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Seminar with Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset

May 15, 2014 at 4:08 pm


On Wednesday 28th July, the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) and the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) hosted a groundbreaking and highly successful public event in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. The special guests were Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) who brought the plight of Arab citizens of the state of Israel to the attention of the British people, particularly our parliamentarians. As representatives of an indigenous people who constitute a minority in the “Jewish State” established around them and on their land, the Palestinian MKs discussed the reality and significance of the Jewish character of Israel for its Palestinian citizens. Dr. Jamal Zahalka, Miss Haneen Zoubi and Mr. Talab Al-Sana gave eye-opening and impassioned accounts of the daily battles fought by their community for equality and basic civil rights in the face of the legalised discrimination that blights every aspect of their lives. The amazing thing was that they were able to maintain a sense of humour about their condition.

The programme was chaired by Jeremy Corbyn, MP and was attended by about 300 guests; a second committee room accommodated the overspill, with some people having to stand. The audience included pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli activists, casual observers, parliamentarians and – of course – a journalist from the Jewish Chronicle. The atmosphere was very positive and all speakers were given a warm welcome and applauded for their courage in speaking out defiantly against the oppression and discrimination faced by their community at heavy personal cost, including accusations of treachery. Each MK addressed the audience in turn and took questions from the floor, with MEMO’s director, Dr. Daud Abdullah, translating when necessary.


Most of the Palestinian discourse focuses on the plight of Palestinians living within the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, namely the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Significantly less emphasis is placed on the plight of those who refused to be driven from their homes in the territory that became Israel in 1948 and who, by default, became Arab citizens of the Jewish state. Colonialism and oppression in the occupied territories are spoken of freely and demands for the occupation to end are clear. Earlier this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to Gaza as “a prison” for its one and half million inhabitants; nevertheless, Israel continues to be touted as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. European colonial powers also laid claim to democratic principles, presumably based on the equality afforded to their own citizens, not what was on offer to those who were colonised. As Haneen Zoubi pointed out, the litmus test of Israeli claims about democracy is the state’s treatment of its Arab citizens.

The MKs explained that Israel’s self-description as a state for Jews means that discrimination against non-Jews is state ideology, denying its Palestinian citizens their identity and thus negating their very existence. As Talab al-Sana put it, in Israel there are no Israelis, there are only Jews and non-Jews with one having legal privileges over the other; this situation guarantees that non-Jews will always be second- or even third-class citizens of the state. According to Miss Zoubi, Arab Israelis are phantoms existing outside a psychological and ideological system that seeks to erase their existence. This is a result of state indoctrination beginning in early childhood which denies Palestinians’ history and their presence in the land pre-Israel; as a result, they are denied an ethnic identity and national rights. In theory Palestinians have civic but not national rights; in practice, they have neither. This has led to Palestinian citizens of Israel finding it necessary to assert their Palestinian identity, their solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the occupied territories and their integral role in, and commitment to, the wider Palestinian struggle.

People are far less willing to address the reality of discrimination and racism inside Israel due, perhaps, to the far-reaching implications; as such, Israel benefits from international ignorance of the issue. Our duty as human beings to break this silence based on a commitment to the universal values of justice and equality was emphasised keenly by all three speakers. The simple Palestinian demand for equality and the struggle to achieve it would, according to Haneen Zoubi, through logical thought lead to the conclusion that the whole framework of the Israeli state needs to be changed.

It was pointed out that the particular significance of the Palestinian cause to us as British citizens does not rest solely on Britain’s historic role in the creation of Israel; it’s also due to Europe’s current responsibility on account of the support European governments give to the state. Underlying this support is the dual claim that Israel is at once a democracy and a victim. It thus becomes imperative that we, as British citizens, examine closely these claims and ensure that every state and every individual supportive of Israel is made aware of the exact nature of the entity they support.

Dr Jamal ZahalkaDr Jamal Zahalka

“I propose the opposite – take your democracy and give me my land”

Dr Jamal Zahalka is the leader of the Balad Party which demands that Israel become a democratic state, as opposed to a Jewish one and that it abide by a separation between state and religion. He is vociferous in speaking out against the Apartheid like system of discrimination in Israel and believes passionately that Israel should be a state for all its citizens to live together in peace and equality. A Pharmacist by profession, Dr Zahalka gained his BA, MA and PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Dr. Zahalka emphasised the systematic nature of Israeli discrimination against its Palestinian population, highlighting the “democratic” veneer it is given before being legally enforced; a phenomenon known internationally as Israeli democracy but which he referred to as the “tyranny of the majority”. Using the example of the systematic confiscation of privately owned Palestinian land which was then reserved for exclusive Jewish use, he explained that the process of arriving at such a policy was all very “democratic”; it was debated in the appropriate chambers and put to a vote before being carried out. Similarly, when the progressive Land Reclaim Law was instituted, it was amended democratically to include an article that would ensure that the majority of Palestinians would be unable to benefit from it. When Dr. Zahalka objected to this in parliament as being unfair, he was told that this was democracy – he was able to come to parliament and to give an opinion and thus enjoy Israeli democracy.

Another example Dr. Zahalka gave of the democratic process being used to conceal discrimination was the inhumane retroactive laws that prohibit Palestinian Israelis from marrying Palestinians from the occupied territories as such “intermarriage” is regarded as a conspiracy against the state to alter the demographic situation. When a complaint was lodged it was agreed that a committee would be set up to consider individual cases on humanitarian grounds. However, the first thing the committee’s charter stipulated was that marriage was not a humanitarian issue.

Dr. Zahalka explained that this legalised “democratic” discrimination has resulted in dozens of laws targeting Palestinians and having an impact on all aspects of their lives. This results in formal discrimination between Arabs and Jews, from budget allocations and public sector employment to water allocation for farming and irrigation.

Miss Haneen ZoubiMiss Haneen Zoubi

“I am the Indian in this equation, not the African American.”

Miss Haneen Zoubi was the first woman to be elected to represent an Arab party in the Israeli Knesset. She came to prominence after taking part in the ‘freedom flotilla’ in May earlier this year for which she was vilified and attacked in the Knesset as well as being sent numerous death threats. Subsequently, Zoubi had her parliamentary privileges revoked and has been accused of treason and threatened with being stripped of her citizenship. She graduated in philosophy and media studies and became a member of the Balad party in 1997.

Miss Zoubi stated that the shift of the Israeli administration to the far right means that the state is now more willing to sacrifice its democratic image than to give Palestinians equality and freedom. The new demand for the state to be recognised by citizens as “Jewish and democratic” has become an obsession; Arabs are required to swear allegiance to a state that strips them of everything and discriminates against them. She emphasised that Palestinians did not migrate to Israel, they are the indigenous inhabitants and, as such, their demand for equality with the occupier is a huge historic compromise.

The model of the “good Arab” that Israel sought to create, a model that would require Palestinians to be Arab nominally but also to be loyal to the state and thus exist in limbo, has failed. The new state model proposes to use the legal system against Palestinians to criminalise their political activity and keep them under surveillance. Palestinian Israelis are part of the struggle for freedom and justice and therefore must be an integral part of any solution. She emphasised that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in 1948, when Palestinians were made a minority in their own country.

The model that Miss Zoubi and her party proposes would make them representatives of democracy inside Israel; representatives of both Arabs and Jews and everyone else who refuses to live in a fascist state; representatives of the marginalised orthodox Jewish minority from whom she received 300 letters of support following her participation on the Freedom Flotilla and against whom the state of Israel also discriminates. She also discussed theoretical aspects of democracy and equality, asserting that a democratic state should be neutral and guarantee the individual and collective rights of its citizens, and should not impose ideological beliefs on its citizens.

Mr. Talab Al-SanaMr. Talab Al-Sana

“When Israel identifies itself as a Jewish, democratic state, it identifies democracy for Jews and Jewishness for Arabs.”

Talab al-Sana is of Bedouin origin and was born in the Negev. A lawyer by profession is the longest standing Arab member of the Israeli Knesset and represents the Arab Democratic Party. As well as being an active member of parliament, he is heavily involved with a number of organizations promoting peace and co-existence as well as working with various charitable enterprises to help the people of the Negev. In 2006 he took part in a protest to prevent Israeli tractors destroying wheat crops produced by Arabs farmers living in the many “unrecognised villages” of the region. He was assaulted during this protest. Al-Sana has also been very vocal about the crimes Israeli settlers commit against Palestinian people and any prospects for peace.

Mr. Al-Sana delivered a comprehensive and powerful overview of the situation faced by his community inside Israel, including his main constituency, the Bedouins of the Negev. He highlighted the urgency of the situation faced by Bedouins, a large majority of whom live in villages that are considered illegal by the Israeli government; just last Tuesday an entire village was destroyed by the authorities. Mr. Al-Sana said that the residents of that village would have gone off to school or work in the morning only to return in the evening to find themselves homeless and without recourse to justice and compensation. 

Mr. Al-Sana discussed the disjointed logic of the Israeli establishment that seeks to turn the victim into the aggressor and the growing extremism and brainwashing that proposes the use of all weapons except the mind. If Israel was to use its mind, it would understand that you can kill human beings but you cannot kill dreams, he said. “We hold up a mirror to the state which exposes its racist nature, and instead of repairing that nature, it chooses to break the mirror.” The legal discrimination against Palestinians and the plethora of racist laws has reached such a level that Palestinians are now prohibited from commemorating the Nakba. The law states that whoever displays sadness and grief on “Nakba Day” should be punished. Mr. Al-Sana asserted that this is tantamount to demanding that when the Palestinian visits the site of his village depopulated during the Nakba he should be joyous because it was ethnically cleansed; or if his father was killed, he should visit the grave in a happy frame of mind. These laws are unjust to the extent that they seek to prosecute Palestinian citizens based on their justifiable feelings.

He asserted that the problem lay with Western hypocrisy centred on the West’s concern for the security of Israel at the cost of concern for the security of the Palestinian child. All people must be treated equally in accordance with human values and international law and the extent to which Palestinians attain independence is the same extent to which Israel will enjoy security.

Questions from the floor covered the two-state solution; the future ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Israelis; the apartheid analogy and the Palestinian man accused of rape based on his race. Suggestions were made that calls for Israel to address such issues as discrimination should also be made to states like Saudi Arabia.