An interview with Awad Abdel Fattah
Mondoweiss – 12 November 2012
The following interview was conducted in Nazareth with Awad Abdel Fattah, secretary general of the National Democratic Assembly party. The NDA (Al-Tajamoa in Arabic, and Balad in Hebrew) is one of three parties in the Israeli parliament representing Israel’s Palestinian minority, which numbers 1.4 million and comprises nearly a fifth of the country’s population.
The NDA is best known for the activities of its former leader, Azmi Bishara, who was forced into exile in 2007 after Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, accused him of assisting Hizbullah during Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon. No proof has so far been forthcoming.
Although the NDA has three legislators in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, both the party and its former leader have faced a relentless campaign of intimidation and persecution from the Israeli security services over many years. There have also been efforts at each national election to have the party disqualified from running.
The election due this January is no exception: even at this early stage, petitions have been submitted to the Central Elections Committee from senior legislators to ban the party and two of its Knesset members, Haneen Zoubi and Jamal Zahalka.
The NDA’s chief point of friction with the Israeli establishment is over its campaign for “a state for all its citizens”, its demand that Israel be reformed into a liberal democracy. This has been classified as “subversive activity” by the Shin Bet.
This interview followed the recent publication by Abdel Fattah of a booklet in Arabic arguing both that the Palestinians inside Israel need to take a more central role in rebuilding the Palestinian national movement and that it is time for Palestinians to turn away from the illusions of the Oslo process and develop their thinking about a one-state solution.
Your new booklet has caused some controversy. What led you to reconsider the position of Palestinians inside Israel in relation both to the Palestinian national movement and the two-state solution?
As far as I am aware, this is the first serious attempt to examine the role of the Palestinians in Israel as regards the national movement. Maybe it is not surprising that there is a degree of reluctance to confront this issue. We live in a complex relationship both to Israel and to the wider Palestinian people, and therefore historically we have tended to assume we should be led by the Palestinian national leadership rather than seek to have an active voice ourselves.
But changing political circumstances – the failures both of the Palestinian national leadership to remain united and clear-sighted and of Israel to engage in a meaningful peace process – make that an irresponsible position to maintain.
The reluctance also relates to the dominant political trend here for many decades. Until the 1990s, the only non-Zionist party Israel allowed to stand in national elections was the Communist-affiliated Jebha faction (Hadash in Hebrew), a joint Arab-Jewish party. The Communists wanted to improve our situation and end discrimination but that was the limit of their political horizon. Their strategic mistake was to believe that we could become equal citizens even while Israel continued to be a Jewish state. In fact, their political platform did not really counter Zionism; rather it was designed to strengthen the Zionist left to make it easier to negotiate a two-state solution.
The result was that the Arab leaders of the Communist Party stressed their Israeli rather than their Palestinian identity. Their struggle against discrimination never sought to challenge the Jewish character of the state, or identified a relationship between the two.
My party, the NDA, is the first to rethink these historic positions. We accept our intimate connection to Israeli society but reject the Communists’ approach that puts a premium on Jewish-Arab brotherhood. We see the impasse in the peace process and our own inability to realize equal citizenship in a Jewish state as intertwined. The struggle for real coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis requires not just brotherhood but confronting Israel’s colonialism and its institutional and law-sanctioned racism.
The strategy of the Communists is risky, especially when one understands that Israel has no interest in making us equal citizens. A very real danger is that we deepen our identification with our Israeliness, thereby eroding our Palestinian national identity, while at the same time achieving no better conditions, no greater rights. In my view, if we try to achieve equality without strengthening our national identity first, we risk losing both our civil and national rights.
But our vision must extend beyond the local, the parochial. Our fight for our national rights inside Israel also, of course, has a relevance to the larger Palestinian national movement. Given the current impotence of that movement, it is our duty to take a significant role. Some Palestinian intellectuals even suggest that, given our familiarity with Israeli society, we have the potential to become the most dynamic part both of the national movement and of the struggle for a truly democratic alternative.
Is there a role model for the Palestinian national movement’s struggle?
Yes, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. There are several useful lessons from there, as I discovered during a visit in 2008.
The first is that our demands must be based on the principle of equality and not on the basis of separation and partition. Ronnie Kasrils, a South African Jew who became a military leader in the ANC, told me he had warned the PLO at the time of the Oslo Accords to reject the idea of partition. He pointed out that the ANC had rejected the Bantustans, a very similar formula to Oslo.
Second, the South African resistance did not sanctify any single means of struggle. It made use of peaceful, military and popular struggle, as the circumstances dictated. At different times, one means took precedence over another. For example, following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the banning of the ANC, there was a shift to armed struggle. However, the popular means of struggle – demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins and civil disobedience – remained essential.
And third, the leaders of the resistance were largely successful in controlling internal conflicts. The unity of the democratic national movement in South Africa was essential and it was decisive in its victory.
On the issue of unity, the Palestinian national movement has split in a dangerous manner even before it has come close to achieving its goals, and a key part of it has become almost-complicit with the occupation. This has parallels with the political distortions created by the apartheid system for the Coloreds and the Asians.
When the PLO was established in the 1960s, it was an important and unifying organization that embodied the character of the Palestinian nation and ended fragmentation. But it was given a monopoly over resources and decision-making that corrupted the mainstream leadership. Its humiliating compromises aborted the Palestinians’ main objective: the establishment of a single secular, democratic state in Palestine.
We have lost the consistency and clarity of the strategic goal that directed the South African resistance: the abolition of racism and the achievement of full equality. The Palestinian elites, on the other hand, began by proposing a single state and ended by demanding a state on just 22% of Palestine and accepting Israel as a Jewish state. Recently, Mahmoud Abbas, the PA chairman, has again suggested he is ready to compromise on the right of return.
What are the important differences between the Palestinian situation and that of the South African resistance?
The regime in South Africa was clearly and overtly racist, which made it easier to open an international front against it, particularly as the leaders of the resistance adopted and promoted a clear and consistent democratic discourse. The Israeli regime has been more sophisticated and subtle. It has pursued many racist policies in an implicit manner.
If you talk to former ANC leaders who have visited Israel and the occupied territories, they will tell you that, in fact, Israel is more dangerous and brutal than its South African counterpart. The Israeli regime originally sought to purge the land of its indigenous population precisely so that it could declare itself a democratic state and become part of the Western democratic family, which lent it every means of support. The expulsion of about 80 per cent of the Palestinian people from the 1948 borders Israel created was the first instance of racial segregation. One can therefore say that the Palestinians are at the same time the victims of Israel’s Jewishness and its democracy.
Unlike apartheid South Africa, Israel does not want to coexist with its native population; it wants to get rid of them through ethnic separation, after its failure to expel them completely. For Palestinians under occupation, Israel has constructed the Separation Wall and a special legal system for the settlers. The Wall separates Palestinians from Israel without giving them independence. In the Gaza Strip, Israel pulled out of the prison to control it from the outside. And inside Israel, the system has deteriorated towards apartheid: Palestinians in Israel have the right to vote, but they languish in a racist system that discriminates against them in all spheres of life. Our situation is similar to that of the Coloreds and Asians in South Africa, who were granted the right to vote but only for a race-based parliament.
Are there indications that Israel’s colonialist regime is weakening? And do you see any signs that the Palestinian leadership is seriously considering a one-state solution?
When I was in South Africa, I spoke to the former police minister in the apartheid government, Rolf Meyer. He was a key figure in negotiating the end of the apartheid regime, and by that stage he opposed apartheid. But when I asked him whether he foresaw the end of apartheid, his reply surprised me. Not at all, he said.
Those of us who talk about a one-state solution in the Israel-Palestine context are often dismissed as utopians. But the case of South Africa shows things can change fast and without warning.
While it is true that the Zionist colonialist regime has gained momentum on the ground since Oslo, it has also increasingly lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Particularly important is the fact that many people are waking up to the idea that Israel is an apartheid state and that it deserves a resolution no different from what happened in South Africa. Racist regimes are illegitimate and cannot survive.
The debate about one state is being revived by Palestinians, even among those who have yet to accept the idea. But one of the problems is that the PA is still using this discussion as a way to frighten Israelis. The demand for justice and equality should not be used as a scare tactic: in fact, we should be making the argument that one state would be good for Israelis too.
The overriding goal now is to reunite all the Palestinian people, wherever they are, under one project – to incorporate marginalized groups like the Palestinians in Israel and the refugees into one comprehensive struggle. It’s time to unite all groups and individuals who embrace the democratic option in a single movement.
The view you’re advocating appears to a decisive break with the political thinking of your own party. The ANC, for example, rejected collective or national rights and restricted its demands to individual rights within a single democratic state. But the NDA identifies itself as a nationalist party, and demands cultural and educational autonomy.
As the party’s secretary general, I have to take the initiative and push the debate towards the ANC’s approach. I have always been a believer in a single state as the most just and ethical solution to the conflict.
Remember that the NDA’s traditional position on this issue derives from the circumstances of its creation. The party was founded in the mid-1990s in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Oslo Accords, in which both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships agreed that our future as a minority lay inside Israel. This forced us to consider afresh the nature of our citizenship on the basis of the struggle to combat Zionism.
In the context of the two-state solution proposed by Oslo, collective rights became essential, as there could be no equality without these rights. This was reflected in the demand of the NDA for self-determination for the Palestinian minority in Israel through a cultural self-rule under our party’s slogan of a “state for all its citizens”.
Palestinians in Israel have many individual rights as citizens but these rights are usually subservient to, and therefore negated by, the national rights exclusively enjoyed by the Jewish majority. This is true for all the major issues of citizenship. Because they have national rights, Jews enjoy privileges regarding immigration; access to key resources like land; financial benefits, including employment, derived from Israel’s all-encompassing view of security; assistance from international Zionist organizations like the Jewish National Fund; and so on.
The implicit message of our platform of a state for all its citizens was that, given the reality that we are a Palestinian minority living in a Jewish state, our first priority must be to demand both individual and national rights.
This is why we are a nationalist party – not in a chauvinistic sense but because we recognize that there can be no hope of equality for us in a Jewish state unless we advance our own national rights, strengthen our national identity, and create and develop our own national institutions. This is a vital way of modernizing our society and confronting traditional tribal and sectarian divisions that Israel is keen to exploit through its policy of “divide and rule”.
Some of us in the party were skeptical from the start both about the Oslo process – I personally never gave up on one democratic state and so preferred not to run for the Knesset myself – and about it being possible to reform the Jewish state. We assumed it would never sanction such a challenge. But for those members, including myself, the goal of the struggle itself was to clarify these matters, forcing the state of Israel to reveal its true nature through its need to retaliate against our legitimate and democratic demands.
Our party’s first leader, Azmi Bishara, for example, used his position in the Knesset to transform what was a predominantly Zionist chamber into an arena of ideological confrontation. It was through his being in the Knesset that he was able to expose the inner contradictions of the Jewish state as a source of the structural discrimination against Palestinians in Israel.
But now with the irrelevance of the two-state solution, we as Palestinians in Israel have to rethink our approach. We have to respond.
As long as our struggle is within the context of a Jewish state, we must advance a national rights discourse to preserve our identity from the threat of Israelization. But in parallel we need to start articulating and developing a role in the Palestinian national movement, as part of a new Palestinian response to the Israeli policies of apartheid all Palestinians face.
Our duty now is to take as our starting-point the universality of the struggle by Palestinians – in Israel, in the occupied territories, in exile – against Zionist colonialism. The correct response to our shared situation is a struggle for a one-state solution. This is based on an understanding that an end to Israel’s colonization of the occupied territories will not transform Israel into a normal state that can treat its non-Jewish citizens equally.
So what is the most effective role Palestinian citizens can play in Israeli politics, assuming that a Jewish state will always exclude them from the centers of power?
Our traditional strength derived from the fact that we, as a community, survived the ethnic cleansing of 1948 [the Nakba]. We remained in our homeland, even as it was transformed into a Jewish state.
But today, our strength derives from something different: we pose the biggest challenge to Israel’s claim to be a democracy. Our political dissent finds expression not through armed resistance or violence but through non-violent struggle and modern political thinking. This both constrains the Israeli establishment in the reaction it prefers, which is violence, and strips Israel of its pretence of being a democracy. Israel struggles to justify its repressive policies against a “peaceful minority”; when it tries to do so, its anti-democratic agenda is revealed to the world.
Israel desperately wants to transform our strengths into weaknesses, and use them as an alibi to further marginalize us. At a minimum it wants to strip us of what is left of our lands and the rights we have as citizens; others, such as the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, openly advocate our forced transfer.
Look at Israel’s discourse about us: we pose a “demographic threat” to the ruling Jewish majority by having too many babies; our rising political consciousness, translated into the Visionary Documents [demanding wholesale political reform], threatens to destroy the Jewish state by reinventing it as a state for all its citizens; our efforts to renew contacts with the Arab world are seen as cover for a secret goal of forging ties with the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements; and so on.
The challenge for us is to reverse this discourse and shine a light back on Israel so that its colonialist and racist agenda is apparent to outsiders.
Given that there is an Israeli election rapidly approaching, what is the best strategy for the Palestinian parties, including the NDA, to adopt?
Well, just as unity is needed among the Palestinian leadership in the occupied territories, we need the same here. We ought to be putting our energy into creating a joint list for the coming elections. Two of the three major Palestinian parties that contest elections, the NDA and the United Arab List [comprising Islamic and socially conservative factions] want to create such a list.
Even some among the Communists are moving in this direction, such as MK Hanna Swaid and [Nazareth mayor] Ramez Jeraisi. But others leaders of the party are adamantly opposed, worried that it would lose them what little Jewish support they still enjoy. The Communists’ objections should be identified as the sole obstacle to the establishment of a joint list.
There are, of course, parties that reject outright the legitimacy of standing in the national elections, especially the northern Islamic Movement [led by Sheikh Raed Salah] and my former party, the Sons of the Village [Abnaa al-Balad, a small Marxist party that has long been identified with George Habash’s PFLP]. The Sons of the Village, which was founded at the end of the 1960s and whose members have been subjected to constant harassment ever since, was one of the initiators of the NDA.
We are currently at a crossroad. There is a very serious debate, one that we regularly host in the NDA, about whether Palestinian parties should continue standing in national elections. On the one hand, running does confer a degree of legitimacy on a political system that is designed to exclude us. But on the other, the Knesset provides a platform for publicly contesting the state’s Jewish character and it makes our case visible to the international community.
My feeling is that by using the Knesset properly, as an arena of ideological confrontation, as Azmi Bishara did and our current Knesset members do, Israel will be forced to respond according to the logic of a Jewish state: by banning us. In the run-up to this election, senior members of the ruling coalition have already submitted applications to the Central Elections Committee for the disqualification of the party and two of our MKs, Haneen Zoubi and Jamal Zahalka.
My own experiences typify those of our membership. Over the past 30 years of my political activity, I have been routinely persecuted by the security services, with a series of arrests, interrogations, administrative orders, and delays and harassment at the airport.
The CEC will undoubtedly disqualify us, as it has done before. Then the issue is whether we fight our disqualification in the Supreme Court, which in the past has overruled the CEC, even if narrowly, or accept the disqualification and call for a boycott. In my view, we should adopt the second position. There is something unseemly about constantly turning to the Supreme Court to be allowed to stand. We are forced to appear as the “defendants”, seeking to justify our right to be allowed to use democratic tools. But we should be on the offensive, against Israel’s racism and colonialism.
Are there other ways to create unity among the Palestinian leadership in Israel?
A major channel would be the establishment of a directly elected and genuinely representative Higher Follow-Up Committee [the only national body for the Palestinian minority, dominated by village mayors and the political parties but nonetheless denied recognition by Israel]. It would be a Palestinian parliament inside Israel, giving us as a minority a significant national platform outside the Knesset.
At the moment the Follow-Up Committee is a weak and compromised body. In the past it played an important role in coordinating activities against the abusive policies of the state. But confronted by ever-greater hostility from officials, the Committee’s outdated structure has been unable to rise to the challenge. It has been unresponsive to the fundamental changes taking place among Palestinians in Israel. This is why we have been lobbying to reform and rebuild the Committee.
Elections for an independent assembly would provide an opportunity for Palestinians in Israel to hold their leaders to greater account, and that way encourage them to become more united and more effective. A reformed Committee is vital if we are to have a representative leadership capable of speaking with authority to other Palestinians and helping to develop the Palestinian national movement.
There seems to be a strong tension on these key issues between the NDA and the Communists. Can you explain why both sides appear unable to set aside their differences?
The Communist Party in Israel offers a very distorted interpretation of Marxism and internationalism. In fact, it has always adhered to Jewish nationalism. Every time an Arab nationalist party emerged – whether the al-Ard movement, the Sons of the Village, or our own NDA party – the Communists fought it, arguing that it was undermining the internationalist movement. But in practice they betrayed that movement. Look at Dov Chenin [the sole Jewish legislator in the parliament for Hadash]. He is unapologetic about supporting the Jewish character of the state. He sees no problem with that.
The NDA is a new leftist party. Our focus on nationalism derives from the peculiar political environment in which we find ourselves in Israel. We face oppression in a Jewish state not because we belong to the working class but because of our national identity. We are discriminated against because we are Palestinians. Upper-class and working-class Jews in Israel may be divided by their economic circumstances but they are still united politically in the project to steal our lands, and keep their privileges as Jews. Therefore to engage in an effective political struggle, we must revive and strengthen our national identity at the same time as fostering Jewish-Arab cooperation.
The Communists have to resolve this problem. They decided to sacrifice the national struggle to keep a few thousand Jewish votes so that they could continue to claim the party was a joint Jewish-Arab party. But things are changing, especially among the younger generation of Communists, who have been affected by our national-democratic discourse. This is worrying the party leaders.
The Palestinians in Israel have often been overlooked or, worse, distrusted by the Palestinian national movement? Are there signs of a change on that front?
Yes, though things have been changing for some time. Don’t forget that our first major uprising dates back to 1976, when the Palestinians in Israel staged a peaceful general strike. It was quelled by force, with six Palestinian citizens killed and hundreds of others wounded. Palestinians everywhere commemorate those events each year as Land Day.
And then in October 2000, at the start of the second intifada, Palestinians citizens forced themselves powerfully to the center of the conflict. Our community remained non-violent but we staged mass protests fuelled by outrage at Israel’s brutal suppression of our kin in the occupied territories. The demonstrations became violent only when the Israeli security forces were ordered to use live ammunition to suppress them. Thirteen of our number were killed in a few days and hundreds seriously wounded.
This uprising was the longest and most inclusive the Palestinian minority had ever gone through. But importantly it also showed Palestinians outside that we felt a powerful connection to their struggle for justice.
In the 12 years since then, Israel’s escalating oppression has eroded the distinction between our situation and that of our kin in the occupied territories. The feeling is growing that our fates are bound together.
In my view, one of the main obstacles preventing the Palestinian minority from moving towards coordinating action with the Palestinian national movement against Israel’s apartheid, colonialist regime is the grave impotence of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is running the occupation on Israel’s behalf. It has shown that it lacks the will and courage to take bold and innovative steps to extricate the national movement from this acute impasse.
Of course, the unique situation of the Palestinians in Israel, given that we are legally part of the state of Israel, necessitates careful handling of the challenges we face. But the complexity of our situation in the conflict should not deter us from rethinking our role and preparing to make a greater contribution to the general Palestinian struggle if and when the Palestinian national movement embraces the one-state solution.
So explain why the one-state debate has been slow to gain traction among the Palestinian parties in Israel?
Well, think about the problems our party, the most innovative on this issue, has faced. As founders of the NDA, we resorted to allusion rather than to clarity on this point for three reasons.
First, there were divisions within the party. Some of us had arrived as supporters of a one-state solution, while others were swept up in the euphoria at that time surrounding the two-state solution.
Second, we wanted to stay within the Palestinian national consensus, which after Oslo regarded a proposed solution as applying to the 1967 occupied territories only.
And third, as long as we chose to participate in Knesset elections, we were required to commit ourselves to the Parties Registration Law, which made and continues to make support for a one-state solution extremely difficult, if not illegal.
But the debate has started to gain momentum because the reality gets clearer every day. Those interested in the conflict can no longer ignore the fact that Israel’s so-called temporary occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has proved to be permanent.
Ironically, this grim reality was given cover by Oslo, the very process that was supposed to terminate Israel’s colonialism. The key premise of the Communist Party in Israel – that a reconciliation between the PLO and Israel would lead to equality for Palestinian citizens – had shown itself to be wishful thinking. The eruption of the second Intifada was an expression on a mass-scale of the frustration of Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territories with the Oslo process.
Also, Palestinians in Israel have hundreds of thousands of relatives living in exile as refugees. They have a profound stake in a just solution not only for themselves but also for the wider Palestinian people.
Israel’s racist practices, coupled with its two bloody wars against Lebanon and besieged Gaza in 2006 and 2008, have led many observers, academics and political activists around the world to redefine Israel as a colonialist-apartheid regime. Because all Palestinians, including those living in Israel, are subject to a unitary system of oppression, we need a unitary form of redress. Racism, apartheid and colonialism are illegitimate and therefore need to be dismantled.
Where do you think the struggle of Palestinians must head next?
The first challenge is to break the imbalance of forces created by the “peace process”, which has left deep flaws and distortions in the consciousness of many in the Palestinian elites. They came to be one of benefactors of the peace industry, and therefore had an investment in accepting the de facto division and fragmentation of the Palestinian people. Palestinians must rediscover the values of national liberation and the spirit of anti-colonial resistance that the national movement championed for decades.
The Palestinians in Israel too were victims of the Oslo accords and its assumption that Israel would remain a racist Jewish state. They were excluded by all parties – Israeli, international and Palestinian. Only recently can we see people returning to reconsider the roots of the conflict.
The NDA party, which opposed Oslo from the beginning, has been leading the struggle against the root of the problem: the ideology of Zionism. Our political struggle was expressed through the slogan “a state for all its citizens”.
With an understanding of the inner contradictions of Zionism, Palestinians can struggle more effectively for a single-state democracy. Unlike the Palestinian national movement in the 1967 occupied territories, where horizontal and vertical divisions have dominated, Palestinians in Israel are in better shape, both politically and organizationally.
Despite ideological and political differences, the political parties here meet and agree on many crucial and tactical issues. But, given that we have been subjected to a heightened campaign of incitement, threats of expulsion and an economic suffocation that means more than half of us live under the poverty line, the minority needs real support and attention from solidarity movements if we are to contribute more effectively. More and more observers and academics warn too that the Palestinian minority is close to an explosion.
The NDA believes that Palestinians in Israel must reorganize themselves on a national basis, and elect their professional and educational institutions. This is a pre-condition for engaging more powerfully in the struggle against colonization and apartheid, and for justice.
It is worth noting that scores of Israeli anti-Zionist intellectuals have recently come up strongly in favor of one democratic state. Though they are on the margins of the margins of Israeli society, they add a vital moral dimension to the struggle for justice. They are integral to a united movement for a truly democratic solution, which ensures the emancipation of the Palestinians from this most dangerous form of colonialism. Israeli Jews will only be able to live in safety when they accept that they are part of the region and not of the West.