Could Arab staying power ultimately defeat Zionism?
By David Hearst, Friday 5 August 2011
There is an Arabic word you come across a lot when Palestinians talk about their future. Sumud means steadfastness, and it has turned into a strategy: when the imbalance of power is so pronounced, the most important thing to do is to stay put.
Staying put against overwhelming odds is regarded as a victory. But it is more than just a word. It’s the look in Rifqua al-Kurd’s eyes as she fights eviction in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. She lives out of boxes, because when the police throw her out and the settlers move in she doesn’t want the clothes thrown into the street. Sumud is the tenacity with which Mohammed Hussein Jibor, a farmer, clings to a rock-strewn patch of land in the South Hebron hills in 38 degrees heat. His water cistern has been destroyed three times this year because he does not have a permit for it, even though the court acknowleges it is his land. Sumud sums up the attitude of the Bedouin struggling to stay in 45 unrecognised villages in the Negev, without a supply of water, electricity or schools. Once the entire Negev was theirs, now only 6% is. Israel wants to put the Bedouin in townships while establishing 130 Jewish villages and agricultural settlements on the land. Talab al-Sana, their MP, says: “They want Jews to be Bedouin and Bedouin to be Ashkenaz [European Jews].”
Sumud crops up in some unexpected places – not only East Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza, but in Jaffa, Lod, and in Arab communities all over Israel among people who have nominally the same rights as any other citizen. As September looms and with it the attempt by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to get a declaration of statehood from the UN, the spotlight has swivelled on to these.
This is not a casual shift, as it could affect outcomes. If Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank, and allows it to join with Gaza, the result could be two states – a Palestinian one alongside an Israeli one. But if you accompany that with a civil rights movement inside Israel, the goal could be very different – a secular, democratic state “for all its citizens”, where Jew, Christian and Muslim are equal. A one-state solution in which Jewish citizens lose an inbuilt majority. The end of Zionism, no less.
More than 100,000 Arabs stayed on after 1948 and today number more than 1.5 million, roughly a fifth of the population of Israel. The ’48 Arabs, as they are known, are no longer seen as separate, exclusive or privileged. After so many years, their fight for civil rights within Israel is a struggle most Palestinians under occupation can identify with. It was not always thus. They were known pejoratively as “insiders”, according to the dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, who has written a book about them. Trying to be “good Arabs” in Jewish eyes was tantamout to collaboration in Arab ones. But much has changed.
Pappé says: “The people in the West Bank understood what the minorities inside Israel felt like, after years of deriding them for being lesser Palestinians, and that when the main impulse of the power that controls everything in your daily life is expulsionist, staying put is quite an achievement.”
Another historian, Sami Abu Shehadeh, is doing his doctoral thesis on Jaffa as the major Arab cultural and economic centre during the mandate period. It had its own Arabic press, eight cinemas, five hospitals and about 120,000 people. After the 1948 war, 3,900 were left.
It is standard practice for historians at Tel Aviv University to explain the time frame of their research and why it ends when it does. Shehadeh stopped his in 1948 because that was when Jaffa stopped existing as a city. “My adviser told me: ‘Sami, we might agree or disagree on the word expelled, but I don’t know who will sit on your committee [to adjudicate the thesis] if you insist on using it.'” A compromise was negotiated – rare in this part of the world. Shehadeh wrote that, as a result of the war, the Arabs of Jaffa “had to leave and were not allowed back”.
“Forget politics, on the basic historical facts we fight on everything,” he says. “I dont even know where to start a normal discussion. We live totally separate lives. Outsiders don’t see it. In Israel there are different spaces for Jews and Arabs. The problem is the vast majority of elites, and not just political but economic and intellectual ones, define themselves as being part of a Jewish democracy and concentrate all their thinking on the rights of the Jews. Non-Jews, be they Christian or Muslim, are excluded from any serious decision-making process in their lives.”
That goes for the Israeli left as well as right. As a member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipal council, Shehadeh tried to persuade Yaël Dayan, the leftwing head of the coalition in charge of the council, to divide Tel Aviv-Jaffa into quarters, like any other big city. Maybe it is better for the Arabs of Jaffa if we keep on running things for them, he was told.
“The only thing the world knows about Jaffa is oranges,” says Shehadeh. “I am not an orange. [Benjamin] Netanyahu, when he was finance minister, called people like me a demographic timebomb. How can I explain to my children that they are a bomb?”
The discrimination suffered by his community is extensively documented. Half live below the poverty line, 48% can not build a house for the next 15 years because there no permits or plans. Only 19% of Arab women with Israeli citizenship are in a job, compared with 65% of Jewish women.
But the terrain of their changing identity and allegiance is not so well mapped. Israel demands expressions of loyality from them. Loyality to what, they ask. A democracy or a supremacist state?