Saleh Baransi was born in 1929, finished elementary school in his village of Tayba, and went to Jerusalem in 1944 to continue his secondary studies. In 1952, he was appointed a teacher in a secondary school in Tayba. In 1957 he was one of the founders of the Popular Front, which was established in Israel to defend the human and civil rights of Arabs in Israel. In 1958 this Popular Front split, and some participants established a new national movement called al-Ard. In 1960 Saleh was dismissed from his job as a teacher, and from 1960 to 1969 was put under house arrest. During this period he was also put under administrative detention several times and exiled from his home to other places inside Israel. In 1969 he was arrested, accused of belonging to an unnamed resistance organization. The military court failed to prove his membership in any resistance organization, but he was convicted of trying to establish an illegal organization, inside Israel. He was sentenced to 10 years. He was arrested on March 8, 1969 and was released on March 7, 1979. He spoke with Beshara Doumani and Joe Stork in Washington in early March 1980.
Is this your first visit to the United States?
This is the first time I have been able to leave my country — 1979 was the first time I was allowed to leave my village without a permit.
What is your background?
We are fallahin and like most of the Palestinian Arab population depended upon agriculture. Some owned farms, some worked on the farms of others. We owned land, and my father was a mukhtar; he died in 1939. In 1948 when the war broke out, we couldn’t reach our land, and in 1949, when we became a part of Israel, 90 percent of our land was confiscated by the Israelis. We ceased to be a family of farmers.
What was the political climate like in your village in the 1930s? Did you witness the rebellion of 1936-1939?
Whenever anything happened a village would be surrounded to impose a collective punishment. The British would order the people to gather in a school or a mosque. They would bring in their spy, their agent, and make everyone walk past him. He would give a sign: troublemaker or not.
It was a popular revolution; everyone supported it. I would carry food from our house to our forces and I would see some leaders of the forces visiting my father. Once when I was about ten years old, after a pitched battle, the police came to ask my father about a man from the village. That man was right in the room with us at the time. My father told the police, “There’s no man who has such a name in Tayba.” And then my father called to the man sitting there, the man they were looking for: “Abu Faris,” he said, making up a name, “Bring us some coffee.” And “Abu Faris” brought coffee to the police. They drank the coffee and they left. They left Palestine without knowing if such a man existed or not.
The revolt had the full support of the village?
In the beginning it had the full support of the people. But later there were deviations in the revolution itself — murders, robberies, those sorts of things, and this definitely eroded some support. And then the war broke out. The fallahin made up the base, the substance, of the revolt although leadership was from the traditional families.
Was your family identified with the traditional families?
Yes, sure. The majority of Palestinians, especially in the villages, supported the al-Husayni family. This was one of our problems in 1949, when we found ourselves without any leadership. We were all simple peasants, mostly uneducated and illiterate, economically and politically without influence. We felt exactly like sheep without a shepherd. But that brought about a very positive development: the leadership now in Israel has grown from among the people — not from the traditional families.
Is this a development that took place over many years, or was it relatively sudden after 1948?
No, it took some time, because the Arab population in Israel had become very skeptical and suspicious. They were not ready to support anyone on the basis of words and promises or because of his family connections. A leader now had to prove by actions that he was what he said about himself. Since 1948 the Arabs who remained in Israel have not believed in traditional families. They and all the refugees have been betrayed by this leadership.
When you were at al-Nahda College, you became head of the student committee?
Yes, I became a member in 1945. I became the chairman in 1946, and in 1946 and 1947 I was the head of the subcommittee for “national affairs,” responsible for staging protests and demonstrations, and other aspects of the national struggle. After that, in 1947, I became the chairman of the Jerusalem Student Council.
At this time, were the politics of the committee and your own politics still strongly influenced by the traditional families?
No, even at that time we were against the traditional families. Our teacher had been a prominent Palestinian, Khalil Sakakini, an independent figure who believed in the people and not in the leadership. He was the owner of al-Nahda and he taught us Arabic. He decided on the curriculum and program. He had spent a lot of time in America. I remember that during the war, for instance, we participated in demonstrations against Nazism because they persecuted Jews.
Can you characterize the politics of the committee at this time?
We considered ourselves first to be Arabs and Palestinians — Palestinians through our Arabism. This is what the Arabs in Israel believe. Others, outside maybe, believe that they are Arabs through their Palestinianism. We believe that we are Palestinians through our Arabism.
That was the result of Israel’s policy of persecution. Until 1957 the policy was to obliterate us physically. From 1957 until 1967 was another phase — the aim then became, as a result of the need within the Jewish economy for Arab workers, the obliteration of our national existence. They accepted the existence of a minority, but not as an Arab minority. So they divided us into different groups — religious, cultural, ethnic. They never recognized our existence as a national minority. They took many steps to insure this. They destroyed the class structure of the community, and they destroyed social relations. They prevented the formation of a new class structure. To assimilate this community they fragmented it as much as possible. Most of the land was confiscated. Peasants were obliged to become workers, but they couldn’t form a working class because 92 percent of the Arab work force is in “black work” — unskilled construction work, digging, cleaning, things like that. The big landowners had their lands confiscated so they couldn’t maintain their class standing. The merchants were crushed because no Arab could get a license for import or export. They became mere shopowners. The whole class structure of the Arab community was crushed and fragmented. But the obstinate Arabs were only strengthened in their national consciousness. One characteristic of any peasant community is to cling to its traditions as a way of rejecting any imposed situation.
It’s not coincidental that the Popular Front and al-Ard began during the 1950s.
The most important thing during this period was the coup d’etat in Egypt in 1952. The Arabs in Israel had been in a state of shock, betrayed by the Arab regimes, finding themselves face to face with the enemy. They still couldn’t understand their change from an overwhelming majority to an oppressed minority in their own country. They were defenseless and they were desperate. The coup d’etat in Egypt refreshed the Arabs in Israel very much. They began to follow the events in Egypt and all over the Arab world with a great sense of hope.
In this period just before the Popular Front, were you involved with others? Did you have any discussion groups or political organizations?
Before 1956, our struggle was an individual struggle. There was no leadership. The people who were ready to become leaders didn’t know each other and couldn’t contact each other even when they did. We were very isolated. Every village, every town was a closed area. No one was allowed was to leave or enter without permission. Our struggle really concentrated on our civil rights, against confiscation of our land, against military rule, against discrimination in education and work. In the course of this struggle we became acquainted politically with the communists. After 1956 Russian support for Egypt facilitated cooperation between the nationalists and the communists in Israel. With the Eisenhower Doctrine, the cooperation became not only easier, it became a necessity. And so we cooperated to establish the Popular Front.
In the period through 1950, did the ideological parties like the Palestine Communist Party have any impact on the political development of the Arab community?
Any Arab who remained in Israel was forced to become a nationalist by the discriminating policies of the Zionists. Our land was confiscated because we are Arabs. We were humiliated because we are Arabs. We were under severe economic pressure because we are Arabs. We lived under military rule because we are Arabs.
We do not sympathize with communism or the communists because we do not consider them a force fighting for our national rights. They are really honest in fighting for our human rights and our civil rights — in this field the cooperation is 100 percent. But in the field of national rights, there are many differences between us.
In Tayba, for example, was there a communist presence?
Yes, in every village nearly, because it was a legal party.
Were you a member of the party?
No, I have never been a member of the party and none of the nationalist leaders have been members. But we cooperate.
But there were people in Tayba who were members of the party?
Yes, but only a few, not many. In 1958, with developments in Egypt, Iraq and Syria, there was a clash between the nationalist movement in the Arab world and the communist movement. As a result, there was also a clash inside Israel. This was the most important factor behind the breakup of the Popular Front. All those who established al-Ard were active in the Popular Front — Mansour Kaddush; Habbib Kanwaj, who is now in Syria and a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO; and Sabri Jiryis.
How do you evaluate the influence that the communists had on the nationalist movement, in terms of developing a certain awareness and capacity to analyze the situation politically?
I think the communists did well is this respect. They were really the force that created this awareness in the Arab community as a whole. They facilitated and helped the struggle of the Arabs for their rights and then, afterwards, for their national rights. Without the communists, this would have taken a very much longer time. They taught us very much.
What were some of the main activities of the Popular Front?
The Popular Front concentrated on defending the civil rights of the Arabs inside Israel against military rule and against confiscation of land.
Was there a national committee?
There was an executive committee which was on a national level and there were branches.
The split in 1958 that led to al-Ard, then, was primarily the result of what happened outside of Palestine, the split between the nationalists and the communists in Egypt?
What happened outside was a result of differences on issues which we considered to be fundamental and basic, issues of Arab unity and Arab nationality. The Palestinian problem was the most important. The Communist Party always proved ready to be influenced by the existing situation. When Israel was established according to the partition decision of 1948, the world spoke about Israel and the borders of 1948. After Israel created a new situation in wider areas, the world began to speak of Israel and the 1967 borders. Now Israel is trying to create a new situation in the West Bank. The Israelis are fairly persuaded that when they have created such a situation, the world will cease to speak about the borders of 1967 and will begin to speak about the borders of the whole of Palestine.
The Communist Party in Israel was all too ready to acknowledge created facts which cannot be justified. Their view considered the existing situation as one which should not be changed. In 1958, the communists ceased to speak about Israel in the borders of 1948, ceased to speak about self-determination for the Palestinians. They said only that the refugees should be able to choose between return or compensation. In 1961, they went even further when they said that the solution to the Palestinian problem should guarantee the national rights of both nations. They began to consider the Israelis as a nation, as a nationality. This was a very dangerous ideological deviation. The main difference between the communists and us always concerned the Palestine problem; the others followed.
So the split would have come about in any case because of the different perspectives within Palestine on the Palestine question.
Yes, sure. At that time, in 1958, we said that Arab unity is the way to liberate Palestine. So any opposition to Arab unity was considered to be in opposition to the liberation of Palestine. And when the Communists opposed unity.
The question of Arab unity can become one of class collaboration, too.
No. We wanted a progressive unity, not a unity between the regimes. Unity of peoples, a progressive unity that serves the Arab nation as a whole and not the Arab regimes. We still believe that such unity is inevitable, a necessity for any solution to the Middle East problem, the center of which isthe Palestinian problem.
The question of Arab unity was very much associated with President Nasser. Is there a place for class struggle in this outlook?
Nasser’s own views evolved over his years in power. He came to acknowledge that there were important differences and contradictions in Arab society. But he always maintained that these were secondary to the main contradiction, which was between the Arab nation and imperialism/Zionism. His awareness of the class dimension increased over the years, and he appreciated how much it determined changes in the society. But he believed, and I think he was right, that the main contradiction is between the Arab nation and imperialism. In the struggle against imperialism there is more than one class that is interested in liberation.
Is this also your philosophy and the one which characterized al-Ard?
At that time, yes. Inside Israel we were regarded as Nasserists.
Did you discuss among yourselves class questions in relation to the national question?
Yes. To say we were Nasserist doesn’t mean that we were in full agreement with Nasser’s policies. And we criticized Nasser’s policies whenever we saw they were not right. This was especially true in tackling the problem of unity with Syria. We felt always that we should be free to criticize and not to be apologetic for any Arab regime.
In the 1960s the Baath Party became a force in Syria and Iraq. And particularly in Iraq, there was a fierce struggle between the Baath and the communists. Did this have an impact on developments within Israel, among the forces you were working with?
The Baath never had, and doesn’t have now, any influence on any individual Arab in Israel. We were always critical of the Baath, all the time.
Why was this?
It may be because our national consciousness was aroused by the 1952 events in Egypt. We were very sympathetic toward Egypt and we didn’t look to the other side. Then the successive coups in Syria proved to be a complete failure.
Could you single out certain developments in the period up to 1967 that were important in terms of your own political development, that of the al-Ard movement, and that of the Arabs in Israel?
At the end of 1958 we decided to establish al-Ard. We prepared a constitution. This constitution did not speak about the struggle of the Arabs in Israel as a struggle for civil and human rights. We put the greatest stress on the struggle for our national rights as a people. The first article said that we are an inseparable part of the Palestinian people, who are an inseparable part of the Arab nation, which is an inseparable part of the world liberation movement. This was too much for the communists and the Zionist liberals to accept, those who had cooperated with us in the Popular Front. We faced criticism from all sides and harsh steps were taken against our organization by the authorities. We were refused the right to form an organization. The High Court in 1961 dismissed our petition on the grounds that we do not recognize Israel. Legally, they couldn’t find any excuse to outlaw us.
This was a precedent, wasn’t it? A very important decision?
Yes. So we said, if we are denied the right to form a political organization, we will say we want to establish a commercial company. The members of the organization will be called partners. Chapters will be called agencies. We asked for a license to establish a publishing company, and they refused. When we went to the High Court this time they ruled in our favor. So we established this company and we worked under its umbrella. All this time we were alone, facing all the political forces in Israel.
Including the CP?
All the parties, the authorities, the Communist Party. The Communist Party was against us ideologically and also because of its own political interests in the Arab sector. They felt that if we started an organization all the Arabs would support us and they would have no support.
By 1965, we concluded that without our legal political organization, without our own newspaper, we could not identify and build on the struggle of the people. We had to secure these two things. We thought, if we have one member in the Knesset no authority can prevent him from establishing an organization, or deny the right to publish a newspaper. So we entered the 1965 elections.
The authorities knew our intentions. The election committee refused to accept our list. We went again to the High Court. Again we were rejected under the argument that, because Israel is a Jewish state, they are not obliged to allow Arab parties the right to participate in the elections. At the same time, the minister of defense, Levi Eshkol, issued an order dissolving al-Ard — and anything related to al-Ard, company or whatever — and ordered the confiscation of all our papers.
What were your own circumstances in this period? You had been dismissed from your job.
Yes, in 1960 I was dismissed from my job. I was arrested many times, for political activities. In 1965 we were exiled when we submitted our list for the election. I was exiled from Tayba to Nisan. They wanted to isolate us and put an end to our political activity.
How did you personally survive during this period? Were you supported by the organization?
No, by our relatives and friends. We lived a very miserable life really. We are still living that life.
You said that 1967 is the beginning of a third phase.
The main goal since 1967 has been to create what they called an Israeli Arab entity. They are now ready to recognize the Arabs in Israel as Arabs, but not as a united national minority, as Palestinians. All teachers who are loyal to their Palestinianism are dismissed; others who are ready to cooperate with the authorities are appointed in their places. The curriculum is designed to serve this aim.
The second step is intimidation and economic pressure. Cooperate, and we’ll help you economically and find work for you. If not, we’ll not give you any work and will restrict your movement.
The third is to obstruct cooperation between the Palestinians in Israel proper and in the occupied areas after 1967. The military rule and the emergency regulations still serve this purpose.
How have your views and political perspective developed since 1967?
I think that the Arab nationalist movement now is moving more to the left and closer to socialism. The Arab regimes proved that they are a complete failure and that they do not reflect the interests of their own people. This gives the movement its socialist aspect.
Don’t some of these same regimes call themselves socialist?
I don’t believe that there is a single regime in the Arab world which can even be called progressive, with the possible exception of South Yemen. But even there we are afraid, because the party there is so much under the influence of the Soviet Union. The other so-called progressive regimes often take steps that are more reactionary than those of the reactionary regimes!
The Palestinians in Israel, the Palestinians in the occupied territories, the Palestinians outside, the PLO — are all living in different conditions. There are some things that hold them together; there may be some points of division among them, too. The influence of one of these communities over the others changes from period to period. Could you comment on this?
In the first phase, the Arabs who remained in Israel were the main force because only they symbolized the existence of the Palestinians in our country, in their country. But after the establishment of the PLO and, especially, after the eruption of the Palestinian revolution in 1967, I think the main force is the Palestinians who are living outside the Arab world. As long as there is a single state anywhere in the world which says that we do not recognize the existence of Palestinians, there will be no Palestinian who will dare to say that the PLO does not represent the Palestinians. And the PLO achieved this by the armed struggle of the Palestinians living in the refugee camps. So they are now the central force in the Palestinian movement.
You talked earlier about the destruction of the social fabric and class relations in the Palestinian community inside Israel, how this was a conscious policy to prevent a new class structure from emerging. Does that mean we cant talk about the Palestinians in Israel today belonging to different classes? What are the important socioeconomic distinctions among Palestinians in Israel today?
Traditional social relations survive, but they are loose. They are less stable than they were ten years ago. We had an independent economic base — some land that we owned. We had some factories that we owned. But these factories have been shut down. We do not have much land. We now face new confiscation in the Galilee. By 1985 or 1990 there will be no Arab owning one dunam of land. Our economic base is being progressively destroyed. The Arab community now is totally dependent on the Jewish economy. More than 90 percent are workers, generally unskilled. No one completely depends on agriculture now. The number of Arab teachers and white collar workers is very small.
Can you talk about the different contending forces within the PLO? Which can we identify with the secular democratic state line, the binational state line and the two-state line?
We, the Arabs who are now citizens of Israel, support the establishment of a Palestinian government on any part of Palestine, but not as a final solution. Zionism will never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state in any part of Palestine, anyway. It does not guarantee the complete national rights of the Palestinian people. It is impossible and intolerable to reach a peaceful solution with Zionism as Zionism.
Most Israeli Jews are Zionists.
I know that most of the Jews in Israel are Zionists, but the end of Zionism does not mean the end of the Jews. I believe that the Jews will in the very near future realize that the next victim of Zionism will be the Jews themselves. So they have to choose between endangering themselves by going along with Zionism or by making a new assessment.
Some Palestinian forces believe that there has developed within Palestine an Israeli nation, or in any case a community that is more than just a group of individuals, a political culture.
Look, people who are outside can easily say that. But people who live inside can surely see this is false. Go to Tel Aviv, and without entering any house you can say this is the house of an American, this is the house of an Asian, this is the house of an African.
So in the same way that there has been a survival and even a development of Palestinianism among Arabs living in Israel, there had not been a similar development of, shall we say, Israeli-ism.
It is obvious in the Jewish community that there’s no unity in these things. Those who came from Iraq, even those who were born in Israel and have never been in Iraq, speak the Iraqi dialect exactly as it is in their houses, in the streets. The Iraqis are always together, the Moroccans are always together, the Americans are always together. Their culture, their music, their literature are separate. Two things unified the Jews in Israel. First, the authorities have persuaded them that the Arab world endangers their existence. Since Israel proved that they are more powerful than the Arabs, the factor that unites them is the occupation itself. They now all participate in exploiting the occupied areas — the land and the people.
There are divisions, are there not, over the question of occupation?
They cooperate in this exploitation. The contradictions between them are not so sharp.
There are Israelis who conclude that the occupation has caused tremendous harm and division within the Jewish community.
But when did this begin? Only in the last one or two years. True, these people are increasing, but the other stream is growing more rapidly.
Could you talk about the future of the Palestinian struggle after Camp David, and particularly about the community you are most familiar with, the Palestinians inside Israel?
I think a Labor government will be formed, tactics will change, they will offer Israeli withdrawal from some areas, giving them back to Jordan. These conversations have already begun. They were secret; now they will become public. There will be sharp and violent splits between Palestinians who support King Hussein — a minority — and the others who support the PLO.
Do you think there is a substantial base of support for Jordan?
Substantial, no, but Jordan has the means to develop this support.
How much of a factor in Palestinian politics is what’s been called here the Muslim resurgence, specifically organizations like the Muslim Brothers. Is this an important new element in the situation?
I think it’s very important now, when we are at the doors of this change in the solutions suggested for the Palestinian problem. This religious movement is now spreading, in the West Bank and Israel, and it is anti-PLO. Some leading elements declare they do not recognize the PLO because they do not raise the slogan of la ilah illa Allah. Under this religious pretext, they conceal their political stand. They are supported covertly by the Israeli government, and the Jordanians support them materially. The Israeli support is cautious because this is also dangerous to them.
In the West Bank it’s stronger that it is in Israel, for two reasons: because the Arabs in Israel live in a more open society. They are more democratic in their relations with each other and they are less religious. The second reason is that those Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip can go freely to Jordan and come back. They are in direct contact with the Jordanians there. Jordan can give financial help openly to any group that works in the West Bank, while we do not have free access to Jordan and we can’t have relations with Jordanians legally.
In my opinion, in the very near future this religious upsurge will come to an end. Again the Arab world will fall back on nationalism, the only ideology acceptable to the Arab peoples. The national wave will again revive and become the most powerful wave.