Kudos to Richard Silverstein and Marsha Cohen for the great English-language blogging they’ve been doing over the past week on the appalling story of the secret arrest and extremely abusive detention by Israel of its citizens Ameer Makhoul and Omar Said.
Yesterday, Amnesty International called on the Israeli authorities to “end their harrassment of Makhoul.”
Makhoul heads Ittijah (‘The Direction’), a coalition of NGOs active in the community of ethnic Palestinians, citizens of Israel, who make up some 20% of the country’s citizenry. When I traveled to Israel and neighboring countries in 2002 with the 14-person International Quaker Working Party on Palestine and Israel, Makhoul and several of his colleagues graciously received us in the Ittijah headquarters in Haifa, where we had a 90-minute session hearing about their work and their concerns. I’ve been trying to find the detailed notes that I and another group member took of the meeting. But in lieu of those, I wanted to share the written account in the book-length report, When the Rain Returns, that we published in 2004. I’ve copied the whole of that excerpt from pp. 150-153 of the book, below.
What Makhoul and his colleagues from Ittijah were quoted as saying there aptly sums up both the situation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and that of the whole broader Palestinian people today, victim as they all are of Israel’s continuing campaigns to fragment them into ever smaller and smaller sub-sections as it continues to take their land out from under their feet, forcing them both to points outside their historic homeland and, when they refuse to leave it, into ghettoes within it that are ever more densely concentrated and thus unsustainable and vulnerable.
We are now coming up to Nakba Day. It is evident, from reflecting on the fate of Makhoul or of any Palestinians whether under Israel’s control or somewhat free of it outside the homeland, that the Palestinian Nakba can be seen both as a discrete historical event, in 19467-48, and as a long-drawn-out process of dispossession, marginalization, rights denial, and collective punishment that continues to this day.
Excerpt from When the Rain Returns, pp. 150-153:
… In Haifa, we also visited the headquarters of Ittijah, the Union of Arab Community Based Associations. Here, representatives of a number of different groups gathered around a broad table in a busy central space to tell us about their work. One of the first to speak was Khalid al-Khalil, a veteran land-affairs activist. Khalil is a leader in a group dedicated to winning “recognition” for some forty Arab villages that had not yet won that status from the government. Only recognized villages are part of Israel’s planning process, and only the residents of recognized villages are included in government plans for providing infrastructure and government services—like schools—to the country’s citizens.
“In 1965, the Israelis made a master-plan for the whole country. But they didn’t recognize these villages at that point,” Khalil told us. “So suddenly, our villages and homes, some of which had been there for centuries, became ‘illegal’. They tried to evict everyone into what they called ‘concentrations.’ … The word they use for that in Hebrew is rikuz.” He estimated the number of people affected at around 100,000.
“Our association made a plan for the unrecognized villages,” he explained. “We found all the necessary data and suggested a solution. We suggested that some of these villages should receive recognition as they were, and some could be attached as new ‘neighborhoods’ to existing towns or villages.” In the 1990s, he said, the group won recognition for nine villages—though he told us they had still not been provided with construction permits or basic services yet. “The issue is not about planning only, but about policy,” Khalil stressed. “The issue is land, as between the state and us, the indigenous residents.”
He said that in the Negev region, in southern Israel, “The government put 135,000 Arabs into seven ‘concentrations’. But any Jewish family that goes to the Negev is given five hundred dunums, free. As for us, we’re not even allowed to rent land there to use.”
“They have started even more since October 2000 to treat us as enemies,” he concluded. “But this is the compromise we offer to them: we want to be treated as equal citizens.”
We also heard from two articulate younger-generation members of Ittijah’s own central staff: its Director, Ameer Makhoul, and program director Sanaa Hammoud, a lawyer.
Hammoud told us that 60 percent of Arab children in Israel live under the poverty line. “From the beginning, the Israelis put us on the margins of their national life. And since October 2000, things have become even worse. … There are lots of laws being discussed that would harm our interests a lot, and lots of agitation against the Arab leaders here, especially the Arab Members of Knesset.”
During the present intifada, she said, Ittijah had started doing some media outreach work related to it:
- We have been working with the foreign media, the Arab media, and even the Israeli media, trying to get news out about what has been happening in the occupied territories.
In general, we’ve found the Israeli media very unresponsive. We called our campaign, “Don’t say you didn’t know!” We were getting information and telephone calls in real time from inside Jenin camp during the battles there, and we tried to pass it on to colleagues in the Israeli media. But Aviv Lavie from Ha’aretz admitted that they are not publishing everything they know.
When Makhoul spoke, he described some of the problems he saw the broader Palestinian national movement as facing. “All the Palestinians around the world are victims of Israel,” he said. “One of our main issues as Palestinians is our fragmentation. There is fragmentation between Palestinians who are citizens here, the residents of the occupied Palestinian territories, and the refugees outside. The Palestinian issue is not just what happened in 1967, but also 1948.”
He said that after much planning, in 2001, representatives of Palestinian NGOs in Israel, the occupied territories, and Lebanon were finally able to get together—but they had to go to Cyprus to do so. “The only way I could meet Raji Sourani was by going to Cyprus!” he noted with amazement, referring to the human rights lawyer we had earlier met with in Gaza, less than 100 miles away. “We are trying to work as a unified movement,” he added. “The PA [Palestinian Authority] accepted cutting us ‘inside’ Palestinians off from Palestinian issues because including our issues made their agenda with Oslo harder. But now, Oslo is ended! It is clear that all Palestinians are at risk—we have seen the attacks against Azmi Bishara, the threats against Palestinian NGOs. … And all this is done here inside Israel by military order, not by the courts.”
We asked Makhoul whether the Palestinian-Israeli organizations affiliated with Ittijah had cooperative relations with similar organizations in Jewish-Israeli society. He replied:
- After October 2000, many of the leftist Israeli organizations were in shock. That was really a period of ‘taking off masks.’ Now, the present period has shown us that we have several allies—groups like Physicians for Human Rights or B’tselem. So we continue to coordinate with them.
Now, we need to talk about protection—for us, as well as for the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Protection, not just solidarity…
You know, we used to use the word “apartheid” for what was going on here. But now, we feel that the Palestinians are facing a new nakba, just like the one of 1948. They’re facing that prospect in the occupied territories—but we’re also facing it here.
We feel and fear that everyone is against us. We can’t feel any sense of justice in the world.