[This is the second installment of a two-part interview. Part One was also published on Jadaliyya on 16 November 2012.]
Jonathan Cook (JC): So what is the most effective role Palestinian citizens can play in Israeli politics, assuming that a Jewish state will always exclude them from the centers of power?
Awad Abdel Fattah (AAF): Our traditional strength derived from the fact that we, as a community, survived the ethnic cleansing of 1948 [the nakba]. We remained in our homeland, even as it was transformed into a Jewish state.
But today, our strength derives from something different: we pose the biggest challenge to Israel’s claim to be a democracy. Our political dissent finds expression not through armed resistance or violence but through non-violent struggle and modern political thinking. This both constrains the Israeli establishment in the reaction it prefers, which is violence, and strips Israel of its pretense of being a democracy. Israel struggles to justify its repressive policies against a “peaceful minority;” when it tries to do so, its anti-democratic agenda is revealed to the world.
Israel desperately wants to transform our strengths into weaknesses, and use them as an alibi to further marginalize us. At a minimum, it wants to strip us of what is left of our lands and the rights we have as citizens; others, such as the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, openly advocate our forced transfer.
Look at Israel’s discourse about us: we pose a “demographic threat” to the ruling Jewish majority by having too many babies; our rising political consciousness, translated into the Visionary Documents [demanding wholesale political reform], threatens to destroy the Jewish state by reinventing it as a state for all its citizens; our efforts to renew contacts with the Arab world are seen as cover for a secret goal of forging ties with the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements; and so on.
The challenge for us is to reverse this discourse and shine a light back on Israel so that its colonialist and racist agenda is apparent to outsiders.
JC: Given that there is an Israeli election rapidly approaching, what is the best strategy for the Palestinian parties, including the NDA, to adopt?
Well, just as unity is needed among the Palestinian leadership in the occupied territories, we need the same here. We ought to be putting our energy into creating a joint list for the coming elections. Two of the three major Palestinian parties that contest elections, the NDA and the United Arab List [comprising Islamic and socially conservative factions] want to create such a list.
Even some among the Communists are moving in this direction, such as MK Hanna Swaid and [Nazareth mayor] Ramez Jeraisi. But others leaders of the party are adamantly opposed, worried that it would lose them what little Jewish support they still enjoy. The Communists’ objections should be identified as the sole obstacle to the establishment of a joint list.
There are, of course, parties that reject outright the legitimacy of standing in the national elections, especially the northern Islamic Movement [led by Sheikh Raed Salah] and my former party, the Sons of the Village [Abnaa al-Balad, a small Marxist party that has long been identified with George Habash’s PFLP]. The Sons of the Village, which was founded at the end of the 1960s and whose members have been subjected to constant harassment ever since, was one of the initiators of the NDA.
We are currently at a crossroad. There is a very serious debate, one that we regularly host in the NDA, about whether Palestinian parties should continue standing in national elections. On the one hand, running does confer a degree of legitimacy on a political system that is designed to exclude us. But on the other, the Knesset provides a platform for publicly contesting the state’s Jewish character and it makes our case visible to the international community.
My feeling is that by using the Knesset properly, as an arena of ideological confrontation, as Azmi Bishara did and our current Knesset members do, Israel will be forced to respond according to the logic of a Jewish state: by banning us. In the run-up to this election, senior members of the ruling coalition have already submitted applications to the Central Elections Committee for the disqualification of the party and two of our MKs, Haneen Zoubi and Jamal Zahalka.
My own experiences typify those of our membership. Over the past thirty years of my political activity, I have been routinely persecuted by the security services, with a series of arrests, interrogations, administrative orders, and delays and harassment at the airport.
The CEC will undoubtedly disqualify us, as it has done before. Then the issue is whether we fight our disqualification in the Supreme Court, which in the past has overruled the CEC, even if narrowly, or accept the disqualification and call for a boycott. In my view, we should adopt the second position. There is something unseemly about constantly turning to the Supreme Court to be allowed to stand. We are forced to appear as the “defendants,” seeking to justify our right to be allowed to use democratic tools. But we should be on the offensive, against Israel’s racism and colonialism.
JC: Are there other ways to create unity among the Palestinian leadership in Israel?
AAF: A major channel would be the establishment of a directly elected and genuinely representative Higher Follow-Up Committee [the only national body for the Palestinian minority, dominated by village mayors and the political parties but nonetheless denied recognition by Israel]. It would be a Palestinian parliament inside Israel, giving us as a minority a significant national platform outside the Knesset.
At the moment the Follow-Up Committee is a weak and compromised body. In the past it played an important role in coordinating activities against the abusive policies of the state. But confronted by ever-greater hostility from officials, the Committee’s outdated structure has been unable to rise to the challenge. It has been unresponsive to the fundamental changes taking place among Palestinians in Israel. This is why we have been lobbying to reform and rebuild the Committee.
Elections for an independent assembly would provide an opportunity for Palestinians in Israel to hold their leaders to greater account, and that way encourage them to become more united and more effective. A reformed Committee is vital if we are to have a representative leadership capable of speaking with authority to other Palestinians and helping to develop the Palestinian national movement.
JC: There seems to be a strong tension on these key issues between the NDA and the Communists. Can you explain why both sides appear unable to set aside their differences?
AAF: The Communist Party in Israel offers a very distorted interpretation of Marxism and internationalism. In fact, it has always adhered to Jewish nationalism. Every time an Arab nationalist party emerged – whether the al-Ard movement, the Sons of the Village, or our own NDA party – the Communists fought it, arguing that it was undermining the internationalist movement. But in practice they betrayed that movement. Look at Dov Chenin [the sole Jewish legislator in the parliament for Hadash]. He is unapologetic about supporting the Jewish character of the state. He sees no problem with that.
The NDA is a new leftist party. Our focus on nationalism derives from the peculiar political environment in which we find ourselves in Israel. We face oppression in a Jewish state not because we belong to the working class but because of our national identity. We are discriminated against because we are Palestinians. Upper-class and working-class Jews in Israel may be divided by their economic circumstances but they are still united politically in the project to steal our lands and keep their privileges as Jews. Therefore to engage in an effective political struggle, we must revive and strengthen our national identity at the same time as fostering Jewish-Arab cooperation.
The Communists have to resolve this problem. They decided to sacrifice the national struggle to keep a few thousand Jewish votes so that they could continue to claim the party was a joint Jewish-Arab party. But things are changing, especially among the younger generation of Communists, who have been affected by our national-democratic discourse. This is worrying the party leaders.
JC: The Palestinians in Isael have often been overlooked or, worse, distrusted by the Palestinian national movement? Are there signs of a change on that front?
AAF: Yes, though things have been changing for some time. Don’t forget that our first major uprising dates back to 1976, when the Palestinians in Israel staged a peaceful general strike. It was quelled by force, with six Palestinian citizens killed and hundreds of others wounded. Palestinians everywhere commemorate those events each year as Land Day.
And then in October 2000, at the start of the second intifada, Palestinians citizens forced themselves powerfully to the center of the conflict. Our community remained non-violent but we staged mass protests fuelled by outrage at Israel’s brutal suppression of our kin in the occupied territories. The demonstrations became violent only when the Israeli security forces were ordered to use live ammunition to suppress them. Thirteen of our number were killed in a few days and hundreds seriously wounded.
This uprising was the longest and most inclusive the Palestinian minority had ever gone through. But importantly it also showed Palestinians outside that we felt a powerful connection to their struggle for justice.
In the twelve years since then, Israel’s escalating oppression has eroded the distinction between our situation and that of our kin in the occupied territories. The feeling is growing that our fates are bound together.
In my view, one of the main obstacles preventing the Palestinian minority from moving towards coordinating action with the Palestinian national movement against Israel’s apartheid, colonialist regime is the grave impotence of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is running the occupation on Israel’s behalf. It has shown that it lacks the will and courage to take bold and innovative steps to extricate the national movement from this acute impasse.
Of course, the unique situation of the Palestinians in Israel, given that we are legally part of the state of Israel, necessitates careful handling of the challenges we face. But the complexity of our situation in the conflict should not deter us from rethinking our role and preparing to make a greater contribution to the general Palestinian struggle if and when the Palestinian national movement embraces the one-state solution.
JC: So explain why the one-state debate has been slow to gain traction among the Palestinian parties in Israel?
AAF: Well, think about the problems our party, the most innovative on this issue, has faced. As founders of the NDA, we resorted to allusion rather than to clarity on this point for three reasons.
First, there were divisions within the party. Some of us had arrived as supporters of a one-state solution, while others were swept up in the euphoria at that time surrounding the two-state solution.
Second, we wanted to stay within the Palestinian national consensus, which after Oslo regarded a proposed solution as applying to the 1967 occupied territories only.
And third, as long as we chose to participate in Knesset elections, we were required to commit ourselves to the Parties Registration Law, which made and continues to make support for a one-state solution extremely difficult, if not illegal.
But the debate has started to gain momentum because the reality gets clearer every day. Those interested in the conflict can no longer ignore the fact that Israel’s so-called temporary occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has proved to be permanent.
Ironically, this grim reality was given cover by Oslo, the very process that was supposed to terminate Israel’s colonialism. The key premise of the Communist Party in Israel – that a reconciliation between the PLO and Israel would lead to equality for Palestinian citizens – had shown itself to be wishful thinking. The eruption of the second Intifada was an expression on a mass-scale of the frustration of Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territories with the Oslo process.
Also, Palestinians in Israel have hundreds of thousands of relatives living in exile as refugees. They have a profound stake in a just solution not only for themselves but also for the wider Palestinian people.
Israel’s racist practices, coupled with its two bloody wars against Lebanon and besieged Gaza in 2006 and 2008, have led many observers, academics, and political activists around the world to redefine Israel as a colonialist-apartheid regime. Because all Palestinians, including those living in Israel, are subject to a unitary system of oppression, we need a unitary form of redress. Racism, apartheid and colonialism are illegitimate and therefore need to be dismantled.
JC: Where do you think the struggle of Palestinians must head next?
AAF: The first challenge is to break the imbalance of forces created by the “peace process,” which has left deep flaws and distortions in the consciousness of many in the Palestinian elites. They came to be one of benefactors of the peace industry, and therefore had an investment in accepting the de facto division and fragmentation of the Palestinian people. Palestinians must rediscover the values of national liberation and the spirit of anti-colonial resistance that the national movement championed for decades.
The Palestinians in Israel too were victims of the Oslo accords and its assumption that Israel would remain a racist Jewish state. They were excluded by all parties – Israeli, international and Palestinian. Only recently can we see people returning to reconsider the roots of the conflict.
The NDA party, which opposed Oslo from the beginning, has been leading the struggle against the root of the problem: the ideology of Zionism. Our political struggle was expressed through the slogan “a state for all its citizens.”
With an understanding of the inner contradictions of Zionism, Palestinians can struggle more effectively for a single-state democracy. Unlike the Palestinian national movement in the 1967 occupied territories, where horizontal and vertical divisions have dominated, Palestinians in Israel are in better shape, both politically and organizationally.
Despite ideological and political differences, the political parties here meet and agree on many crucial and tactical issues. But, given that we have been subjected to a heightened campaign of incitement, threats of expulsion and an economic suffocation that means more than half of us live under the poverty line, the minority needs real support and attention from solidarity movements if we are to contribute more effectively. More and more observers and academics warn too that the Palestinian minority is close to an explosion.
The NDA believes that Palestinians in Israel must reorganize themselves on a national basis, and elect their professional and educational institutions. This is a pre-condition for engaging more powerfully in the struggle against colonization and apartheid, and for justice.
It is worth noting that scores of Israeli anti-Zionist intellectuals have recently come up strongly in favor of one democratic state. Though they are on the margins of the margins of Israeli society, they add a vital moral dimension to the struggle for justice. They are integral to a united movement for a truly democratic solution, which ensures the emancipation of the Palestinians from this most dangerous form of colonialism. Israeli Jews will only be able to live in safety when they accept that they are part of the region and not of the West.