As I have chronicled here and elsewhere many times, over the past decade the once-vibrant movement of Israelis actively working for an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza had become increasingly moribund.
Yes, a small number of brave Jewish-Israeli souls participated in the weekly protests in Bil’in, Nabi Saleh, or (more recently) Sheikh Jarrah. A small number continued to undertake other conscience-driven acts to try to challenge the occupation. But the mass movement of anti-occupation activists that one saw in the 1980s and early 1990s dwindled throughout the late 1990s and was then effectively killed off by Ehud Barak in late 2000.
Since then, feeling much more secure behind their Wall (along with all the horrendous battery of associated population-control measures) and also completely insulated from bearing the financial costs of administering the occupation, since the EU and U.S. governments between them have been financing it non-stop since 1994, most of the Jewish-Israeli public seemed to retreat into a form of disengagement that was marked by apathy (at best) or outright anti-Palestinian racism, at worst.
But now, there is something new in the streets of Tel Aviv– and of Jerusalem and a score of other Israeli cities. Directly inspired by the Arab popular movements of Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, lower-income Israelis from a broad range of different “ethnic” sectors have taken to the streets in the ‘J14’ movement to demand affordable housing. And despite the attempts of some of J14’s early organizers to keep the agenda “non-political”, the Palestinian issue has now entered the heart of the movement in a most revealing way: not via any big endorsement by J14 participants of a slogan to “end the occupation” but by the endorsement by many of them of the principle of Palestinian-Jewish solidarity within Israel.
The sight of that huge, Tahrir Square-inspired, bilingual banner in downtown Tel Aviv is amazing! But the political implications of the J14 movement are also huge– and could become a lot huger.
Veteran Jewish-Israeli anti-occupation activist Haggai Matar reported this telling vignette from Saturday’s very large J14 rally in Tel Aviv (translation Dimi Reider):
- Odeh Bisharat, the first Arab to address the mass rallies, greeted the enormous audience before him and reminded them that the struggle for social justice has always been the struggle of the Arab community, which has suffered from inequality, discrimination, state-level racism and house demolitions in Ramle, Lod, Jaffa and Al-Araqib. Not only was this met with ovation from a huge crowd of well over a hundred thousand people, but the masses actually chanted: “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” And later, in a short clip of interviews from protest camps across the country, Jews and Arabs spoke, and a number of them, including even one religious Jew, repeatedly said that “it’s time for this state to be a state for all its citizens.” A state for all its citizens. As a broad, popular demand. Who would have believed it.
“A state for all its citizens” has been, of course, a key organizing demand for that 20% of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinian indigenes, throughout the decades. It is, of course, a key principle of democracy anywhere. But until now, Israel’s leaders and far too many of its Jewish citizens have insisted that Israel should be, instead, “the state of the Jewish people”– including all Jewish people, anywhere in the world, any of whom is welcomed and supported to immigrate to Israel and is given citizenship immediately upon doing so.
The 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCOI’s) are the descendants of the survivors of the widespread ethnic cleansings that the Jewish/Israeli forces undertook during the Nakba of 1947-48. They are a community has suffered numerous waves and forms of repression since then– including campaigns of expropriation of their lands and properties that continue to this day. The Israeli authorities (and too many of Israel’s acolytes in the western media) have tried to deny the PCOI’s Palestinian heritage, referring to them either in general terms as “Israeli Arabs” or segmenting them into “Israeli Bedouins”, “Israeli Druze”, etc. But by ethnicity and heritage they are as Palestinian as any other Palestinians. Indeed, they are the close cousins of the Palestinian refugees now scattered around the whole world, since by definition the vast majority those refugee families are descended from Palestinians who were expelled from the area that became Israel in 1948.
The PCOI’s and the Palestinian refugees have a lot more in common, too. In particular, at the political level, neither group ever had much love for the whole Oslo process– and they still, to this day, don’t have much love for the two-state outcome between Palestinians and Israelis. Both groups form “natural” constituencies for a one-state outcome. The PCOI’s, in addition, are distinct because they have lived alongside Jewish Israelis for the past 63 years. They know them very well–for good and ill. They constitute the largest community of non-Jewish speakers of Hebrew in the world, since the Israeli school system forces them to learn a lot of subjects in Hebrew (and also force-feeds them a lot of Jewish history, while requiring little study of the history of their own people in the region.) They thus form a natural spearhead for the movement to re-imagine and rebuild the political order in the region as one that sees a single, unitary and democratic state in the whole of Palestine/Israel: A state, moreover, that honors and protects the language and culture of both of its constituent peoples, equally. (Also, a state that finally allows the millions of exiled Palestinians to exercise their long-denied right of return.)
Of course, we do not know yet where this latest J14 movement in Israel will lead. It may fizzle out completely. It may (as some participants have warned) become “captured” by the forces of the Jewish ethnonationalist right wing in Israel. Or it may mark the beginning of a completely new kind of social movement in Israel that is marked by Palestinian-Jewish solidarity against the forces of the repressive, Likudist status quo.
There has been some speculation that Netnyahu and his cronies in government (Lieberman and Barak) may seek to distract attention from J14’s demands by launching a new military adventure. Already over recent days, Israeli warplanes have resumed their earlier patterns of terrorizing and bombing Gaza. (Read Eva Bartlett’s searing on-the-ground account of this, here.)
Lieberman has also been mouthing off some very escalatory warnings about “bloodshed ahead” if the PLO leaders take their case for an independent state to the UN in September.
But there are some signs, too, that Netanyahu may be trying another tactic to defuse the pressures coming from J14: Winning the release of five-year Israeli POW Gilad Shalit from Gaza. Netanyahu’s negotiator on this matter, Amos Gilead, arrived in Cairo on Sunday for talks.
Conclusion of a deal that wins Shalit’s release would almost certainly have some very interesting political fallout on the Palestinian side. Netanyahu’s essential negotiation is with Hamas, which has been holding Shalit since it took over Gaza completely in June 2007; and the terms would almost certainly include the release of several hundred of the 7,000 or so Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails. This would strengthen Hamas politically, perhaps by a considerable amount. The Hamas-Fateh reconciliation process announced with some fanfare on May 3 has been moving ahead only very slowly and fitfully since then. Meanwhile, Fateh has continued to be riven by internal factionalism– most recently, when an internal movement commission of enquiry reported publicly that longtime Fateh strongman (and darling of the western governments) Mohamed Dahlan “had a hand” in the death by poisoning of movement icon Yasser Arafat, in 2004.
Fateh has been closely embraced and given generous financial support by the U.S. and its allies since 1994, and has come to play within the Palestinian national movement something like the role that Renamo played in Mozambique, UNITA in Angola, (or Inkatha in apartheid South Africa.) But it has been visible withering on the vine in recent years, for many reasons but most significantly because of the complete failure of its leaders’ strategy of relying wholly on the goodwill of Washington (rather than, for example, any mass-based organizing strategy) to achieve its goal of an independent Palestinian state, established alongside Israel in just 23% of historic Palestine.
A clear Hamas “victory” in the negotiations over Shalit might toll the death-bell for Fateh as an effective political force.
… But who knows what Netanyahu has in mind? All that is clear is that the J14 movement brings the potential for some real political change to both Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine.