Palestinian citizens of Israel – who were displaced in the Nakba of 1948 but were incorporated into the nascent Jewish state – are often written out of the region’s seven-decade long conflict. Yet for Sami Abu Shehadeh, the CEO of the Yaffa (Jaffa) Youth Movement, the struggles faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel deserve to be recognised as part of Israel’s coordinated campaign against the Palestinians.
“Israel was built on the ruins of my people, of the Palestinian people. So we, the Palestinian minority inside Israel, we are not a small minority that immigrated to this place. We are the indigenous community, in our case to be honest, Israel emigrated to us from Europe!” he says.
Structural racism in Israel is ever present; with citizenship rooted first and foremost in an ethno-religious identity, Palestinian Christians and Muslims are considered separate from the Jewish majority.
“I think that the situation of the Palestinians in Israel has been in great danger since the Nakba, because the simple fact that they are named as Palestinians is [rejected] by the Israeli state,” Abu Shehadeh highlights. “From the official Israeli point of view, there are no Palestinian people; from the state point of view, we don’t have a national identity.”
Palestinians in Israel amount to around 1.8 million people, some 20 per cent of the total population, but the community faces rampant discrimination and is continually “othered” by the establishment; Israel separates Arab and Jewish children during their formative years, but still prevents the teaching of Palestinian history in Arab schools. The role of Arabic is continually devalued and non-Jewish citizens are excluded from politics.
“This is the way of Israel trying to destroy us, through destroying our identity.”
According to Abu Shehadeh, these struggles have been thrown into even sharper focus with the increasingly hard-line positions taken by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Re-elected for a fifth term last month, he has moved towards forming a coalition with the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP), which is comprised of the three religious-Zionist parties Jewish Home, National Union and Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit).
“What’s making it different from a few decades before, all of the Israeli politics, not just the government, all of the important ministers, all of the important institutions in the state are now controlled by right-wing politicians who are carrying a dangerous, fascist way of thinking, and they are leading the society,” he says.
Abu Shehadeh is also a member of the Arab-Israeli political party Balad, which secured some four seats in the Knesset in a coalition with fellow Ra’am in the 9 April election. Both parties were previously part of the Joint List alongside Ta’al and Hadash, but the group split into two factions just weeks before the election, hoping to achieve more seats for Arab-Israeli politicians separately; but that did not materialise.
“From the Balad party’s point of view the last elections were, to be honest, kind of a catastrophe for all the Palestinian community inside Israel,” he admits. “We in Balad were totally against the split of the Joint List – we believe that the Arab Palestinian minority inside Israel should be organised according to their national identity, as a national minority.”
He blames Ta’al head Ahmad Tibi for the split, arguing that it also angered many Palestinians in Israel, destroying the unity between parties that the Joint List had provided. Arab-Israeli voter engagement was lower than expected this election; only about half of those eligible cast their vote at the polls, reflecting the ongoing apathy amongst much of the community when it comes to political engagement.
“Usually when people participate in the election they have this feeling that they can influence the system, they can make a serious change. This is why people go and vote.”
Because Israel is based on this racist way of thinking – that it is a Jewish state run only for the Jewish people, it should be run only by Jews openly for the interest of Jews – it means for the Palestinian minority inside Israel, whatever the result will be they will not be influential inside the government
Abu Shehadeh explains.
“So from the beginning it tells people there isn’t much [point] in their voting.”
A former member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipal council, Abu Shehadeh also has strong feelings on the highly controversial Nation-State Law passed last year. Largely symbolic, the bill was enacted just after the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding and declares that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country.
“This myth that is called Jewish democracy, everyone should know it’s an oxymoron. And it’s also not a Jewish state and not a democratic one. By saying Jewish they give a totally new interpretation, a Zionist model interpretation of what is Jewish, which is not agreed upon by the vast majority of the Jewish Orthodox community all over the world,” Abu Shehadeh argues.
“It’s not that Jewish from the Jewish point of view, but it’s surely not a democracy from any democratic view, because one of the bases of democracy is equality. The Jewish state by definition cannot bring equality between its citizens because it has 20 per cent of the population who are not Jewish.”
“No equality, no democracy, it’s a simple as that,” he adds.
He further argues that Israel is unique in that most of its citizens are “citizens of potential”, given that most Jews that it claims to represent live outside of the country, even while it denies basic rights to those living within its borders.
“It is the only case in the world where the majority of the citizens are not living inside the state,” he highlights. “Something like two-thirds of the Jewish people are living outside of the Jewish state – which means it is the state of millions of people, which are not living inside the state and don’t want to be living inside the state.”
Despite these challenges, through his grassroots work in the Yaffa Youth movement, Abu Shehadeh is hopeful about the next generation of Palestinians in Israel.
“This is one of the most optimistic things that is happening in the last few decades – most of the academic research proves that the majority of the Palestinian youth inside the state of Israel are rediscovering their Palestinian identity and they feel much more connected to the Palestinian issue and the Palestinian question than the generation before.”
Considering Israel the last colonial project of the 21st century, as part of his work with the Balad party, he advocates for decolonisation to arrive at a mutually-agreeable solution to the conflict. He admits that this will have to include some historical compromise and acknowledge the Jewish majority in Israel as a national group.
“Our process and our vision are built on justice, equality and human rights,” he stresses.
We think that the solution should be changing the state from a Jewish, racist state to a ‘state of all its citizens’, making Israel just a normal democracy. We are not inventing something new.
Yet such a proposal is far from the reality. The administration of US President Donald Trump is set to release its second draft of the “deal of the century” after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but expectations are low after reports that the deal denies any sovereignty to the Palestinians beyond some administrative autonomy in certain cities in the occupied West Bank.
“I think Donald Trump, he and Netanyahu did not learn from history. From our point of view as Palestinians all over the world, this ‘deal of the century’ is a bad deal and we are going to refuse it. And nobody can force on us something that we don’t want,” the Palestinian historian says.
He condemns the handling of the issue by Trump, deeming him a “bad politician” and “stupid as a diplomat”, who is dealing with “millions of people the way that he does his real estate deals”.
“Any deal that is not built on justice will not be able to be a sustainable solution to Palestine […] A compromise should guarantee us our national pride and our basic rights,” he adds, highlighting the need for Jerusalem as a joint capital, illegal settlements to be destroyed and refugees to the have the right of return.
“The Palestinians are fighting for their rights because they have a just question,” he concludes. “This is our homeland.”