As a concept, one democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea where all who live there are equals under a single government is not particularly new. The idea has had many configurations and prolific supporters, yet it has never mainstreamed beyond activist circles.
That’s where Awad Abdelfattah comes in. He is the former secretary-general of the Balad Party, a political faction in Israel representing Palestinian citizens. Over the last few months Abdelfattah has become one of the more visible organizers of the One Democratic State Campaign, a movement of Israelis and Palestinians that offers a alternative to the two-state solution.
Abdelfattah sat with French journalist François Lazar and discussed how the campaign was created, the daunting task of building a consensus around one state and why the time is ripe for a one state movement. He also spoke of his impressions of the Great March of Return in Gaza, now almost in its sixth month, and the recently passed Nation State Law.
François Lazar: Can you introduce yourself?
Awad Abdelfattah: I am a Palestinian living the vicinity of Haifa, in the Palestinian areas occupied by the Zionist movement in 1948. I am a son of a family that survived the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing which the Zionist movement curried out 70 years ago. Until recently, year 2016, I had served as secretary-general of the National Democratic Assembly Party, which is represented in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, by three members. I had worked as a journalist for an English language Palestinian newspaper for 10 years, before I became the party’s secretary general, in 1997. Until that time I had been active in Abnaa al-Balad (a small Marxist nationalist movement), which has advocated for a one democratic state in all of Palestine. The Abnaa al-Balad was co-founder of the National Democratic Assembly party (NDA)
The National Democratic Assembly party, known in Israeli media as the Balad Party, which was established in 1995, has been most targeted and persecuted by the Israeli apartheid regime.
The NDA has been advocating for full equality, collective and individual rights, the right of the Palestinian refugees to return, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with Jerusalem its capital. Socially and economically it endorses social justice and redistribution of wealth.
Our party calls openly for the abolition of the Jewish character of the state of Israel as a precondition for the realization of full equality for the Palestinian citizens. The Zionist regime has related to this demand as a tacit attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel, and this is what explains the apartheid relentless incitement and persecution campaign against the party and its leaders. The latest round of persecution occurred late 2016, when 39 leaders and cadres including me, were rounded up by the police, after midnight. I was kept in detention for 11 days.
In recent years our party has been debating of coming openly in support of the one democratic option. Most of its young members support the idea.
FL: How do you view the Great March of Return?
AA: I think it’s one of the most important initiatives we have ever seen in this large open air prison. It is important not only for the people of Gaza but for all the Palestinians and their just struggle, and for the Palestinian cause. The slogan which the marchers raised, namely to return to their original villages inside Israel proper, and the peaceful means which has characterized this mass and popular mobilization, have surprised the leaders of the Israeli colonial apartheid regime, and placed them at a difficult situation. This is, first, because it has reminded the world of the the most essential aspect of the Palestinian issue, which is the right of return, and that 70 percent of the population in Gaza Strip are refugees. And second, because it is unacceptable internationally and according to Israeli law to use live ammunition against peaceful protesters, and consequently this type of resistance has largely neutralized Israel’s formidable military might. The horrifying and brutal executions curried out by Israeli snipers, have lost Israel, once again, its pretended image of being a distinct state from other despotic regimes in the region. Also, it forced Israel later to use less lethal force to quell this popular resistance.
FL: What about the motivation and objectives of the March?
AA: The idea of the refugees marching to the apartheid fence which is strangulating Gaza Strip has long been entertained by young Palestinian activists. It started out as a dream, as Ahmed Abu Artema one of the leading young organizers of the march, wrote, and has now become a reality. The motivation behind it, is to highlight the issue of the refugees, which the Trump administration has been trying to submerge in his plan’s framework that took on liquidating the Palestinian cause in his first aggressive step of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Besides that, one of its objectives is to bring in world attention to the escalating human suffering of the besieged Palestinians, and to the urgent need to address this suffering. No less important is the desire to help bring Palestinian national unity around an issue which has a consensus, given the ongoing catastrophic national division.
FL: Why the reaction to the Return March has been stronger by Palestinians within 1948, Israel proper than in the West Bank?
AA: This is one of the tragic consequences of Oslo Agreement, which has fragmented the Palestinian issue, in terms of geography, demography, politics, and priorities, and has weakened the willingness of those Palestinians living in the West Bank to struggle against the Zionist apartheid colonial regime. The Palestinian authority (PA) has been turned into integral to the Israeli system of control and oppression in the West Bank, losing the support of most of the Palestinians. This role and the arch rivalry with Hamas which rules in Gaza, are behind the abstention of the PA to get involved in a planned wide mobilization in solidarity with Gaza. Those limited demonstrations which have taken place in different localities in the West Bank were initiated by independent activists of the PA which would employ force if dissent became massive.
As for the reaction by the Palestinians within 1948 [Israel proper], indeed was stronger, but it was not a massive one. The four important demonstrations that took place within three weeks, and took on a confrontational style, in the coastal city Of Haifa, were organized by young Palestinian activists with the direct involvement of our party’s young activists and leaders and those of Abnaa al-Balad movement. This reaction has, for the time being failed to turn into a wide popular mobilization, for different reasons, among them was the brutal attack of the police on them. However, the ongoing and escalating Israeli oppression, and colonization, could lead to a popular explosion everywhere, at anytime. The Jewish state law, passed recently by the Israeli parliament has only added fuel to the volatile situation, and new reasons for a possible larger dissent especially among the Palestinian citizens in Israel.
FL: What are the prospects of the March, and the challenges standing before it?
AA: The march has opened a new horizon for grassroots popular struggle especially in a zone which has not seen such type of struggle since it was placed under blockade. It has been thought, due to this blockade, that no room left for average man and woman to partake in the Palestinian struggle, and that it was only military resistance that can confront Israeli continued brutal military ones. The resistance to Israeli military aggression has been confined to those well-trained militarily, while the rest of the people, the majority, were sitting idle, and mainly offering moral support .
It’s premature to predict the fate of this march, and whether it can sustain and outreach to all the Palestinians, outside Gaza Strip, and subsequently create a broad national front to get involved in a well-planned and lengthy struggle. So far it has made major achievements first in terms of the media image portraying Israel as brutal occupier and aggressor, and confirming the victimhood of the Palestinians .
Second, the mobilization of the entire people in Gaza in this popular struggle. Third which is no less important, is that it has galvanized the national consciousness of greater sections of the young generation inside Gaza, and probably beyond this area, around the right of return.
But still huge challenges facing this remarkable initiative. First those, represented in the seemingly determination by the apartheid regime not to succumb to any of the Palestinian demands at least in terms of the easing the siege without conditions, the indifference, and the collaboration with Israel by Arab regimes, and the sanctions imposed by the Ramallah based PA [Palestinian Authority]. And the marginalization of the young organizers (in planning and leading the march activities), who had innovated the idea of the march, by Hamas movement and other factions. The Israeli colonizers have been trying to sell out to the Israeli public and to the international community that the whole thing is planned and led by Hamas, which “aims to destroy the state of Israel.”
The young activists and independents, have held that it is better that the young and civilians be at the forefront rather than Hamas and other military factions’ leaders, who are supposed to be part of the march and not the leaders.
FL: What do you think the Jewish Nation State Law means for Palestinians in Israel and Palestinians in general, and what impact will it have on them, and on their struggle as one people?
AA: This law only institutionalized the racist and colonial policies and administrative repressive measures that have been employed by the state of Israel since 1948. So the law doesn’t only reflect the position and the ideology of the rising extreme right and the religious national forces in Israel, but echoes the already bleak reality, and the nature of the Zionist regime. This is why more than 40 members of Knesset out of 120, voted against it. They thought there was no need for this law because all these repressive and discriminatory and judaization policies have been pursued by the state all the time without causing international uproar. Those, who call themselves liberal zionists, had warned that this would bring world wild criticism, and tarnish the Jewish state image. And indeed this is what is happening. The law now institutionalizes the inferiority of the 1.5 million Palestinians who are citizens of the state of Israel, and almost makes it impossible for them to challenge this in Israeli courts. The law also, ends the illusion of the two state solution, as it makes all of Palestine exclusive Jewish land, and thus denies their right to self-determination.
Many Palestinians including me, view the passage of this law as good opportunity to finally expose the real face of Israel, as a colonial Apartheid regime. It provides a chance for the Palestinian leadership to give up the illusions of reaching peace through concessions, and help upgrade and unify the national Palestinian struggle. Further, it will facilitate the campaign of boycott.
FL: You speak about 40 Knesset members, but this number doesn’t include Arab members. Can you specify?
AA: Fifty-five members of Knesset voted against, including the 13 members of the Arab joint list, beside two Arab MK who are members of Zionist parties. I want to clarify that the 40 Zionist MKs voted against the law not because they are against the Jewish character of the state, or the settler-colonial project, but because the law constitutionalizes the already existing apartheid, making it difficult to defend in international circles.
FL: We hear Palestinian voices calling for a boycott of the Knesset…
AA: As for the boycott, there is no organized movement of boycotting the Knesset. But the voices calling for boycott are growing. I my self, have declared that it’s time to boycott this racist and colonial parliament. Things could change at any time.
FL: You and other Palestinians and anti-Zionist and progressive Israelis have started organizing around the option of one democratic state, in Palestine. Could you tell us about the initiative, why it’s now?
AA: The idea of a one democratic state in historic Palestine is not a new idea. It’s an old one. Also this is not the first attempt to organize and build a framework to promote an egalitarian political entity as an alternative to the excising Israeli brutal colonial apartheid regime. The Palestinian national movement, and the then predominantly communist national liberation league, had advocated an equal unitary state, before the Nakba of 1948. Even before that there was the Jewish Brit Shalom, led by Yehuda Magness and other Jewish intellectuals, who called for a binational state, and argued against a Jewish state in Palestine.
In the last decade, especially after the crushing of the second intifada, and the failure of the two state option, the idea of a one state has re-emerged again, in the form of an academic and intellectual debate, and followed by attempts by former political, young and old, activists and leaders to build popular movements. The debate has expanded, and started to penetrate into the society, but none of the movements that were launched have turned into effective and popular ones. Their membership has remained very small.
Given this background, and out of our principled belief in one state, we have thought it’s time to launch an initiative to unite all those who endorse this noble idea. After internal debate we concluded that we better start with a campaign rather than a movement, willing to be inclusive and pluralistic. By this approach, we believe other groups and individuals can join and contribute to the project, thus maintaining democratic way of work.
In less than one year, we have produced a political platform, and built large preparatory committee, consisting of more about 120 Palestinian and Jewish activists, academics, writers, media professionals, young and old. Specialized committees have been built, preparing for an official launch in October, in Haifa. We are still in the process of the foundation and there is a long walk ahead of us.
FL: What about the Israeli-Jewish society, how much acceptance is there to this idea?
AA: Today Israel is led by the most extreme rightist forces, and consequently the Israeli society is brainwashed and influenced by the anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian policies of the ruling coalition. The number of Jews who support the one democratic state is tiny. However, prominent Jewish academics, intellectuals and activists have come recently to advocate for the one state. But they are on the margin of the Israeli society. I believe their involvement in the initiative is very important, and adds to the moral credibility of the idea of living together equally on the same land. We have in the leadership prominent figures: Illan Pappe, a historian and activist, and author of many books about Palestine and Zionism, Jeff Halper sociologist and the head of the Israeli committee against the demolition of Palestinian houses in the West Bank and Jerusalem, Eitan Bronstein the founder of Zochrot, a society concerned with the right of refugees. There are scores of supporters.
We hold, from our reading of the current political situation, the moment is opportune to move with this idea. There is a need to present a new alternative vision to the illusion of a two-state option which has been killed by Israel, and followed the deadly blow that the populist U.S. President Trump dealt by moving the U.S. embassy to occupied Jerusalem. And, now following the passage of the Jewish Nation State Law, the initiative becomes more urgent.
FL: What are the positions from the Palestinian factions in the occupied Palestinian territory, and the Palestinian political parties inside Israel?
AA: Most parties and factions have not changed their positions on what they call the need to end the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade on Gaza Strip, and the achievement of a full sovereign Palestinian state. They hold that the two state paradigm still enjoys wide international endorsement. But I believe this reflects the deep crisis facing them, because the international community has done nothing to force Israel to accept it. This is reflected in the growing voices within their constituencies that raise the need to produce alternative politics and a discourse of hope.
No doubt this is one of the difficulties we face, but we believe that things are going to change soon. Israel’s colonialist and overt racism is leaving no other option before the Palestinian people and the world.
Through determination, organized work, campaigning, good planning, and cooperation with all progressive and democratic organizations, movements and individuals around the world, we can effect a change in the political consciousness. Growing signs of this change can be noted every where.
We view the Palestinian struggle, as part of that of the international grassroots forces striving against exploitation and imperialist wars, and an for an alternative and fair global order, that is to say a new political and social order based on real democracy, social justice, redistribution of wealth anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal.
This article was originally published in French by Informations Ouvrières in the July-August 2018 edition.