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Israel's Palestinian citizens are key to ending apartheid

People gather to stage a demonstration in support of Palestinians and to protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem on the 73rd Nakba Day at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, Canada on May 15, 2021 [Seyit Aydoğan/Anadolu Agency]
People gather to stage a demonstration in support of Palestinians and to protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem on the 73rd Nakba Day at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, Canada on May 15, 2021 [Seyit Aydoğan/Anadolu Agency]

Despite Israel's efforts to "spirit the Arabs out of their homeland" and the vain hope of its first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, that "the old will die and the young will forget", just over half of the Palestinian people not only live in their historic homeland but have also kept their cause very much alive. This has been done against the odds, given that more than 750,000 were driven from their homes when Israel was created in their country in 1948. Those who were able to stay behind have Israeli citizenship, while the others are refugees, many of them within the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and further afield.

Death toll in Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip keeps rising...- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Death toll in Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip keeps rising…- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The Palestinians always seem to find a way to overcome Israeli attempts to bury the refugee issue, such as half-baked peace offerings or brutal military aggression demanding complete surrender. Rarely do they fail to find reasons not to be optimistic and continue their struggle. This is more relevant today than ever before as Israel goes about its periodic "mowing the lawn" in Gaza.

Thus, while Israel rains bombs and missiles onto the besieged territory, there's a sense that the settler-colonial takeover of Palestine has reached the peak of its cruelty. Attitudes are changing; the immunity enjoyed by the Zionist state looks as though it will come to an end sooner rather than later. A war crimes investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) is fast approaching, which could help to preserve whatever legitimacy the current international system has by demonstrating that no country is above the law.

A number of factors give us reason to hope that the final page in Israel's short, brutal story is about to be turned, not least the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel — who the state disparagingly labels as "Arab Israelis" — are doing what they have never done before. They are rising up in Jaffa, Haifa, Umm Al-Fahm, Nazareth, Lydda, Ramleh, Acre, Tiberias, Beersheba and elsewhere in the occupation state in solidarity with those in occupied Jerusalem and Gaza.

"It is… a kind of reawakening born of 70… years of oppression," said Tamer Nafer, a Palestinian rapper from Lod, describing the Palestinian uprising in the Zionist state which has been met by far-right Israeli lynch mobs. "In this country, equality is a technicality; this is a Jewish country, and its national anthem itself ignores two million [Muslims] and Christians."

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What is happening inside Israel and the occupied territories described by Nafer has also triggered a reawakening in Jordan and Lebanon, home to millions of Palestinian refugees whose grandparents were expelled by Zionist paramilitaries during Israel's creation. Crowds of Palestinians in exile in Lebanon stormed the border fences and briefly entered northern Israel, as thousands more in Jordan attempted the same thing along the eastern frontier of historic Palestine.

The scenes within Israel have shocked and alarmed many. "Pogrom" was trending on social media over the weekend along with "apartheid" as Israeli lynch mobs dragged a Palestinian man out of his car and began beating him almost to death. Shops within Palestinian neighbourhoods were vandalised and the mobs broke into homes, terrifying those inside. Synagogues were also set ablaze during intercommunal violence that has challenged the Zionists' claims of peaceful coexistence with their "Arab" neighbours. The persistent use of "Arab Israelis" and denial of Palestinian culture and identity is an extension of the Zionist myth that Palestine was a "land without a people" and "Palestinians" don't exist.

There is also the wider political context and perception of Israel to consider. It's often said that historical injustices reappear in different forms. Just as in the US, where the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has rekindled the call for reparations for past crimes, Israel is also being forced to come to terms with its past. Since 1967, the occupation state has pretended that the crimes of 1948 have been forgotten; that the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of Palestinians never took place; or, even worse, that it did not matter. After decades of living as third-class citizens, a new generation of Palestinians — descendants of Nakba survivors — is, it seems, more ready than ever to join those in the occupied Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Jerusalem, as well as the five million refugees still denied their legitimate right to return, in the ongoing struggle to bring down the apartheid regime imposed on them for decades.

Together with rising sectarian passions within Israel, it is the shifting tide of global public opinion more than "Hamas rockets" that poses the greatest challenge to the Zionist state. Israel's propaganda may once have been successful in diverting attention from its racist settler-colonial ideology, but no more. Its justification of its military occupation and denial of basic human rights is now even less believable than America's claim to promote democracy in the Middle East. The tired "self-defence" and "fighting terrorism" narrative has run its course, and people can see Israel's brutal military occupation for what it is.

For anyone with an ounce of reason, Israel's "security" no longer outweighs the brutal reality of occupation. The number of people willing to give Israel the benefit of the doubt is shrinking by the day. Fears of an existential threat are set against universal values. In the current global climate where ordinary people are discovering how structural racism operates in societies around the world — and don't like what they see — they are becoming more familiar with concepts such as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Any remaining doubts about the nature of the state that Israel has become have all but evaporated.

Nakba Day 1948 - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Nakba Day 1948 – Cartoon [Carlos Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

With the latest onslaught on Gaza coinciding with the Nakba anniversary, the tired arguments about Israel's right to defend itself ring hollow. People are looking beyond the propaganda and asking deeper and more fundamental questions about why basic Palestinian rights are always, without exception, trumped by Israeli demands. What does it say about Israel that it feels it will be "destroyed" by allowing the return of a people dispossessed by its own creation in their land? If a state is "destroyed" by offering equality and basic human rights to indigenous people, it is right that we should question the nature of that state. Can a state's existence be so at odds with universal human rights?

Such observations are prompted by articles like Peter Beinart's in the New York Times at the weekend. Making a Jewish case for the right of Palestinian refugees to return, the American commentator — a self-declared Zionist — noted that, "without the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, Zionist leaders would have had neither the land nor the large Jewish majority necessary to create a viable Jewish state." The article was a summary of a lengthier piece in Jewish Currents which imagined a different kind of country, where Palestinians are considered equal citizens and not a "demographic threat".

More significantly, Israel's bombardment of Gaza, the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque during the holiest night of Ramadan, and the expulsion of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem all confirm Israel's status as a deeply racist country. That this amounts to apartheid is impossible to dispute. This was affirmed last month by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which joined a host of other prominent groups to declare that Israel is committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution. In January, Israeli human rights group B'Tselem noted that Israel "promotes and perpetuates Jewish supremacy between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River." Echoing the UN's 2017 report which concluded that Israel was indeed practising apartheid, B'Tselem dismissed the popular misconception that it is a democracy within the Green (1949 Armistice) Line.

It was, therefore, no surprise to find Israel's crimes against humanity becoming the focus of discussion on social media as well as mainstream news channels. Progressive members of the US Congress helped make "Apartheid states aren't democracies" one of the highest trending topics on Twitter over the weekend. Comedian John Oliver joined in by framing Israeli domestic policy as "apartheid" while acknowledging that its latest attacks constitute war crimes.

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Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, not known for being a harsh critic of Israel, has implicitly denounced the state for the crime of apartheid. Describing Israelis as living inside a "bubble" he observed how easy it is for them to forget that the West Bank operates under two legal systems: one for Jews, another for Palestinians. Inside the bubble, said Freedland, "it's easy to forget Gaza, with its 14 years of suffocation by the closure and joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade, or the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where Jews can reclaim property owned before 1948 but Palestinians are denied that same right. It's easy to forget a 54-year occupation."

Palestinians are in the midst of a historic "foundational moment", noted US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib recently. Memories of the Nakba have united a people whom Israel has done so much to divide. With the world looking on, we hope that it's just a matter of time before the apartheid regime from the "river to the sea" becomes a truly democratic country where Jews and non-Jews alike are equal citizens.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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