Israel’s extreme escalation of violence against Palestinians in Gaza following the Hamas attacks of October 7 has sparked an unprecedented wave of global solidarity with Palestine.
For two months, protesters have taken to the streets in mass demonstrations around the world. Workers have declared their refusal to transport arms. Activists have occupied offices of political representatives and blocked entrances to Israeli and international arms companies. Students have led walkouts, and businesses have closed their doors in answer to calls for international strike actions. In the context of this global social movement with Palestine at its center, the comparative lack of political mobilization among ’48 Palestinians, commonly referred to as Palestinian citizens of Israel, is conspicuous.
To reflect on this silence, the dynamics underpinning it and the prospect for building a sustained movement for Palestinian liberation within ’48, Riya Al’Sanah—a political organizer from the Naqab and a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter—interviewed Soheir Asaad, a Palestinian feminist, political organizer and human rights advocate. Soheir is currently an advocacy team member of Rawa—for liberatory, resilient Palestinian community work. She also co-directs the “Funding Freedom” project. Their conversation was conducted over Zoom on December 4, 2023 and has been edited for length and clarity.
Riya: Soheir, can you speak about the general situation in Haifa, where you’re based, and across ’48 since October 7?
Soheir: Since October 7, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of silence and fear in Haifa and across ’48 as well as a real lack of political action. This silence is markedly different from previous wars—the 2006 war on Lebanon, the many previous wars on Gaza. And this silence comes during what is not just another war but a period of unbelievable violence. It comes at a time when it’s not only Israel that is engaging in genocidal war. We’re seeing laid bare the complicity of the whole global structure and system of oppression, the whole capitalist system that profits from and experiments on the bodies of Palestinians in Gaza. At the same time, it comes in the context of unprecedented global solidarity. Gaza, faced with all this horror, is radicalizing the world. Gaza’s resilience and resistance is inspirational. It’s a manifestation of what oppressed people can do, while the racism and the high levels of persecution against those standing in solidarity with Palestine is a reminder of the degree of revenge and persecution that is unleashed the moment you challenge the basis for this establishment of power. Within this whole unprecedented scene, ’48 is not there.
Riya: Looking back to May 2021, during the Unity Intifada, the scene in ’48 was very different. Palestinians there joined others across historic Palestine in a struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism. How do you understand both the heightened levels of mobilization we saw in 2021 and then this shift to deafening silence?
Soheir: I think much of what we saw during the Unity Intifada was a manifestation of processes that were already unfolding. Namely, the official Palestinian political leadership was growing increasingly irrelevant and the modes of organizing in Palestine and ’48 had gradually been shifting from political party-oriented organizing to decentralized organizing. These processes began in the decade before the Unity Intifada. What we saw in the Unity Intifada that we hadn’t seen before was a different social class entering into the scene as leaders. They claimed agency over what it meant to mobilize politically in ’48 and in a way redefined for us what a revolutionary moment could be. We saw the writing and distribution of anonymous political manifestos and statements, the spontaneous and communally-organized delivery of food and supplies to besieged communities in Lyd (where a state of emergency was declared and a military curfew was imposed) and other acts of mutual aid across ’48. And of course, we saw the general strike that was called across historic Palestine on May 18—a popular demand from below that was subsequently adopted by official political parties.
This ongoing violent repression combined with the absence of a sustained political infrastructure and feelings of abandonment have been a real deterrence to mobilizing in the present moment.
Riya: Right, following May 2021 we saw an aggressive Israeli campaign to stifle any Palestinian political action that is framed as part of an anti-colonial struggle, and the simplest displays of Palestinian political identity, like the Palestinian flag, are being banned.
Soheir: Yes. It’s hard to describe just how paranoid the Israeli state has become around any sign of popular political mobilization in ’48 following the Unity Intifada. For example, two years later, in May of this year, Diar Omari, a 19-year-old Palestinian man, was shot by a settler on the road leading to the gated settlements next to his village, Sandala. After his killing, the whole village stood in an amazing display of revolutionary support for the family, demanding justice for Diar. His family and the village rejected attempts by Israel and Palestinians (like Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Arab United List) to frame Diar’s killing as stemming from a criminal case of road rage. The steps Israel took to stop the mobilization in Sandala—a small village of 1,700 people—were unbelievably severe. The village where people were demonstrating was attacked with helicopters, border police and pre-dawn raids. There was a systematic arrest campaign targeting Diar’s friends and the village’s youth. And, like you said, even the Palestinian flag was a target. Almost every night, the Israeli police would raid the village to remove the Palestinian flag from its streets and would even raid the cemetery and remove the Palestinian flag from Diar’s grave. Then his friends and family would put it back, and after a few hours, the Israeli military would come back and remove it, and it would be put back on, and so on. Basically, after the Unity Uprising, Israel couldn’t tolerate any kind of mobilizing in a framework that is Palestinian. If people had stood for Diar without calling him a martyr or without rallying under a political Palestinian framework—had they not insisted on defining his death as a political death—I don’t think Israel would have minded a commemoration or even protests. The support of ’48 political leaders for the family was timid, which is also telling. This was precisely because the family insisted on defining Diar as a martyr and in doing so, situating his killing within the broader struggle against Israeli colonization. An acceptance of such a framing would have pushed them into a clash with the Israeli system.
This is consistent with a longer-term trend to delink political mobilizations in ’48, moments like the Unity Intifada and before that the Second Intifada, from the broader struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism. Our political leadership, but also ’48 Palestinian civil society organizations, are complicit in this process. For example, after May 2021, the New Israel Fund threw money at Palestinian and mixed (Israeli-Palestinian) civil society organizations under the guise of supporting ’48 Palestinian detainees, but at the same time they were framing their support—and the Unity Intifada as a whole—in terms of a narrow struggle for greater democratic rights for ’48 Palestinians. This worked to disconnect May 2021 from a broader Palestinian liberation framework and reconfigure it as part of the pro-democracy Israeli protests.
Riya: One key difference in 2021 seems to be in the social class of ’48ers who took the lead. With the weakening of formal political structures, a new organic leadership emerged that put forward a political analysis explicitly connecting local socio-economic conditions and police repression to Israel’s settler-colonial rule. This framing challenged the one advanced by most political parties in ’48, who, following Oslo, have re-oriented the struggle in ’48 away from broader Palestinian liberation to being a struggle for equal rights or “citizens’ rights.” Can you talk about how this focus on citizenship came to be so central and its consequences for political organizing in ’48?
Soheir: Since Oslo and, more acutely, following the Second Intifada, our political leadership in ’48 has been stuck within the framework of citizenship. Of course, the situation wasn’t better before Oslo. But Oslo cemented the fragmentation of the Palestinian people and marked the Palestine Liberation Organization’s abandonment of ’48 Palestinians, rendering their fate an Israeli issue. In this context, the nationalist political voices in ’48 were left trying to create a framework for struggle and did so largely within the narrow framework of citizenship. There have been differences between different political parties in the way they have dealt with the issue: Some of them, like the United Arab List, went to extreme coexistence. Others, like Tajammu (Balad), wanted to work within the democratic order to challenge the Zionist core of the Israeli, Jewish state by promoting a state for all of its citizens regardless of national group rights and Palestinian identity. Others still, such as Al-Jabhah (Hadash)—Ayman Odeh’s political organization—have advanced a discourse of shared Arab-Jewish working-class interests, which has served to whitewash colonial power relations under the guise of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. But I think the general commitment to this framework across parties led to what we’re seeing today: Complete defeat, the continued shrinking of the “liberal” margins of what Israel has allowed and the compliance of political leadership in the interest of avoiding any clash with the system.
This orientation toward inclusion within the Israeli regime escalated in 2015 with the establishment of the Joint List. The Joint List was an electoral coalition bringing together the different Palestinian political parties and a Jewish Arab party. The formation of a united electoral block has been a longstanding Palestinian popular demand. We, Palestinians, conflate the lack of political agency with the lack of unity, but unity can defuse important political differences. In practice, the “unity” of the Joint List led to greater complicity with the Israeli regime. Under the leadership of Ayman Odeh, the Joint List project advanced a shift in political orientation towards what they called “impact policies.” This was an approach that suggested Palestinians in ’48 should focus on building power by integrating into the Israeli state’s ministries and other institutions connected to the state, like governmental companies and the courts. They also placed an emphasis on gaining economic power through individual advancement in the Israeli private sector.
Ayman Odeh excluded three ministries from Palestinian integration: the foreign ministry, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Aliya and Integration (the ministry that regulates Jewish immigration to Israel) because, in his framing, these three ministries were the manifestation of the Jewish nature of the state. Odeh knows full well that the Zionist, violent core of the Israeli state is not limited to three ministries. It is manifested in every single arm of the state, including the courts, the police, social services, everything. Why then did he claim that these are the only problematic ministries? I think this illustrates the fantasy behind the vision for Palestinian integration.
Odeh embodies the individualist aspiration to be part of an Israeli development process, which Israel has fostered heavily since the Second Intifada through the initiation of governmental plans for greater economic integration. A Palestinian being a head of a bank or a head of a governmental company—which are not only complicit in Israeli colonialism but are also complicit in a very harsh capitalist, neoliberal economic policy that disproportionately impacts Palestinians—was celebrated.  This celebration presented individual successes as collective achievements. It also ignored the fact that integration is according to the needs of the Israeli economy, not the needs of Palestinians. While leaders like Odeh point to the greater presence of Palestinian workers in the medical or high-tech sector as collective achievements, the reality on the ground tells a different story. These policies have failed to close the socio-economic gap, not just between Palestinians and Israelis, which is widely recognized, but also the gap between ’48 Palestinians themselves, which the Unity Intifada brought to the fore. In 1997, some 38 percent of families in ’48 lived in poverty. The number was 45 percent in 2018 (compared to 13 percent of Jewish families).
Odeh and others who supported these policies also upheld the notion that Palestinians can integrate into these systems and maintain our identity as a cultural identity. And I really think Gaza today has shaken these foundations just as the Unity Intifada did. Efforts at integration are not working because they’re clashing with Palestinian political identity, which is being represented by a resistance that political leaders like Odeh want nothing to do with.
Riya: Over the same period, we’ve also seen Israel undermine Palestinian Knesset members by empowering local councils. Can you speak about this, and how it fits into the project you described of Israel engineering a Palestinian class whose political and economic interests are aligned with the interests of the Israeli state?
Soheir: Much of the work of Palestinian Knesset members—beyond their vocal demands for equality or the end to occupation, which really operate at the slogan level—has been at what they view as the service level, work that in theory should be carried out by ministries: if there’s a post office lacking in that village or a road that needs work, etc. In effect, parliamentarians became the messenger for these services and tried to justify their role within the framework of dignity and equal rights.
In recent years, Israel has increasingly tried to empower local councils—a more technical, less political leadership—instead of Knesset members. These councils are not political parties. They operate at the level of the locality and are elected mostly on a family basis. They don’t give Israel a headache by raising issues related to the occupation. Along with some NGOs, who are very close to the liberal Zionist sphere, they have become a bridge between the Palestinian community and the Israeli government for service delivery. As a result, political power and weight has shifted from the old classic political parties and the High Follow-up Committee (an extra-parliamentary umbrella organization that represents ’48 Palestinians) to these councils and NGOs. They became a vessel through which Israel channeled investments into ’48 Palestinian communities, leading to the gradual development of a Palestinian capitalist class whose whole material existence is dependent on “developmental” state funding. The main root of all evil is Israel’s fragmentation of Palestinians geographically, politically, at the level of legal frameworks, all of that, of course, but I do think we need to talk about ourselves more and how these efforts at integration have set us back collectively.
Riya: You’ve laid out how we got to this point, but in this moment of unfolding colonial violence on steroids and in a landscape of fear, of silencing, of the lack of vision towards collective Palestinian liberation, where do we look to build, and how do we do so?
Soheir: Before I speak to your bigger question, I want to say a word about fear. We cannot ignore that what Israel is doing in ’48, now, is an attack. You could be arrested for showing sympathy with the Gaza resistance or even putting a verse from the Quran on social media or analyzing the military invasion. Now, if we look at the numbers of arrests in ’48 since October 7, they’re low compared to the Unity Intifada. We’re speaking of 200 arrests, compared to thousands during May 2021. Of course, the circumstances are different. Back then, there were clashes. It was a different revolutionary moment. Now it’s just people sitting on their screens and getting arrested for posts, most of them posted on the day of October 7.
These arrests are accompanied by new repressive legislation. On November 8 the Israeli Knesset passed the consumption of terrorist material bill, which criminalized consumption of materials by Hamas or ISIS (notice that they put Hamas and ISIS together in this legislation, which is very deliberate). Israel has also threatened to revoke citizenship for those who’ve expressed sympathy with what they deem terrorism and tried to introduce new legislation that would make it permissible to shoot at people if they block streets that serve as roads for military supplies, which basically could be any road. These bills are meant to deter Palestinians in ’48 from distracting or confronting Israel during its ongoing genocidal campaign in Gaza. Even though these two bills didn’t pass, they are fixed in people’s minds. In a way, this fear is a circle fed by Israeli repression and the political discourse of politicians in ’48. If there were political will and infrastructure committed to breaking this circle of fear, I think people would have greater confidence to engage in mobilization, and it would open up a new process.
Riya: Otherwise, like you described of the Unity Intifada where we saw the rapid collapse of infrastructure, we will be left with perpetual spikes of revolutionary mobilization without cumulative gains. You’ve worked in the field of international advocacy for over 15 years. Can you speak to the solidarity movement now and whether you see these same dynamics playing out beyond ’48?
Soheir: For so long, the solidarity movement was occupied with challenging Israel, and I think that’s great. Please challenge Israel, but also, we want you to challenge your own establishment. We’re seeing some of this now. People interrupting everyday life in global capitals, interrupting arms manufacturers, interrupting parliaments, interrupting media, interrupting academia, everyone who is complicit. But I wonder, if there is a ceasefire, will this all end? Are we rallying around a very specific limited framework? Or are we aspiring to build actual material global solidarity? Because if we look at the streets now, even though the protests are in Europe and in the United States—and of course there are a lot of protests in the Global South and in our region—but even in Europe and in the US, you see a lot of oppressed communities showing up for Palestine: people who are part of the Black liberation struggle, indigenous struggles, Latin American struggles, struggles against economic exploitation, feminist queer organizers, other people really mobilizing. We are seeing solidarity from people who get it, people who see the violence against Gaza as a manifestation of extreme colonial punishment and revenge. But my great fear is that this growing and fast and large-scale solidarity will be limited to a certain slogan and to a certain time, that it will collapse if we don’t build lasting infrastructure, by which I mean material power that can disrupt the enormous power held by Israel and its allies—and when I say allies, it’s not only the United States. It’s a global economic system. We don’t want it only for Gaza and Palestine. We want to be able to have something beyond transactional solidarity and beyond these slogans.
When we speak about the future, I do believe, honestly, first of all and most importantly, in the agency of the Palestinians to struggle to free ourselves. But I also really truly and honestly believe in global solidarity, especially solidarity of the oppressed, solidarity of the global south. We’ve been putting a lot of effort into building that solidarity, and it’s important. But we’ve been doing a bad job in creating a lasting infrastructure, and this is what we need.
 Adan Tatour and Lana Tatour, “The criminalization and racialization of Palestinian resistance to settler colonialism,” in Chris Cunneen, Antje Deckert, Amanda Porter, Juan Tauri, and Robert Webb eds., The Routledge International Handbook on Decolonizing Justice (Routlede, 2023), pp. 91-102.
 Khaled Anabtawi, “Uprising Amidst Liminality: A Study of the 2021 Karameh (Dignity) Uprising of Palestinians inside the Green Line,” Omran 12/46 (Fall 2023), p. 133.
 “Data since 7 October 2023: Interrogations, Arrests and Indictments of Palestinian Citizens of Israel over the last month,” Adalah, November 13, 2023.