In an attempt to disentangle the complexities of the Palestinians' ongoing search for justice, Dina Ezzat
visits Jerusalem, Jaffa and Nazareth
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The village of Lefta, long evacuated, is threatened with historical and geographical extinction
In his mid-20s, Abdel-Nasser is proud to be named after the former Egyptian president whose support for the Palestinian cause remains exemplary. Yet on paper Abdel-Nasser is an Israeli citizen; his parents are among those who, refusing to leave in the wake of the 1948 Nakba, became "Palestinians who just happen to hold Israeli passports", as he puts it. A typical example of "the 1948 Arab", Abdel-Nasser refuses to associate himself with Israel, insisting that he is there because it is his homeland, and that he will not leave until he dies. Some 20 per cent of the population of the country, the 1948 Arabs are descendants of 150,000 Palestinians who stayed on after the Nakba, together with some refugees who returned to their land prior to 1952 and others, from Gaza and the West Bank, issued papers later on in the framework of legal family reunions, the procedures of which are increasingly stringent. Many of them maintain relations with those Palestinians who populate the territories occupied in 1967 and, even further afield, with the Palestinian shataat (diaspora) throughout the world, their families and loved ones. Unlike most residents of East Jerusalem, who hold permanent residency permits, the 1948 Arabs face the challenges of being non-Jewish full-fledged citizens of a Jewish state. In contrast to Jewish immigrants, for example, who are granted citizens together with spouses, children and even grandchildren on arrival, a 1948 Arab can only obtain citizenship by birth. In theory a resident can be naturalised, but the conditions required by the state make this virtually impossible in practice.
"When you visit an Arab village and then a Jewish one," says Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, "you realise the Arab village is 25 years behind." Discrimination is palpable, Tibi demonstrates: in Arab parts of Jerusalem, where this conversation takes place, there is less local-government funding, a lower quality of state services and welfare and almost no construction permits are issued to Arabs. The result is that, among Arabs in East Jerusalem, poverty is rampant, unemployment high and the standard of living low. Arab villages are given Hebrew names, and there are many Hebrew-only road signs. A court case involving 13 Arab Israelis killed in cold blood by police during a protest in October 2000 testifies to legal discrimination as well, offering the families of the victims financial compensation while declaring that sufficient evidence to indict the officers had not been found. According to Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights, the state had sought no such evidence in the first place. Salem Jubran, a resident of Nazareth, had this to say about the verdict: "You see they call this part of the city Nazareth Illit, which means upper Nassrah. It's true theirs is the upper and ours the lower. Theirs is part of Europe, ours of the Third World." A teacher by profession, Jubran feels that political activism is his true vocation -- so much so that he is willing to drive visitors around to demonstrate the difference between upper and lower Nassrah. Nor is there any need for commentary: differences in the quality of life are so obvious they are shocking. "They say it's a democratic state," Jubran says while driving me around "the two Nassrahs". "They say they suffered injustice. Well, I say they are exercising apartheid against us."
Gabie Abed, a civil servant in Jaffa, agrees: such discrimination is but part of the price 1948 Arabs have had to pay for hanging onto their land: "These are our houses and villages -- our land. For us, this is the struggle and the will to stay on our land, not to let others have it all to themselves." A member of the social justice department in Jaffa, Abed believes it is the duty of all Palestinians to stay on their land. "Leaving is what they want us to do -- we shouldn't." A peaceful and proud "Palestinian with an Israeli passport", Abed inhabits a house built by his grandfather "exactly 100 years ago", though the family initially had to evacuate the house in 1948. He recalls terrifying stories of civilian villagers being massacred, the men rounded up and taken to the beach to be killed, of families leaving with nothing but their clothes (valuables were confiscated by the army), and of "strangers" arriving to seize the houses and all that was left behind. Believing the Arab armies' claim that it would be a matter of months before properties were returned to their owners, Abed's father had stayed to keep an eye on the house; like all the families dispossessed by the Nakba, however, Abed's by and large could not return. Only Gaby, his mother and sister managed to join the father, with difficulty, thanks to family reunion laws. Abed is not oblivious to the stigma attached to being an Israeli. "But what other choice did we have: to flee, leaving our land in the hands of foreigners arriving here from all over the world, and end up in a neighbouring Arab state without any citizenship or, worse, in a refugee camp..." And judging by the horrifying living conditions in the Shuafat refugee camp, a few minutes' drive from East Jerusalem, one can hardly argue with this. Arab Israelis at least have some civil rights, and they live on Palestinian land, even if it is technically part of the state of Israel. Having said that, with so much land expropriated and Arabs put under pressure to sell their land -- a process known as Judaisation -- few Palestinians are left on historic, British-mandate Palestine; some 36 different laws, some dating back to the British mandate, have facilitated and endorsed this.
The 1943 Land Acquisition for Public Purposes Ordinance, for example, authorised the government to confiscate land for public purposes with minimal compensation; indeed up to 40 per cent was confiscated without compensation at all. "Public" purposes have often been Jewish purposes, with 80 out of 1,200 dunams confiscated in Nassrah used for public buildings, the rest for Jewish housing. The Absentee Property Law of 1950 likewise gave the state the right to all the property, including land and homes, of people who left in the war; those who managed to return, obtaining citizenship, were not handed back their land -- appeals on the part of these Orwellian "present absentees" were summarily turned down. Rights groups also argue that throughout Israeli history land zoning has prevented Arab communities from expanding, sometime denying them the right to exist altogether -- as in the case of un-recognised villages. As the Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JFJP) put it, "Over 100 Palestinian Arab villages in Israel are not recognised officially nor shown on any map. Over 70,000 Palestinian Arab citizens live in these villages threatened with destruction and prevented from development or even from repairing existing homes or building new ones... denied all forms of basic services and infrastructure, such as drinking water and health clinics and unable to build or develop their communities in any way." According to Arab Knesset member Mohamed Barak, "What we have is not really citizenship. Rather a kind of citizenship that keeps you in your country, which was taken away from you." On the wall of his office, Barak hangs a drawing of a Palestinian family tree with the statements "Here my father sacrificed his life"; "Here my father told us to keep our grandfather's land". Repeatedly he stressed that the 1948 never detached themselves from the "territory Palestinians": "It's true the authorities are in an endless struggle to sever our links with them but we are fighting against their attempts at isolating us."
Braka, Tibi, Abed, Jubran and Abdel-Nasser will all claim that the Palestinian struggle is their struggle -- and their activism bears testimony to the fact. Together with thousands like them, they supported the Intifada in its early months, denouncing Israeli aggression and, as in the case of the 13 aforementioned victims, sometimes losing their lives in the process. More recently they have protested aggression against Palestinians in Gaza, criticising Hamas -- they feel sufficiently Palestinian to do so -- and acted, along with Arab and European third parties, as mediators in the attempt to bring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah together in an attempt to form a "national unity" government. They have also been part of the oppositional movement speaking out against the war in Lebanon, putting up with harassment from the authorities and settlers' threats that those who support enemies of the state should be exterminated. Barak elaborates, "It is true that at times, as Arab members of the Knesset, we have to work with religious Jewish parties on social security laws, but this does not keep us from supporting Palestinian and Arab rights." At times, indeed, they have worked closely with those Jews willing to protest Israeli brutality in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. But as a constituency, Israeli Palestinians are far from homogenous: there are those who refuse to engage with the Palestinian issue; both Tibi and Baraka estimate that they make up about five per cent of the 1948 Arab population. Wadie is one such: "There is nothing I can do for myself, less for other Palestinians or Arabs. I want to live and let live." After all, he says, the life he is leading is better than that of Palestinians living under occupation or "despotic Arab regimes". A minority the 1948 Palestinians may be -- marginalised and mistreated -- but, according to Wadie, to live they must stay away from politics.
Demographic divisions have a bearing on such differences as well. The majority of Israel's Arab citizens are Sunni Muslims, with significant numbers of Druze (120,000) and Christians (180,000) as well. The Druze population, though Arabic speaking, consider themselves a distinct group and often refrain from defining themselves as Arabs, something Israeli law takes into account by drafting them into the army. More generally, there are varying views on how Palestinians in the occupied territories should be administered: some believe in civil administration under Israeli state control, others dismiss this as the occupation's own line of argument; some denounced Israel's war on Lebanon, with Christians hanging pictures of Hassan Nassrallah on their walls, often side by side with icons of the Madonna, others went with the Israeli claim that Nassrallah's missiles hit Arabs as much as Jews. And the 1948 Arabs belong to different parties and subscribe to different ideologies: Tibi is with the Arab Movement for Change, Baraka with the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality; Jubran is a communist and Abed a partisan working in the framework of NGOs like the League for the Arabs of Jaffa. The one urgent concern they share is ultra-Zionist party Israel is Our Home representative Avigdor Lieberman's call for transferring non-Jews into villages on the outskirts of Israel, near the separation wall. Such a racist standpoint is not in fact unique and may gain widespread support. Lieberman's recruitment into government was a manoeuver on the part of a weak prime minister to maintain his ruling coalition. As Tibi and Barak argue, however, it also reflects a growing tendency towards right- wing extremism in political circles and society in general. Objections to the "transferist" line were not widespread, and there were many echoes of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statement a few years ago, that "the Arabs in Israel constitute a more serious threat against Israel than any other security matter". Tibi sighs, "The government may not speak publicly of the issue of transfer, it might not pencil it officially into its agenda -- but it is still a government with a transferist member." Rights groups share the concern that Nakba Palestinians may soon face a replay of their original plight.