Below are the proceedings of a roundtable discussion held in Nazareth, Israel, on June 24, 1996. The participants were: Aida Toma-Suliman, general director of Women Against Violence, Hala Espanioli Hazzan, chairperson of the Follow-up Committee on Arab Education in Israel, Hassan Jabareen, director of litigation for Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Mohammed Zeidan, coordinator of the Arab Association for Human Rights, Samar Zaidani, administrative director of the Galilee Society — the Arab National Society for Health Research Services, and Yousef Jabareen, former director of strategic planning for the Nazareth Municipality. Rina Rosenberg, a human rights lawyer with the Arab Association for Human Rights, facilitated the discussion.
Rina What changes, if any, have occurred in the struggle for the rights of Palestinian Arabs inside Israel since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993?
Hassan Until Oslo, our main struggle was focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what was happening in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After Oslo, we were marginalized in two ways. First, in Israel we found ourselves once again facing problems of basic rights. In the larger Palestinian context, we found that we were not in the peace agenda. After Oslo, we started to look at what we need and what we want from the state that we live in. We started asking for group rights. We wanted our culture and our language to be a bigger part of our education.
Hala I have difficulty saying there has been a change since Oslo, because Oslo for me didn’t mean realizing peace. During the intifada, we made it our priority to help the Palestinians in the territories. After the intifada stopped, we had a change in our priorities and began to demand equal rights as citizens. In this election , we Palestinians in Israel asked the state to recognize us as a national minority. This is a new agenda.
Rina What does it mean to ask the state to recognize you as a national minority?
Hala It means that we have equal rights not just as individuals and as ethnic groups, but as a nation. It means cultural identity, and I think it is a very important issue now, more than before Oslo.
Yousef I have worked in the Shamir, Rabin and Peres governments. I disagree with Hassan and Hala concerning the Oslo agreements. I dislike the Oslo accords, but I like the Oslo process. For four years it was a very positive process for Palestinians in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza. During the Shamir period, the name of the game for the Palestinians in Israel was survival. There was massive confiscation of Palestinian lands. We had no resources, no budget allocations, no planning and little development. In the last year of the Shamir government, there were long strikes by the mayors of the Arab municipalities in Israel. All the municipalities were closed for more than 100 days. Our relations with the government were about survival; now they are about power. When the Rabin government took office, suddenly we felt we had power in the Knesset because the sixty-first member — the swing vote — was a Palestinian Israeli, Tawfiq Ziyad or Hashim Mahmid or Muhammad Darwasha.
Rina What did this kind of power in the Knesset mean?
Yousef Without power in the Knesset, we have no influence to change the main issues of our life. For example, in the last year of the Shamir government, the Nazareth budget was 600,000 shekels for development. In the last year of the Rabin government, it was 30,000,000 shekels. This huge increase reflected an attempt to close the gaps between the Arab and Jewish cities. This is an important post-Oslo phenomenon.
Aida I think the assumption that the Oslo agreement has brought changes is premature. A lot of new situations are affecting our lives and one of them is Oslo. We cannot ignore that something has happened in the political arena and a peace process has started. There are changes in the atmosphere, in the attitude of the Israeli government, and in the way we Palestinians in Israel are dealing with our problems. We struggled for our civil rights and our national rights before Oslo, and this struggle has intensified in the post-Oslo period. We must start taking care of ourselves because nobody else will take care of us. Today we feel more and more that our future is very connected not just to our people but also to this state and the future of this state, and the governments are starting to realize this. Rabin’s government needed us as members of the Knesset because Rabin didn’t have a majority without the vote of those Arab members. For the first time the government knew that they needed us and we realized that we had some power. With the Netanyahu government, the future is not so rosy. Netanyahu reverts to speaking about us not as a national minority, but as ethnic religious groups, and he links our rights to equal citizenship to whether or not we have served in the army.
Samar I agree with Aida. The Arab-Israeli conflict has a historical pattern that repeats itself. When Israel was established, the existence of any Arab population in this country was totally ignored. When the Israeli government signed the Oslo accords 48 years later, they again totally ignored the existence of the Arabs inside Israel. So I’m not sure what Oslo will bring for the Arab sector. There are five core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict that have not changed since Oslo. First, Israel remains in full control over all of the territories. Second, Jerusalem is an unresolved matter with practical, moral, religious and economic implications for the entire Palestinian community. Third, the situation of discrimination against the Arabs in Israel continues as long as Israel does not recognize us as a national minority with equal rights as full citizens of the state. Fourth, there have been no changes in the education curriculum. Arab students are still taught more about Jewish history than their own culture and history. Fifth, since Oslo, the Israeli government actually announced that its long-term vision includes an increase in, not a reduction of, the number and size of settlements, as well as a final border along the Jordan River. Given this, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Oslo is cantonizing Palestinian society.
Mohammed Oslo itself does not have anything to do with the Palestinians inside Israel. The lack of Palestinian rights continues. The same violations occur and Israel is the same Jewish state it was before. When they speak about a Jewish state they are saying that they don’t want other people to be here, and this is totally against our vision of the future of this state. We have concluded from our exclusion that we have to deal with our issues ourselves. The Knesset is one of the tools we are using to fight for our rights. I think the Arabs have made some use of our political options, not the best use, but some. Any recognition of the Palestinians in Israel as a national minority will definitely lead to the demand that this minority determine its cultural life. But personally I don’t see this as the change that I’m fighting for or want to fight for. The recognition of the Palestinian community in Israel as a national minority requires us to fight for the definition of what we mean by group rights, and, for me, cultural autonomy is the first step toward real equality, not the end of the line. Before we get to this, the majority must accept that this is not just the state of the Jewish people; this is a state of all of its citizens, including the Palestinians.
Samar Perhaps we are repeating the experience of the Jews as a minority scattered all around the world. I don’t think the changes happening in the Arab sector are due to Oslo or any other agreement but, rather, to the process of a minority learning to demand its rights.
Hassan Before Oslo, during the intifada, and since 1948, we defended our basic rights by demonstrating and other actions. Now I see that we have what I call the positive struggle. By positive struggle, I mean that we have started to demand what we haven’t asked for before. Now the main issue is the connection between the Jewishness of the state and our status, and we want change.
Rina Have there been any changes in the struggle for education?
Hala There has been a change in our ways of struggling, not a change in our struggle for rights. As Samar said, nothing has changed in our curriculum. For instance, we used to always focus on physical conditions in schools, demanding more buildings, tables, chairs, basic things. We are continuing to struggle for these but now we also want changes in the curriculum. We are demanding the establishment of an autonomous department of Arab education because we think that Arab educators know more about the community’s needs than Jewish bureaucrats. We gave this request to Minister of Education [Amnon] Rubinstein and he refused it. He said there have been big changes in Arab education; we think that the changes are superficial — a larger budget, longer school hours but no curriculum changes. For the first time, the Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education is trying to organize two days of learning to define our goals for Arab education. Until now, our struggle has focused on problems. As Hassan said, we have arrived at a point where we must define what we need in positive terms. We are going to petition the High Court about a very important issue. We discovered that the Ministry of Education has a department which provides services designed to lower dropout rates and encourage academic excellence. This department has a big budget — 130 million shekels — but its mandate is limited to the Jewish population. This is an example of inequality and we are appealing to the High Court to have access to these services.
Rina How have discussions about the personal status laws that affect Palestinian women’s rights changed in the recent period?
Aida Although this issue of personal status law is linked to government policy, conditions for women’s rights are more connected to internal development inside our community. During the intifada, the agendas of the women’s organizations and individual activists were affected by the political issues. Most efforts were concentrated on helping our people in the territories survive. The other thing is that Palestinian women’s issues are linked to the political situation in the country and we know that our issues won’t be a priority for anybody as long as the political issues are not being addressed. So Oslo has affected our struggle over these issues. At the same time, we know that women’s issues are not a priority for our own leadership. We have to struggle on the level of the state, but also inside our society, to get our leadership to recognize our needs and to understand that it’s not a struggle just for women; it’s a struggle for social change in which everybody has to take part, and it should be a priority. To speak about equality between Palestinian Arabs and Jews inside Israel, but not to speak about equality between Palestinian Arab women and men inside our society is a double standard that we cannot afford. Women’s groups are not aware enough of all the problems we are facing. In trying to understand all the complexities, we keep finding more things to deal with. During the Labor government with Meretz, there was increased attention paid to human rights issues, which made it possible to raise more issues. Worldwide, the feminist movement is stronger, and we are influenced by this. Another thing that has affected us and forced us to deal with the issue of personal status law is the rise in religious fundamentalism. More of us are aware that if we are not going to try to get our rights now, the fundamentalist trend will grow, and that will make the struggle more difficult in the future. Also, we women have noticed that if we don’t ask for our rights, no one will. This fear of taking many steps back influences us.
Mohammed I agree with Aida, but I want to emphasize and focus on the last idea, that as a community we have to tackle our issues by ourselves. I also think Palestinian women inside Israel have discovered this. The struggle for women’s rights in the Arab community is to get more support from the community itself, and this requires work on the national level as well as on the community level to build a civil society that believes in democracy and human rights. When we look at the political arena, we see that women’s rights are marginalized because generally the people with power, the leaders, are men. National political work is their priority, and women’s rights are marginalized and perhaps not even on the agenda. Of course for political parties it’s easy to attack the government and never to speak about society itself because that would create internal conflicts and affect voting and electoral power. In the last ten years more of a role has been played by NGOs from within the community itself whose futures do not depend on votes. So these community-based organizations, including women’s organizations, are leading the fight to promote women’s rights. In the future, the fight for women’s rights will move to the political parties and will effect a change in the political mainstream.
Rina How do the Palestinians in Israel deal with environmental issues?
Samar Environmental issues can’t be isolated from politics in Israel. They are related to strategic planning, borders and settlements, and related issues. This is a very sensitive subject and I see some increase in the level of awareness in the Arab community toward the environment in particular. During the Shamir period, the Israeli government instituted two regional plans, one for strategic planning in the Negev, called Negev 2000, and one for planning and zoning in the Galilee area which involved adding some settlements. The Arab sector was, and continues to be, ignored by the national government on issues relating to land use planning and the environment. An Arab family or a whole village may have their land confiscated, or their whole environment changed, without any advance notification or consultation. This exclusion raises concerns about both human rights and democratic process in Israel.
Mohammed Arab participation in decision making, not just as individuals but as Arabs in the system, is necessary for the realization of group rights. But participation as a group is not just about adding more Arabs to the ministries, because, if so, we are already participating. We have a deputy minister here or there, but this is not what we are demanding. We are asking to be a part of broader budget and policy decision making processes, not just with respect to the policies that affect the Arabs, although that is important. If we’re speaking about real equality, we want full Arab participation in policymaking affecting all Israelis, both Arabs and Jews. I know this is long-term thinking, but if we want to be equal we have to have equality in all areas of life. Ethnic, religious or national minorities have a right to practice their culture, speak their language, and participate effectively in public life — not just in the minority community but in the broader national life. We are speaking about two levels of rights: One is general human rights not related to minorities, and the other is minority rights. The state is obligated to create an environment that gives the minority the opportunity to practice both levels of rights.