In December 1997, the first “Equality Conference” was held in Nazareth to address the continuing marginalization of the Palestinian Arab community in Israel. This event represents part of the ongoing struggle of Palestinian citizens to overcome discriminatory laws and state practices in Israel. The conference, however, signals an innovation in this struggle because the organizers positioned it in an international human rights framework. While this has had limited immediate results, the new direction marks an attempt to appeal directly to a wider international community and to place Palestinian issues inside the Green Line in the context of various international struggles.
The conference was sponsored by the Joint Arab Forum and its major constituent, the National Committee of Arab Mayors, which has been considered the official representative of Palestinians inside Israel since its establishment in 1974. This group of local elected officials focuses mainly on land confiscations and local council budgets. They generally have been wary of taking their issues to the international level, because it might reverse gains achieved through the Israeli political process. In 1994, a delegation of mayors withdrew from that year’s session of the UN Human Rights Commission after threats of repercussions from the Israeli government. Thus, their sponsorship of this conference indicates a new boldness, elicited perhaps by the current political process. The conference presented the issue of equality as a challenge to the exclusionary basis of the state of Israel as a Jewish state.
In addition to addressing such critical issues as education, health, land zoning and unrecognized villages, the conference criticized Israel’s Law of Return and Citizenship and demanded that Israel be “a state of all its citizens.” One particularly innovative panel, organized and attended mainly by NGO members and women’s groups who have been the vanguard pushing in this direction, focused on the utilization of international human rights mechanisms.
Representatives of several international human rights organizations attended the conference, including a leading UN expert on minority rights, Gudmudur Alfredsson. The keynote address by Dullah Omar, minister of justice of South Africa, exemplified this internationalization effort. Beginning his speech with the greeting “Comrades in the struggle for equality,” Omar drew parallels between the South African struggle against apartheid and the Palestinian struggle inside Israel. The vice chair of the UN Sub-Commission on Minorities, Mohammad Sardar Ali Khan, was also scheduled to attend until the Israeli embassy in India denied him an entry visa, even though he holds diplomatic UN travel documents.
The internationalizing approach of the Equality Conference has been debated by Palestinian NGOs and political leaders in Israel for some time. At the International Water Tribunal, the Galilee Society submitted and won a case against Israel for denying Palestinians in unrecognized villages their water rights. Several NGOs have used the Habitat International Coalition to pressure Israel to stop house demolitions inside the green line. The Arab Association for Human Rights launched a campaign for public education on universal human rights declarations and offers technical training in the utilization of human rights resources on the Internet.
Palestinians in Israel have increasingly been attracted by international networks, lobbies and debates. By focusing on their status as a disempowered minority, they attach their struggle for rights to a “progressive global majority.” While Palestinians in Israel have long recognized their imposed minority status within the 1948 borders and the relative separation of their fates from those of Palestinians elsewhere, the mainstream has only recently demanded formal recognition as a national minority. This strategy requires imagining communities beyond ethnic, religious or demographic boundaries and reconfiguring a new sense of belonging to groups such as indigenous peoples, oppressed minorities, international movements for the protection of the earth, women’s rights and so on.
This strategy has its limits, including the difficulty of enforcing international human rights instruments, shrinking sources of funding for local NGOs and Israel’s immunity from international pressure because of US support. The Galilee Society’s success at the International Water Tribunal, for example, led to a promise to recognize several villages, which would remove the threat of forced eviction and allow access to water, electricity and health care as well as the right to build homes. The current Likud government, however, has yet to follow through and indeed is blocking any progress on the ground. Israeli government threats of local reprisals are not necessarily empty ones; frequently, the price is paid by individuals in the offending organizations who may lose jobs or be harassed by tax authorities.
Nonetheless, an internationalizing strategy remains an important alternative to years of frustrating local activism. The preeminence of this strategy at the Equality Conference suggests that Palestinians in Israel are increasingly moving in this direction.