The mass demonstrations of Palestinian citizens of Israel during the first week of October represent a new stage of resistance and a transformation in the Palestinians’ struggle in Israel. The demonstrations were the culmination of several years of political ferment during which Palestinians in Israel asserted their collective identity as Palestinians and as citizens.
After the 1948 war, the Arabs in Palestine found themselves a minority in the newly established State of Israel. The Israeli army had destroyed hundreds of villages and expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who became refugees. Approximately 150,000 remained, mostly peasants, many uprooted from their destroyed home villages.
Despite the fact that the Arabs who stayed were granted Israeli citizenship, the government imposed strict military rule upon them, and Israeli society viewed them as a fifth column. The Military Administration, which lasted from 1948-1966, placed tight controls on all aspects of life — restrictions on movement, prohibitions on political organization, limitations on job opportunities and censorship of publications. In 1956, the Israeli army massacred 49 Palestinian farmers at Kafr Qasim, who violated the curfew on the village to work their agricultural lands. Large demonstrations on the anniversary of the massacre in 1957 marked the first time that Palestinians in Israel organized on a large scale to protest state policies. Successive Israeli governments massively confiscated Palestinian-owned land, transferring it to state control and quasi-governmental “national institutions” for use exclusively by Jews.
After military rule was lifted, Palestinians in Israel regained contacts with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and to a lesser extent with the wider Arab world. Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem became central to the politics of the Palestinians in Israel. In the 1970s, a new Palestinian leadership emerged, replacing the mukhtars created by Israel. These new leaders headed the Palestinian student movements in the Israeli universities, and, for the first time since 1948, won elected office in many Arab municipalities and local councils. In 1976, Communist Party leader Tawfiq Zayyad became mayor of Nazareth. Zayyad and others started to strengthen Palestinian citizens’ sense of Palestinian national identity, and struggled against conservatives supported by the Israeli state, who were allied with the Zionist parties.
Importantly, following a wave of land expropriations in 1976, this Communist Arab leadership called for a general strike. Protests erupted in the Galilee, during which Israeli security forces killed six Palestinian citizens and wounded hundreds more. Land Day, as March 30 has become known, commemorate the first collective struggle of the Palestinians in Israel against land confiscation and dispossession.
During the first intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians in Israel focused their political agenda once again on the occupation. The Palestinians supported the concept of “two states for two peoples” as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These efforts culminated in the signing of the Oslo accords, which excluded the Palestinians in Israel.
Post-Oslo, the Palestinians in Israel recognized that “two states for two peoples” did not offer a solution to the question of their status in the Jewish state. At this time, a new political party — the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) — emerged. NDA leaders articulated demands for Palestinians’ rights as citizens of the state, such as formal civic equality and group rights reflecting Palestinians’ status as a national minority. This vision squarely challenged the conflict raised by Israel’s claim to be a “Jewish and democratic state.” Another strong political party emerged at this time — the Islamic movement — which emphasized the connection between Palestinians everywhere, but in religious-nationalist terms. Its “al-Aqsa is in danger” campaign attracted thousands to its ranks. Renewed national identity was also reflected in the establishment of several national institutions such as the Committee for the Defense of Uprooted Palestinians in Israel, which stages demonstrations against land confiscation and the destruction of holy sites, and works with village committees on cultural events and remembrance projects.
In 1998 and 1999, Palestinians actively engaged in many struggles over land confiscation and home demolition. Such demonstrations attracted hundreds of protesters in Umm Sahali (a Galilee village “unrecognized” by the state, and hence ineligible for state services), al-Roha (near Umm al-Fahm) and Lydda (a mixed Arab-Jewish city near Tel Aviv). In these struggles, Palestinians showed they were prepared to risk arrest and injury to protect their lands.
In 2000, building on this trend, Palestinian students led protests in the Israeli universities, focusing on national identity. Communist students wrapped themselves in Palestinian flags. In May 2000, a Palestinian Member of Knesset from the Communist Party, which in the past had not opposed Israeli Independence Day celebrations, protested against the festivities. Historically, the Communist Party had taken pains to present itself as an Arab-Jewish party, though most of its supporters are Palestinian.
With their demonstrations early in the al-Aqsa intifada, Palestinians in Israel expressed the connection of their struggle with the final status issues. Palestinians in Israel perceive the final status issues of refugees and the uprooted, the status of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state, as belonging directly to them and crucial to their citizenship in Israel.
This assertion of collective national identity poses a problem for the Zionist left in Israel. While the Zionist left is ready to embrace only an Israeli Arab identity, which accepts the Zionist framework of the state and struggles for equal rights within its ideological boundaries, they refuse to recognize the Palestinians in Israel as a group with a distinct national identity. In their intifada, the Palestinians reject this framework, which denies their historical rights and their collective memory. Hence the Zionist left felt grave discomfort during the demonstrations of early October, and mostly remained silent when Israeli police shot dead 13 Palestinians, and seriously injured hundreds more. The new, vocal struggle of Palestinians in Israel, expressing a sense of collective, national belonging, threatens the identity of Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinian struggle has been transformed from a struggle of survival as “Israeli Arabs” to a struggle for recognition of their Palestinian identity.