed, Acre too has seen rising tension as a result and increasing levels of violence.

In the case of the settler campaign to purchase land in Palestinian areas, Sami explained how the local Palestinian community in Jaffa took legal action against the purchase all the way to the High Court. Upon reaching the High Court, the settlers were allowed to complete the purchase, however an caveat was added to the rules pertaining to future purchases which stipulated that such buildings should not be purchased or built for racist purposes. Yet, clearly this does not go far enough in tackling the problems facing Palestinian citizens of Israel, so I asked Sami if it was the state’s complicity which was the biggest hindrance for them.

With the increase in national extremism and a population of 6 million Israeli Jews plus a million settlers, it is inevitable that numerous Jewish Israeli families will have at least one settler in the family and that is why “the extreme right party of the Jewish House has 10 per cent of the Israeli Knesset”, he said. When you consider that the secular Jews in Israel, who “are part of the army, they practise occupation”, it becomes clear that they are very much not on the margins of society and are part of the mainstream Knesset.

Turning to the criminal justice system, Sami described how adverse treatment seemed to spread itself between the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Israeli communities. Statistics from a research study proved that the courts treated Palestinian and Jewish Israelis differently, with Palestinian being judged far more harshly. Prison statistics show that the percentage of Palestinians in Israeli prisons is higher than their percentage of the general population. Over the last 10 years, 60 people have been killed in Jaffa, but only in 2 cases have the police caught the perpetrators. Yet when the victim is Jewish the case is completely different. In the case of a young Jewish man, Gil Mitchell, who was killed in a fight some years ago and in which the two young perpetrators went into hiding to the West Bank and Gaza, the file was not closed until the two men were caught some years later.

With discrimination rearing its head in all walks of life for Palestinian Israeli citizens – economic discrimination seems to be expected. Sami gave me statistics for the annual budget of two areas in Israel – the Nazareth (a Palestinian area) has a population of 50, 000 and has an annual budget of 45 million, whereas Tel Aviv (a Jewish area), with a population of 400, 000 has an annual budget of 950 million. As Palestinian areas are not allowed to develop industrial zones, forcing the workforce into larger Jewish cities, there is clearly no opportunity for development of these areas. Indeed Sami described Nazareth not as a city, but as a “village” with “camps of workers”.

Sami, a member of the Balad party and a keen political activist, laid out the realities of life for Palestinians after the recent Israeli elections, saying that there was no serious change to be expected with the new administration. In the last 3 elections, Sami felt that the only real alternative had been offered by the right wing extremists and consequently there has been more racism and more discriminatory policies. Worse still is the danger posed to the whole Middle East by Lieberman and Netanyahu on account of their polices on Iran, Gaza, settlements and Jerusalem. “We are a minority that do not have an army or other powerful ways to defend itself from the racist and discriminatory policies” and “we really need international support”, Sami said. Ending on somewhat of a bleak note, Sami could not understand why racism in Europe was bad for the Europeans but allowed for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Sami’s final word was a clear and unequivocal call for support for the Palestinian citizens of Israel from the international community.

Sami provided an interesting insight into the reality of life for Palestinians who live within the 1967 borders of Israel – a very clear voice in what is a very complicated and difficult subject.

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