June 10th marked the 50th year since the end of the Six-Day War, and the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the Golan Heights. Fifty years later, with no end to the occupation in sight, it is time for allies around the world to reconsider their approach towards reaching a permanent, sustainable, and just solution in historic Palestine.
Some of us still hope for a Palestinian state to be established based on the 1967 borders. Many of us are not so hopeful. A majority of activists that I have worked with are by now understandably frustrated, not pursuing any direct objectives other than boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel. As calls for a one-state solution intensify, and as the BDS movement grows and gains legitimacy, the Left ought to formulate a more practical plan for supporting the Palestinian struggle. This plan must start an international collaboration to support Palestinian citizens of Israel in their ongoing civil rights struggle.
Whether we support Palestinians’ national aspirations within the ‘67 borders or not, the arguments presented by supporters of the one-state, civil-rights approach are made compelling by the grim reality on the ground. Half a million Israeli settlers, many at the very heart of the West Bank, a hostile international diplomatic atmosphere, and an ever-intensifying right wing in Israel do indeed make the two-state solution seem unattainable. At the same time, it often seems that leftists, and even BDS activists, do not buy the story they are out to sell – that a post-nationalist, post-Zionist, one-state solution is possible in Israel/Palestine. Indeed, the one-state solution is also portrayed as an unrealistic fantasy rather than a concrete proposal.
This does not have to be the case. Not only is the one-state solution possible, it has likely become much more practical than the two-state solution. A nuanced analysis of the actors involved reveals that a civil-rights based approach towards bringing peace and justice to Israel/Palestine is possible and, in fact, promising, partially due to the nascent Palestinian minority within Israel: an experienced, extremely marginalized minority that has by now matured politically, ready to confront the state in a future campaign of civil disobedience.
Israel’s Palestinian minority – 20% of Israel’s inhabitants – has developed its own modus operandi within Israel in parallel with the occupied and diasporic community. They never took up arms against Israel, focusing instead on a civil rights struggle by legal and political means. Ilan Pappe, a leading post-Zionist historian, summarizes this strategy succinctly in his book The Forgotten Palestinians: first, a total support for the official PLO position that demanded the creation of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel; second, a demand for equal civic and human rights for the Palestinian community in Israel; and, finally, a decision to employ only tactics that were possible within the Israeli legal system.
This strategy was borne out of necessity. On the eve of the 1948 war, the Palestinian Nakba, those that found themselves within Israel’s borders – 160,000 in total – were widely regarded among Israel’s political and military elites as unfinished business: a ‘fifth column’, rather than partners. Soon after ‘48, Israel passed the “Absentee Property Law”, expropriating all land and property left behind by 750,000 Palestinian refugees, as well as internally displaced persons. This property was either sold to Jewish citizens or given to newly arriving Jewish migrants. A military regime that lasted 19 years was forced upon all remaining Palestinian towns and villages – not different from today’s military regime in the Occupied Territories and, in fact, entrenched in the same legal framework of British Mandatory “Emergency Regulations”.
The Palestinians’ main allies, especially during the military regime, were Jewish communists. Their main stage for political activism, and the only safe haven for expressing their national identity (the symbols of which were outlawed), was the Israeli Communist Party. In fact, the only places within Israel where the Palestinian flag was allowed were the meetings and events held by the Party. Under the banner of internationalism, Palestinians could both advance a national agenda and work towards full civil rights and against Zionism. Anecdotally, after ‘67, the Party was only tolerated by the Zionist establishment in its role as a Soviet embassy of sorts, since the USSR cut formal diplomatic relations with Israel following the Six-Day War.
Having been alienated and disenfranchised in their own homeland, and having realized that their very existence in Israel is precarious at best, the Palestinian minority decided to play by the book, curbing national aspirations for the sake of a civil and human rights struggle by the means afforded to them through the Israeli legal system. Granted, their victories were limited, but they should not be overlooked. The Palestinian minority mobilized immediately using the means at their disposal against the military regime, the massive wave of land expropriation, and confiscation of property. At the same time, especially in recent years, the Palestinian-Israeli leadership turned to exploiting every existing loophole in Israel’s legal system to protect their community.
Nowadays, the justified frustration with the traditional “peace process” leads many to abandon the idea of “two states for two peoples” in favor of a civil rights approach: a post-Zionist “state of all citizens”. Yet the way towards a one-state solution is never clearly articulated. Under whose leadership? Or will it purely be a popular, grassroots effort? In outlining the path towards a one-state solution there is much to be learned from the struggle of the Palestinian-Israeli minority, as they have always spoken the language civil rights; of the one-state solution.
Palestinians in Israel were first to recognize the inherent contradiction between Zionism and the full emancipation of non-Jews under Israel’s control. The near unanimity in international support for the two-state solution allowed Israeli “peaceniks” to be fully in favor of a Palestinian state, and identify as leftists or left-leaning, without ever questioning the ethnocratic nature of Israel or abandoning Zionism. In a way, the collapse of the peace process let the cat out of the bag: there is virtually no one among the Jewish-Israeli opposition that dares question the state’s ethnocratic nature.
The frustration of Palestine activists worldwide is easy to understand. First, the Israeli “peace camp” seems to have withered away (not to mention proving itself an unreliable partner). On the other side, it is now evident that the traditional Palestinian leadership has completely crumbled. The PLO seems increasingly obsolete and unpopular, acting as Israel’s security subcontractor in the West Bank more than anything else. The Gaza Strip is held by a fine thread, kept constantly on the brink of famine. Indeed, Israel has perfected the art of occupation (no wonder population control is its main technological and military export).
Some find hope with the BDS movement, hoping that external pressure will force Israel to make concessions. Many fail to recognize, however, that a BDS movement, especially if it were modeled after the struggle against South African apartheid, must be accompanied by civil disobedience at home. With this in mind, many recognize the potential of Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader currently serving five life-sentences in Israel. Indeed, Barghouti has on several occasions expressed an interest in launching a popular, nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience against the state.
The trouble is, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories do not have the means to truly disrupt the Israeli economy nonviolently, as required from such a campaign. They are too isolated. This is where the nascent Palestinian population in Israel comes in. First, unlike Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Palestinians in Israel are an important component in the Israeli economy, all of them participating in one way or another. Second, they have access to Israel’s political and legal infrastructure, and 69 years of experience navigating it. Third, despite the state’s best efforts, they are in one way or another integrated into Israel’s social fabric. While many Jews do not know any Palestinians, all Palestinians living in Israel have Jewish-Israeli colleagues.
In a way, the Palestinian-Israeli minority is our last chance. Whether we envision a one- or two-state solution in Israel, there is an enormous untapped potential in this political and social minority. It we are to end the settler-colonial mentality, and move towards a post-Zionist reality in historic Palestine, the Palestinian citizens of Israel might be our last chance and our best shot. We must pay more attention to them, and give them the back wind they need to expand their efforts from within Israel.
A new generation of Palestinians is coming into the fore, both in Israel and Palestine. While the Palestinian minority in Israel enjoys some limited privileges compared to those living under the daily brutality of occupation, they are also painfully aware of their second-class nature, and the complete disregard for their educational, civil and economic needs. Our best tactic in supporting the Palestinian cause is to put our weight behind this Palestinian minority, its NGOs and its political representatives. The Palestinian struggle, which started in the refugee camps and continued through the Occupied Territories, will come to its conclusion in Israel.