The Arab World Geographer
Forum on Current Crisis in Palestine/Israel
'Intifadat al-Aqsa': The Perpetuation of the Situation or a Turning Point in Israel's Relation to Its Arab-Palestinian Citizens?

Rassem Khamaisi
Department of Geography, University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Haifa    31905    Israel

There can be no doubt that the recent events in the aftermath of the provocative visit by Ariel Sharon, leader of the Israeli right, to Haram al-Sharif in Al-Quds on 28 September 2000—under the protection and with the backing of the Israeli government and its leaders—exposed the continuing attempts by Israel's political class to behave like some sort of privileged kings of the world, always in the right, paragons of justice. It also unmasked their eyewash tactic of pretending to talk peace and reconciliation in measured sound bites to the media, while in actuality pressing on with the discourse and practice of war, oppression, and iron rule. It is they who determine the rules of the game, using a stacked deck, while disregarding the basic rights of the Palestinians. I have watched the widening gap unfold between their staged performances in the media and the bitter realities on the ground, directly experiencing the recurrent violence, the brutal onslaught against Palestinians over the past several weeks—armed attacks, the surrounding and blockading of towns, and collective punishment.

The attempt by Israel to dictate political arrangements that bolster their own interests—brandishing the slogan “security and peace”—while failing to establish fixed borders and boundaries, has revealed the unwillingness of Israel's  political leaders to reach a  political understanding with the Palestinian leadership. That leadership has already made huge concessions to Israel. Today Israel operates according to an all-is-up-for-grabs policy of fait accompli: “What I took is already mine; what's left is open to discussion.”

My purpose here in responding to the disturbances of Intifadat al-Aqsa (the al-Aqsa uprising) is not to analyze the underlying causes, the turbulent events, or the positions and stances taken, and then to present counter-arguments of my  own. Rather, I wish to shift the perspective and shed brief light on the existing situation from the viewpoint of a Palestinian in Israel. What has transpired in  the Intifadat al-Aqsa is part of a continuing process of struggle over many decades—national, cultural, and religious—between Palestinians and Israelis. In its course, the Palestinians lost their homeland and suffered countless casualties; a large proportion were forced as refugees into bitter exile. When the time for negotiated agreement arrived, the hour for a reconciliation founded on principles forced on the Palestinians and acceded to by their leaders, the Israeli political elite continued to blackmail the Palestinians, trying to bully them by the threat of their formidable military might into further concessions. The Israelis talk peace with the Palestinians from a mentality of war. On the ground, they proceed to expand their settlements in the Occupied Territories while curbing and controlling Palestinian freedom of movement. They continue to confiscate Palestinian land for the direct benefit of Israeli interests. The Palestinians have grown weary of the meagre gains and impatient with such two-faced political hypocrisy. Israel is acting to create facts on the ground that bind and hinder the Palestinians, reducing their living space, eroding any  foundation for casting off the yoke of occupation.

As Palestinians in Israel, our committed struggle and support for our Palestinian sisters and brothers in their fight to establish an independent state and bring an end to Israeli occupation know no limit. It is impossible to sever the strong bonds between Palestinians in Israel and those in the Occupied Territories, or to break our ties to the Arab Islamic world. We Palestinians, Arabs, and Moslems in Israel, are part of the Arab world. We belong to the Muslim nation  and the Palestinian people. We suffer their pain and are partners in their achievements, living our daily lives in fateful accordance with the rules of a game dictated by the circumstances we find ourselves in, hedged in by the laws of the Israeli state. A number of those laws hurt and harm us; they were even intentionally legislated against us as an unwelcome national minority. Thus our guiding slogan is “peace and equality.” Our aim is peace between our Palestinian people, the Arab states, and the state in which we live, a minority in our own homeland. That is a political demand. It stands together with a parallel demand: the call for equality between the Jewish majority in Israel, which controls resources and political and economic power, and the Palestinian minority—an oppressed national minority under the heel of a policy of discrimination, national, political, and economic. The Jewish majority is pressing on in its attempts to delegitimize us and our just demands. The overriding approach of the state to our affairs and existence is based on the bugaboo of “security”—not on our recognition as citizens of the state. Thus democracy in Israel is selective, categorizing citizens according to their national origin.

The Arab-Palestinian population within the state of Israel is a remnant, reduced to a minority in its own homeland after the 1948 war, in a state whose citizenship it was forced under duress to accept. The majority of the Palestinian population was expelled and fled during the course of that fateful war. Those who remained went through a process of trying to adapt and adjust to the new situation in the state of Israel, despite policies of strict supervision, control, and discrimination that left them a disadvantaged minority. The Palestinians in Israel began to act quietly to assure their survival and to achieve equality with the Jewish population within the framework of the law and of the semi-democratic rules of Israel’s political and  social game. Those rules operated within the context of a delegitimization of the Palestinian identity, of an entrenched asymmetry between Jews and Arabs, and the creation of a host of structural and cultural obstacles dividing Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in Israel. Their demand for fuller participation in Israeli society and political life was at the top of the Palestinian national minority's agenda. The Israeli political establishment has recently acknowledged the existence of a long-standing policy of discrimination against Israeli Palestinians and expropriation of their lands. It has recognized that they have not been allocated the public resources their needs entitled them to and that the government has treated them like a “potential enemy,” a second-class population that could endanger the state at any time. Despite the fact that the state of Israel was at war with the Palestinians and the Arab world, the Palestinian minority in Israel broadly preserved an approach of restraint, carrying out protest in silence and great forbearance (for reasons I cannot elaborate on here).

What I wish to stress is that in the five decades prior to the Intifadat al-Aqsa, there was a long and continuous process of discrimination and oppression and a policy of preventing Palestinians from engaging in any legitimate and genuine participation in Israeli life and society. This exclusionary strategy took on such proportions that in connection with any security incident that might arise between Palestinians and the Israeli state, and/or between Israel and the Arab states, the Palestinians in Israel were repeatedly required demonstratively to declare their unswerving loyalty to the state—a polity that defines itself as a “Jewish state,” maintaining official institutions in which Palestinians in Israel have no rights. The powerful desire on the part of Palestinians in Israel to participate more fully was the reason that 97% voted for Ehud Barak as prime minister in the last elections. And Barak was indeed voted into office. But Israeli Palestinians were sadly disappointed in their hopes for substantive changes in their situation and for a chance to leave the double periphery they remain locked into. Moreover, structural conditions and the economic downturn in Israel over the past several years have left Palestinians in a decidedly inferior position, disadvantaged both economically and socially. This has been compounded over the past two years by an aggressive campaign waged by the political establishment and the media against Arab members of the Israeli Knesset and against the Arab leadership in Israel. Its objective has been to denigrate and defame those leaders in a bid to remove them from the national Jewish-Israeli consensus (of which they were not in any case a part). The upshot is that the Jewish public is left with a negative image. On the other hand, the Palestinian community in Israel has nurtured expectations—a desire to participate more broadly, expand the scope of their role as citizens, and to enhance their civil rights in Israel. Yet the process of mounting oppression and marginalization have fueled a lack of trust among Israeli Palestinians toward the Israeli establishment, a political class that has acted to block those aspirations from becoming a reality.

Sharon's visit to Haram al-Sharif uncorked the bottle, so to speak, letting all the ethnic, national, and social demons escape. The outcry, protest, and demonstrations by Palestinians inside Israel in the wake of that visit have sent a clear message to the Israeli leadership to refrain from any manipulation of the question of religion, injecting it into the very heart of the Palestinian national, political, and civil struggle. Yet there was also a clear message underscoring the national and religious identity of the Palestinians within Israel: they identify fully with the struggle of the Palestinian people for the right to a state of their own, without duress and/or dictation on Israel's part. At the same time, they voiced once again their long-standing demand for full civil equality, and vented their impatience with empty promises, with expectations that languish, not being fulfilled with the requisite speed, and their anguish over worsening hopes for survival. This then was the volatile atmosphere that preceded the eruption of Intifadat al-Aqsa. Palestinians in Israel felt hamstrung, their sufferance come to an end. For too long they had tryied to play the game on a purportedly “democratic” playing field whose boundaries were drawn by the Israeli establishment, with clear limitations and handicaps.

Down to the outbreak of the present Intifada, the boundaries of the Green Line between Palestinians inside Israel and those in the Occupied Territories seemed clearly demarcated. Those within Israel demanded equality, dignity, and participation as citizens within the framework of Israeli law. Those in the  territories under Israeli rule called for an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. But those demarcated boundaries were breached in the wake of the brutal police actions, lauded by most of the political leadership and the Jewish Israeli public more generally, while the media conducted a vigorous campaign of vilification against Palestinians in Israel. The result was live fire by police and snipers, gunfire using rubber-tipped bullets, and the use of tear gas against Palestinian protest demonstrations. These were protests by citizens of Israel who had never anticipated such brutality in response. In the resulting carnage, 13 Palestinians inside Israel proper lost their lives, hundreds more were injured. The police are still carrying out arrests and punishment against young Palestinians who participated in the demonstrations.

On the other hand, the Jewish population in Israel, not known for its particular affection for Arabs, was stirred up by the media images and the remarks of their leaders; they became anxious, seemingly faced with a threat and “national emergency.” Jews now began to vent their fears and rage, lashing out in acts of revenge against Palestinians in Israel, torching their property and destroying their possessions. They attacked and shot at Israeli Arabs, chasing them from their neighbourhoods, and staged angry demonstrations in Jewish areas. As the situation deteriorated, Jews even began to descend on Arab neighborhoods in the mixed cities. Shops and apartments owned by Arabs in cities and towns with a Jewish majority were attacked, destroyed, and set ablaze. Violent attacks by Jews from Upper Nazareth on Palestinians in the lower city led to the death of two Palestinians, leaving scores injured. The residents of the small Negev development town of Dimona went on the rampage, attacking Arab Bedouin. Residents from Jewish neighbourhoods in Acre descended on the old city with violent attacks on Arab Israelis and their property. Mosques in Acre, Tiberias, and Jaffa were set on fire. The demon of national ethnic hatred was let loose from the long-corked bottle, its eruption symbolizing the profound weakness of Israeli society in all its strata. Clashes reached a point where Arab workers and shop owners feared to go to their place of work in Jewish cities.

A mapping of the murderous attacks on Palestinians reveals a clear geography of bloodshed. In areas under the control of the vicious police commanders who carried out brutal policies of repression, like those of Alik Ron, Chief Inspector of Police in the Northern District, Arab citizens were murdered. Over the past three years, Inspector Ron had mounted a campaign of instigating hatred and vilification of the Arab population in Israel and of their leaders. Incidents occurred in which the houses of Palestinians were demolished and where the police used live ammunition; with no follow-up inquiry by the authorities, Palestinian blood became cheap, their lives expendable. An analysis of the geography of anti-Palestinian violence indicates that it was perpetrated in particular by members of groups on the lower rungs of the social and economic ladder, especially by Oriental Jews in Israel, who gave vent to their anti-Palestinian racism. A look at the way the police dealt with Jewish demonstrators and their violence against Palestinians clearly points up the biased and racist attitude of the police, the defenders of the law, and shows how the media instigated and mobilized  feelings of hatred among the Jewish population, inciting them to explode in violence. The double standard is obvious: if Palestinian Arabs in Israel behave in a similar way, they are categorized as “enemies of the state”—a potential fifth column— who need to be dealt with severely, their lawlessness punished. If the same acts are perpetrated by Jews, the police react with lenience, even, maybe, with tacit support. It is obvious that any punishment, if at all, will be light.

I myself lived through the disturbances of Intifadat al-Aqsa in all their fury; following events carefully before the violence exploded, I watched as they unfolded and examined their direct results. At present I am still pondering their meaning and possible  lesson, though there is no space here to elaborate. But I would like to discuss several lessons that can be learned in the light of events within Israel proper, within Palestinian communities here in the Jewish state, perhaps applicable to struggles by national ethnic minorities elsewhere. A state that wishes to ground the relations with its citizenry on an ethical foundation must be based on equality anchored in law. It must abrogate any statute or procedure that could be conducive to delegitimizing any segment of the population and build trust supply among the state's institutions, majority population, and minorities. If it fails to do so, the demons will continue to lurk in their bottle, clamouring to escape to ignite struggle and spark discord anew. Most Israeli leaders still have not managed to comprehend that by adhering to the use of force and the guiding principle of “state security” at all costs, they will never achieve peace, clearing a common ground and forging a basis of reconciliation with the Palestinian people, be they citizens of the Israeli state or those who wish to end the occupation. To seek lasting peace requires actively fostering a mentality of peace, based on the legitimization of the Other as partner, an equal whom the stronger cannot cow or coerce. The behaviour of most Israelis toward Palestinians within Israel and the Occupied Territories, treating them as movable pawns on a board of political chess, has proved a dead end.

The Initifadat al-Aqsa and disturbances are a sign post on the tortured path of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. They mark a turning point in the relation of the Israeli-Jewish population and of the institutions of the Israeli state with Palestinians inside Israel, demonstrating how weak the forms of selective democracy in Israel really are, how misguided their implementation. We are faced with a momentous question: what direction will that turning take? Will it be toward greater participation by Palestinians in Israeli life and civil society, toward enhanced legitimaization of their concerns and toward the enhancement of their social and economic equality through the recognition of their different national identity as citizens of the state?  Or is hatred on the rise? are alienation and suspicion ever more rampant? As I write, attacks against Palestinians are continuing unabated. Radical elements within the Jewish population are carrying out acts of reprisal and revenge against Palestinians who now live in fear for their lives, especially in areas with high concentrations of Jews. At the same time, Jews are fearful to enter areas where Palestinians are concentrated. In this manner, spatial segregation between the Palestinian minority and the Jewish majority in Israel is deepening. On the other hand, there are groups calling for continued cooperation between Jews and Palestinians in Israel in accordance with the slogan “we are destined to live together and cooperate within a civil society”, yet their voice is weak, their scope for action limited.

Given this new reality,  I do not believe that the Palestinians will be satisfied with less than calling on the leaders of the Israeli state and on its Jewish population, requesting them now to engage in genuine soul-searching and to strive finally to establish firm principles of equality and true democracy: to recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian minority in the state, to foster a creative symmetry between Jews and Palestinians, and to show  respect for the Israeli Palestinians, one fifth of the total population of the state. And stop misleading them by treating them and their legitimate concerns as an ostensible security matter—rather than as an integral part of a true civil society.

Today Jews in Israel have better understood that the civil rights demands of Palestinians in Israel and their aspirations as citizens of the state are closely linked with their calls for a comprehensive peace and the creation of  an independent Palestinian state. And they have comprehended the power Palestinians in Israel can wield to change things, to place their neglected issues high on the agenda of the reluctant state. In addition, Palestinians in Israel have grasped the need to press on in an orderly way with their concerns, the need to construct more effective institutions in order to ensure that their dreams be realized, their basic expectations be met. This goes hand in hand with their overriding demand for civil equality. There is still much to learn from what has transpired in the relations between Jews and Palestinians in Israel and to draw from this stormy present useful lessons for the uncertain future that looms.

(Submitted 14 October 2000)

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