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The Forgotten Palestinians

Tel Aviv.

On May 15, the New York Times ran an editorial authored by Aaron David Miller under the title of “Preserving Israel’s Uncertain Status Quo.” Miller argues that the Israeli government’s attempts to achieve a “more peaceful and prosperous future” must “count for something.”

In his discursive analysis of the contemporary political climate, Miller unfolds an unabridged list of threats to Israel: the Israeli social justice movement, the Syrian uprising, the Egyptian ousting of Hosni Mubarak, Iran, the security vacuum in the Sinai, ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis, and ‘Arab Israelis’ (which is, of course, a crass euphemism intended to disavow the collective identity of Palestinian citizens of Israel).

Cataloging this exhaustive account of dangers, he resorts to a number of boorish clichés and Western media assumptions. Indeed, despite Israel’s malicious enemies, he argues, “the Israelis will prosper and keep their state, but the Arabs and the Iranians will never let them fully enjoy it.”

Miller’s portrait of Israel as a struggling democratic state perpetually warding off external threats falls perfectly in tune with corporate media trends. In this campaign, the NYT has acted as conductor to the chorus, pumping out daily publications that seek to normalize the idea of a preemptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, constructing a widespread image of the Gaza Strip as a nest of 1.5 million terrorists foaming at the mouth, and framing the quest for representative government embodied in the Arab uprisings of the last year and a half as an existential threat to the Jewish character of the state.

Miller strengthens these tired stereotypes, while failing to acknowledge genuine threats to the prospect of peace: the bellicose Netanyahu coalition and its poisonous relationship with the most chauvinist elements of right-wing Israel; the state security apparatus’s attacks on J14 demonstrators in Tel Aviv; the extreme push for privatization in traditionally state-regulated sectors of the economy; the increased theft of private Palestinian land; the continued expansion of the separation wall, creating small Bantustan-like pockets; and the government’s explicit endorsement of increasingly violent West Bank settlers.

A particularly toxic form of chauvinism is embedded in the notion that 1948 Palestinians, those living inside the Green Line and carrying Israeli citizenship, are a genuine threat to the state’s existence. This frame of mind, which led Miller to conclude that there are “too many Israeli Arabs,” suggests that Palestinian citizens of Israel are a fifth column who could “undermine Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state.”

Israel’s exclusively Jewish tagline, however, is largely paid for at the expense of its largest national minority, these “forgotten Palestinians,” as Ilan Pappe rightly put it. This is precisely why Israel has never been an authentically democratic state.

Miller ostensibly adopts an image of Israel that the corporate media establishment, not least of which the NYT, has carefully cultivated for years: Israel is a cringing country teetering on the uneasy brink of annihilation, fighting to preserve both its democratic institutions and its very existence.

Putting aside all questions of the military occupation of the West Bank and the continued siege of the Gaza Strip, Israel’s treatment of its own Palestinian citizens—Israeli citizens!—is enough to cast serious doubt on its democratic credibility.

From its very inception, Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens has been characterized by inequality, segregation, and discrimination.

For the first 18 years that followed the establishment of the state, its Palestinian citizens lived under a form of martial law remarkably similar to the present day military occupation of the West Bank. In order to make the mere 26-kilometer journey from Haifa to Akko, for instance, it was necessary to apply for limited military permits. Most Arab villages were surrounded by barbed wire fencing, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) checkpoints regulated all human traffic.

And many of these villages were in fact internal refugee camps that continue to survive today. After the 1948 war, over 25,000 Palestinians became internal refugees, living in shantytowns within the borders of Israel but unable to return to their villages of origin (most of which were appropriated to Jewish settlement). Judeideh and Al-Maker, to name just two villages, began as temporary camps for refugees of villages such as Al-Birweh, which were ethnically cleansed by Jewish militias in the 1948 fighting.

In 1953, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was appalled by the high concentration of Palestinians still residing in the Galilee. A Jewish settlement plan, which permitted the mass confiscation of privately-owned Palestinian land, was constructed with the sole intention of “Judaizing” the Galilee.

This policy—the state’s ethnic cleansing of its own citizenry—was extended well into the 1970s, and ultimately led to the disaster known as Land Day. Until this day, the sale of land to Palestinian citizens is largely limited by the state and quasi-governmental organizations, such as the Jewish National Fund.

Israel’s present day system of inequality and segregation is protean in form, sometimes blatant, yet often subtle. One of the most pressing barriers faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel is the fact that many companies are encouraged not to hire employees who did not serve in the military. Defenders of this practice argue that it aims to encourage national service, while in practice it simply limits the number of opportunities for Arabs.

Palestinian villages of Israel struggle to expand their land under the stress over a booming birthrate, but are rarely granted the proper permissions. Abu Toameh, a student activist at Tel Aviv University, echoed similar themes while explaining that he did not feel represented by the Israeli J14 movement.

“Arab conditions are simply not the same here. Due to class differences, our problems are much different than the Jewish population,” he began. “We have trouble expanding our crowded villages or purchasing commercial land. The price of apartments in Tel Aviv, which has an extremely low Arab population, doesn’t address our immediate concerns.”

And for those Palestinians who have decided to join the struggle, the consequences, as always, have been infinitely worse than their Jewish counterparts. In June, Israel’s Channel 10 reported that Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino issued orders to police intelligence to carefully document the “involvement of the Arab community in the protests.”

Recent parliamentary efforts also seek to limit free speech to those who are willing to accept the bounds imposed by the state. Last year, the Knesset passed the Nakba Law, which severely limited free expression by threatening to cancel funding to organs of civil society, state-funded or tax-exempt, that recognized Israel’s Independence Day as one of mourning.

In defiance of this absurdly undemocratic legislation, student activists of Tel Aviv University commemorated destroyed Palestinian villages in a campus event that took place in May. A mosaic crowd of progressive and left-wing students—both Jews and Arabs—listened to activists announce the names of over 600 destroyed villages, recite the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, and deliver speeches about the urgent need for reconciliation, equality, and social justice.

“Listen, we are not asking Jews to leave–why do they keep saying that? There are Jews demonstrating here with us,” one of the organizers of the commemoration told me. “We want to recognize the loss of our villages, the destruction of our history, and the displacement of our families. We want a secular, democratic state for everyone, for all of its citizens–Jews, Christians, Muslims.”

Aaron David Miller suggests that these people, who are conducting a struggle for nothing less than equality, are an existential threat to the fragile democracy that is Israel. It would be far more accurate to argue that Israel will not be a democracy until its minorities–including these forgotten Palestinians–reclaim their inherent rights as indigenous inhabitants of the country.

Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance writer living and traveling on both sides of the Green Line in Israel and the Palestinian territories. He is a weekly Israel-Palestine correspondent for Bikya Masr and writes regular dispatches on his blog, www.patrickostrickland.com. He is a graduate student of Middle Eastern Studies.

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