“Palestinian citizens of Israel have been ignored by the Palestinian national movement since the Nakba”, Professor As’ad Ghanem explains, “but from my point of view they represent a kind of hope for Palestinian politics”.
A professor at the University of Haifa, Ghanem specialises in the history of the Palestinian national movement, focusing on the aftermath of the 1990s Oslo Accords and the impact of iconic leader Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004. Now, through his academic work and activism, he is looking forward.
“Palestinian politics has reached a deadlock,” he tells MEMO at a café in central London, pointing to the existence of multiple, siloed communities as the key reason for this impasse. Ghanem highlights four sub-communities of Palestinians – in the diaspora, the occupied territories, Jerusalem and within Israel – each of which have their own unique set of circumstances and challenges.
The first group, those living in the diaspora or as refugees, are for Ghanem “lost” Palestinians. “We have almost lost this section of our people, which historically played a major role in the Palestinian national movement,” he explains, citing naturalisation in Jordan, the destruction of Palestinian-Syrian population centres like Yarmouk and migration to Europe and the US by way of explanation.
“I mean lost not only physically but also a loss of politics in these communities,” he adds, “official Palestinian politics totally ignore them, they are not on the agenda of [Palestinian Authority (PA) President] Mahmoud Abbas, except for paying lip service to them.”
Similarly ignored are Jerusalemite Palestinians, who Ghanem sees as locked into a “politics of waiting”. “They don’t know where they belong, with Palestinians in the West Bank or in Israel,” he says. “Many Palestinian institutions that were active 20 years ago [in Jerusalem] have been closed by Abu Mazen [Abbas], so they are left to wait and see where their future lies”.
The third group is, for Ghanem, not only separated from other Palestinians but also internally divided: the Palestinians in the occupied territories. “I call this the crash of Palestinian politics,” he says, stressing that the oft-cited split between Fatah and Hamas in the wake of the 2006 elections is not the only reason for this discord. “There are many reasons behind this; it is clear to me that the dynamics of politics is against reconciliation when you have the ability to control the situation.” He explains: “If you are in Gaza, you would have to be irrational to give up your power to Fatah, they would put you in prison the next day, and vice versa. This is why we are left with this politics of fragmentation”.
Yet when it comes to Palestinian citizens of Israel, who prior to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, were physically cut off from other Palestinians and routinely ignored by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Ghanem sees an opportunity. Representing what he calls the “politics of faith”, Palestinian citizens of Israel “are the strongest community among all Palestinians, with a big potential to become part of the Palestinian national movement and maybe contribute to its revival”.
For the Palestinian national movement has, by almost universal admission, lost its way in recent years. Since the heady days of the PLO and the jeel al-thawra, or generation of revolution – which redefined Palestinian identity after the trauma of the Nakba in 1948 and Naksa, or “setback”, in 1967 – the movement has struggled to deal with the myriad challenges that have come with governance, relocation to the occupied territories and the bureaucratic framework imposed by the Oslo Accords.
“I believe that for many years the Palestinians succeeded in creating an alternative to the PLO in the West Bank with the united leadership during the First Intifada,” Ghanem explains, referring to the largest grassroots uprising of the late 1980s. “Hundreds of activists were committed to the Palestinian cause in the West Bank and Gaza like Hanan Ashrawi and Haidar Abdel-Shafi, but when Arafat came to the West Bank he destroyed this leadership completely.”
“It was Arafat that created the current system of duality between the PLO and the PA, with full control in his hands; this is his legacy,” Ghanem continues. “This is a system of politics, not a personal issue, so after Abu Mazen [Abbas] we will have the same situation. Many Palestinians play with the concept of destroying the PA and returning to the pre-Oslo period, but this isn’t possible. Israel will make sure that someone else comes and sits in their place.”
We need to start a new period in our history [and] the question now for those Palestinian activists outside the system is: Can we generate a new way of thinking?
So what does this new way of thinking look like? “Generally people don’t like to struggle against the system; they like to live their normal lives and not go against the PA and PLO, especially when these two institutions paint themselves as the representatives of the Palestinian people,” Ghanem explains.
“I am aware of the difficulties,” he adds, “but this is why it is our mission as intellectuals and activists to present an alternative – the future depends on our ability to imagine alternative options.”
For Ghanem, this alternative takes its form in a one-state solution that involves all Palestinians in politics. “I was one of the first people after [the Oslo Accords] to claim that the two-state solution had already collapsed,” he remembers. “I’m not promoting the one-state solution as a political solution in the near future, but rather as an idea to mobilise all Palestinian communities.”
For the Haifa University professor, Palestinian citizens of Israel must play a central role in this mobilisation of the Palestinian factions. “Palestinian citizens of Israel are trying to build their own institutions and ability to stand up against Israeli politics […] there is a new generation of middle-class activists that are increasing in numbers and quality and have become a strong community.”
Ghanem was hoping that the Joint List – an alliance of Israel’s four Arab-dominated political parties created in 2015 – would “continue to represent this new mode of politics, but unfortunately, it was dissolved” in the run-up to Israel’s general election last month.
“It was a big mistake to have two lists,” Ghanem says of the two alliances which replaced the Joint List, the Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad alliances. “Unfortunately opportunistic, self-promoting politics by [Arab-Israeli Knesset Member Ahmad] Tibi, [Ayman] Odeh and all the rest caused this collapse and it is clear that there is now mistrust of Arab politics.” “The collapse of the Joint List brought [re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to power this time.”
Such an opinion will likely cut deep in a community still reeling from its poor electoral showing, which marked a historic low for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Yet Ghanem believes this collapse must be capitalised upon to affect change; “this was a historic mistake and it’s going to be a historic moment, I think now the community will say to its leaders okay enough, we don’t like what you’ve been doing. Let’s do it differently.”
“Now there are many Palestinians from the younger generation [within Israel] who have begun to understand that the struggle for their future cannot be separated from that of the rest of the Palestinians.” This, combined with the fact that “Palestinian politics outside Israel is almost destroyed”, has to act as the catalyst, Ghanem concludes.
“We cannot ignore the other side, so we should be committed to democracy and respect, not only of our identity but that of our partners. This should be the basic cornerstone [so we can] talk about how to rebuild Palestinian nationalism in a joint manner, for everyone”.