Palestinian protesting in Tel Aviv

An unavoidable force: the Palestinian citizens of Israel after the elections

Under another Netanyahu-led government, Israel will soon return to ‘business as usual’. But one political novelty stands out from the shadows of the recent elections: the increasing visibility of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

In the face of a dying two-state solution and amid growing discontent about Israel’s uncompromising politics, their cause is quickly moving centre-stage. They are ever more willing to confront the systematic inequality they experience as Israeli citizens. And they demand historical justice in alignment with Palestinians living under occupation. As Palestinians, yet Israeli citizens, they have become a force to be reckoned with. Their cause deserves our attention.

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For decades, the Palestinian citizens of Israel had to cope with a life at the margins of both Palestine and Israel, were largely excluded from the ‘peace process’ and were ascribed an‘identity crisis’ as a people hopelessly stuck in political limbo. For the first time in Israel’s history, they now voted collectively as Arab-Palestinians for a Joint List, reaching 13 out of 122 seats. Under the widely-respected leadership of Ayman Odeh, this now comprises the third-largest faction in the parliament. With increasing visibility of their grievances amid rising international recognition, their cause stands on solid ground.

Meanwhile, the paradigm of a two-state solution, to be negotiated between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, is crumbling between an increasingly uncompromising Israel and a disappearing Palestine. With a new government, the Israeli polity will return to ‘business as usual’: the occupation of Palestinian territories, deepening control over the Palestinian population there and further growth of Jewish settlements, despite their disastrous humanitarian impact.

These ‘facts on the ground’ seem to undermine the viability of an independent Palestinian state created through negotiations and Netanyahu’s declaration that he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian state if re-elected only deepened the abyss. His promise may have been “written on ice on a very hot day”. But despite his subsequent efforts to play it down, the US president, Barack Obama, “took him by his word”, saying the US would “evaluate what other options are available”. Yet the most prominent alternative, a so-called one-state scenario of Israel absorbing the West Bank permanently, isconsidered extremely unlikely, according to Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, while “huge” numbers of Israelis favour the status quo, because its costs are experienced as minor.

Strong solidarity

The initial emergence of a unified ‘Arab’ camp in Israel’s election was stimulated by a government-led change to the electoral threshold for representation in the Knesset, from 2% to 3.25% of the national vote, which would have threatened the survival of the three main Arab parties and the intercommunal, left-wing Hadash. Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said: “The law reflected the imposition of the political will of the Israeli Jewish majority in the Knesset against the political participation rights of the Arab minority.” This ‘forced unity’ exemplified the mounting anti-Arab pressure and Jewish-Arab polarisation which reached a tipping-point with the 2014 Gaza war, during which Arabs in Israel displayed strong solidarity with their brethren in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian citizens make up roughly 17% of Israel’s population of 8m. Most are descendants of the 160,000 Palestinian Arabs who did not become refugees in 1948 but remained within the newly-created state. They share however the Palestinian catastrophe of displacement as ‘exiles at home’, demanding an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and thus an independent Palestinian state, while calling for full equality as Israeli citizens. They face socio-economic inequality, legal discrimination and frequent provocations from Israeli officials.

In a last-minute effort to mobilise favourable voters on election day, Netanyahu warned of Arabs turning out “in droves” and said Arab parties benefited from funding by foreigners who sought to topple him. The outgoing minister for foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, said at an election conference that disloyal “Israeli Arabs” should be beheaded. He is not alone in calling Arab citizens who oppose the government’s policies a “fifth column”, thereby to mobilise those who want to ‘rescue’ this state project. Yet such polarising statements have only strengthened the political claim of the Palestinian-Arab minority and made questions of equality and the nature of the Israeli state more visible.

International concern

What Israeli officials like to call ‘internal matters’ are quickly becoming an international concern. Obama warned that Israeli democracy may “start to erode” if everybody is not “treated equally and fairly”. As Israel’s credibility as a party to a realistic peace process is quickly disappearing, recognition of its sovereignty will decline too. The absence of a viable process strengthens the role of, and draws more attention to, its Palestinian citizens.

A wide array of local and international projects seek to address their grievances, in employment and specific sectors such as high-tech, supporting university graduates and work-seeking women. Yet most initiatives emphasise the welfare of Israel and its economy, while these projects’ aims and wording remain suspiciously depoliticised.

Politically marginalised and economically underprivileged they may be, but Palestinian citizens are ever more unwilling to accept systemic inequality and ever more willing to confront the status quo, according to the International Crisis Group. In the context of increased attention and visibility, and inspired by the prospect of stronger collective representation, an unusually large number cast their ballots in the recent elections in an atmosphere of hope.

The Joint List was a problematic reaction to systematic marginalisation in a flawed democracy, because it forced 17% of Israel’s citizens into a camp united merely on the basis of their status as Palestinian-Arabs, pouring a diversity of political trajectories into a single, ‘besieged’ mould. Such strategic essentialism is a common political tactic employed by members of minority groups, acting on the basis of a shared identity in the public arena in the interests of unity during a struggle for equal rights. The Palestinian citizens of Israel temporarily put aside internal differences to band together to survive.

This further increased their visibility and, in a sort of boomerang effect, the pressure that forced them to unite was further increased to de-legitimise their vehicle—precisely because they had united. To Lieberman, the unification proved that the Jewish communist politician Dov Khenin is after all exactly like the Arab nationalist politician Haneen Zoabi. That the three main Arab partied banded together with the Jewish-Arab communist party Hadash suggested, in the words of Lieberman, that they are all the same anyway, which is why he initially had promoted the banning of the unified list from running in the elections. This dynamic may well be a warning of the possible dangers of unification and underlines that the move is a symptom of Arab citizens’ marginalised and increasingly besieged status.

But for the first time in Israel’s history, its Arab citizens could vote collectively for one list as Palestinians in Israel without having to sub-divide into supporters of communist, nationalist or Islamist tendencies. Although the diversity will remain, it now comes under a shared roof.

After decades of internal divisions and anaemic voter turn-out, and state-led efforts to mark them as ‘Israeli Arabs’ separate from Palestinians elsewhere, did they vote as Palestinians or as Israeli citizens? The answer, increasingly, is both.

Beyond ‘Good Arabs’

The notion of an ‘identity crisis’ is flawed. But the incitement of right-wing politicians and the homogenising, ‘all-or-nothing’ tendency of the Israeli state press Palestinians to compromise on their identity for inclusion and success. Job seekers often face pressures to prove they are ‘good Arabs’. Yet to most, no matter how hard they try, they remain ‘citizen strangers’ hitting many glass ceilings. The ‘good Arab’ is invisible as a Palestinian, as Gideon Levy suggested in response to the Arab TV-presenter Lucy Aharish accepting an invitation to light a torch on Israeli Independence Day.

Recognition, identity and self-determination have many facets and there are many ways of dealing with everyday demands pragmatically. The oft-cited exceptions to the essentialist Palestinian-nationalist ethos, like Aharish, Mira Awad or Sayed Kashua, are as much part of the spectrum as are nationalist politicians like Hanin Zoabi, Israel’s ‘bad Arab’.

In an al-Jazeera interview, Zoabi made clear that the three main political streams among Arab citizens of Israel had come together without giving up their distinct ideologies or political platforms: the nationalists (Balad) still believe in a state for all its citizens, the communists still believe in two nation states (for Jews and Arabs) and “the Islamists still do not believe in gender equality”. It is in this confluence of diversity and unity that the real  strength of the Palestinian citizens of Israel emerges, with a growing ability to straddle the extremes of a complicated political arena, integrating issues of class struggle and social inequality, national self-determination and gender equality while remaining firmly grounded in shared grievances and history.

The ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Arab may thus work well together. The polarising discourse of Israeli governments and public media has certainly helped. As Zoabi explained, “the more right-wing the state becomes, the less relevant our own ideological differences become”.

In the face of official Israeli provocations, Odeh, head of the Joint List, hasstruck a conciliatory tone. He described the party union as an alternative “democratic camp where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies” and he spoke of equality and democracy for “all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex”.

Certainly coloured by Odeh’s communist background, this baseline of moderation does not contradict the parallel aspirations for Palestinian self-determination and full equality in a state for all citizens (as opposed to a ‘Jewish state’). He also said that “there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues”, for “only by respecting the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and independence can Israeli society be freed from this ethical, economic and social burden”.

Novel visibility

Acknowledging the repeated collapse of the ‘peace process’, one may go as far as to say that ‘Netanyahu’s win is good for Palestine’, because it will increase external and internal pressure. The Palestinian citizens of Israel may be about to emerge as an internationally recognised party to the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a novel visibility underpinned by their willingness to confront systematic inequality as Israeli citizens, alongside their demands for historical justice in alignment with Palestinians living under occupation. Yet can they demand equal rights as citizens of the Israeli state while at the same time emphasising their affiliation with other Palestinians in conflict with that state?

The newly achieved ‘diverse unity’ may be one step towards resolving this dilemma, for it allows the various political factions to push some of their agenda individually, as communists, nationalists or Islamists, while still being able to act collectively on most issues they share as Palestinians and marginalised Arab citizens. Certainly the successful unification of Arab parties raised some hope among Israel’s Palestinians, who had lost it during last year’s war-torn summer. In ‘After the war: Jewish-Arab relations in Israel’, I cited a young Arab student at Tel Aviv University who had written an emotional letter to Kashua, a prominent Israeli-Palestinian writer: “You were supposed to be optimistic, you were supposed to give us hope. Instead you are only proposing despair.”

This was a reaction to Kashua’s earlier announcement that co-existence had “failed”. Yet, ahead of the elections he wrote: “I saw Odeh and understood for the first time in many long months that there is still something to fight for, that a regime of segregation and fearmongering can be beaten, that it’s still possible to overthrow the government that silences the people, that it’s still possible to prevent a descent into the abyss of apartheid.”

Although a Netanyahu government appears to have returned, the fight for a more just future may not be over. As Odeh said in an interview, “We hope to become an unavoidable political force … We wish to put our weight in the political sphere, so as to exert influence, advance towards national and civil equality in Israel, and strive towards ending the Israeli occupation and achieving a just peace.”

Social anthropologist and journalist with a focus on urban issues, displacement and mobility in the Middle East.


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