Israel’s ‘J14’: New potential for Jewish-Palestinian solidarity

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.

Chilling reports on prisoner of conscience A. Makhoul

JNews, out of London, is reporting that Palestinian-Israeli civil society organizer Ameer Makhoul was finally allowed to see his lawyers on May 17, after his first eleven days of being imprisoned at the orders of the Shin Bet ‘security’ agency.
The lawyers reported that Makhoul “was trembling and apathetic throughout their meeting with him, and his skin showed patches of discolouration.”
JNews noted that the lawyers were unable to say any more about his condition because of “the gag order in force regarding both conditions of detention and interrogation methods used.”
Makhoul, JNews writes,

    has provided [his lawyers] with testimony regarding the methods of his interrogation and conditions of detention. According to the lawyers, these may amount to torture or ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ under the UN Convention Against Torture.

Makhoul is the head of the civil-society organization Ittijah. (More about him, here.) He was detained on May 9 and no charges have been brought against him since then.
JNews– which seems like an excellent new initiative– adds this:

    Prison authorities confirmed to the legal team that Makhoul had been seen by a doctor twice in the course of his interrogation.
    Despite requests by both the legal team and rights group Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel) to see his medical documents these have not been disclosed. Nor has permission to send an independent doctor to visit Makhoul been granted. The Israel Prisons Service (IPS) claims that permission can only be given by the shabac [Shin Bet], which has failed so far to respond to these requests.
    …No formal charge has been laid against Makhoul…
    Meanwhile, he remains defined as a ‘security detainee’ and as such he is held in isolation and subject to an interrogation which the police and shabac are exempt from recording fully. He is still prohibited from meeting his family and has no right to make a telephone call or send a letter.
    In a related case, the Court has extended the detention of Dr. Omar Sa’id until Thursday, 27 May, when he is expected to be indicted on the charge of contact with a foreign agent. The gag order on both cases is scheduled to be lifted at noon the same day.

These gag orders– very similar to what the Apartheid regime in South Africa used to achieve with its “banning” orders– make it an offense for Israeli media even to write about the case. Of course, in the era of globalized communications that doesn’t make much sense. (But it makes it even more important for those of us outside Israel to continue to make this news available.)
In related news, JNews reported yesterday that,

    Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill Sunday to revoke citizenship of Israelis convicted of terrorist activity or of espionage for terrorist organisations.
    The bill has been passed on to the Knesset for a first vote slated to take place on Wednesday.

Ah, that old canard, accusations of “terrorism”! And this time being used to take away the citizenship of people like, for example, Ameer Makhoul or [Balad Party head] Omar Sa’id, if they should be convicted.
Does no-one in the Israeli Jewish community have any folk memory about the history of states taking away the citizenship of vulnerable groups of citizens??

Ameer Makhoul and the Nakba that continues

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.