From 20 September until 10 October 2010 I travelled in Israel and occupied Palestine. Every evening I wrote down my impressions, reflections written during 20 days of immersion in the harsh, tragic, beautiful and sad reality of Israel and Palestine. 

In my last week I travelled intensively inside Israel, from centre to north to south and back again. I primarily focused on the discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel (the Palestinians who did not flee in 1948 or who were not forced to leave their land and houses). Especially now that the Israeli parliament would vote on a new law which would require new citizens to swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”, the rights of non-Jews in Israel will increasingly start to determine the political agenda. 

The question is whether or not the decades-long discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, which has been structural but rather implicit, will now officially be carved in stone. From what I’ve seen and heard, Israel is not a “Jewish and democratic state”, but rather a “Jewish Democratic State”. Meaning: a democracy only for its Jewish majority. This is evident from many things you can read below. Can Israel continue to claim it is a democracy if it continues to define itself as an exclusively Jewish State? 

NORTH ISRAEL

Saturday 2 October
Saw how Palestinian development is not only contained in the Occupied Territories, but also within Israel. Visited Harish, a mixed Jewish (80%) – Arab (20%) town and learned about the master plan of the Orthodox Israeli minister of housing: housing units for 150.000 Orthodox Jews will be built around the Arab neighbourhoods, taking land belonging to these neighbourhoods, containing their further development opportunities.

Drove through the area that today is still green and was told “everything you see around you will be built up. Harish will become a huge Orthodox city with an Arab enclave.” Jewish and Arab inhabitants joined forces in mobilizing against this master plan. Agbaria Afou (Member of Knesset): “This master plan is pure agitation and will worsen the situation for both Jews and Arabs in this region. The purpose of the housing minister is to artificially change the demographic balance, to break coexistence and to create friction and pressure on the Arab communities”

Visited Dar el-Hanoun, an Arab village in Israel next to the site where the modern city of Harish will be built for Orthodox Jews. Dar el-Hanoun has no paved roads and garbage is spread all over the place. I was wondering why they don’t receive any municipal services.

Drove further up north to Umm el-Fahem, an Arab city in Israel. Hundreds of houses alongside the road are built without permit and are slated for demolition. Existing spatial planning for these Arab towns and cities do not take into account the current housing needs of the population. People are thus forced to build outside of the existing spatial plan.

Attended the commemoration in Nazareth of 13 Arab-Israelis who were killed by Israeli security forces on 1 October 2010 during a demonstration in support of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. 10 years later, those responsible for the killings have still not been brought to trial. An indication of how Israel looks upon its Arab citizens who didn’t leave in 1948? Part of a collective that is perceived as a threat, instead of individuals with rights.

Speakers during the commemoration: “Where are 13 people killed in a democratic country and no one is found guilty? We, the Arab citizens of Israel, feel disrespected and discriminated against by the government. We demand equal rights and fair treatment as citizens. This is the struggle of Jews and Arabs who care about democracy in Israel.”

Drove to Jerusalem in the bus of Israeli peace activists, good and dedicated people who are concerned with democracy and equal rights for all. If only larger numbers of the Israeli public would share their concern and listen to their warnings: for the sake of democracy, instead of the Israeli state demanding ‘Zionist loyalty’ of its Arab citizens, it is the Israeli state who still, after 62 years, has to prove loyalty to its Arab citizens. 

ACRE

Monday 4 October
Travelled from Ramallah to Jerusalem to Haifa to Acre in 6 hours. Now in the ancient Old City of Acre, once a European Christian Crusader city, now a city in the Jewish State of Israel, but nowhere in Israel have I ever felt more in Palestine than here.

Wandered around the Old City, sat down talking to the sea while listening to Ana Moura, smoked waterpipe and drank tea, called home, stumbled upon an open air wedding party (the repetitive rhythms of the music still resonate) and had a hummus sandwich in a street bar.

Tuesday 5 October

Talked to a Palestinian lawyer and an Israeli expert about the process of unequal development in the Old City of Acre, and segregated planning in the rest of the city.

The Israel Land Administration owns almost all of the houses in the Old City. It took them from the Palestinians that left in 1948 and who were prohibited from returning. Palestinians living in the Old City today are in a very weak position. “High income” Jews started buying up houses and convincing “low income” Arabs to move out, offering them large sums of money. These Arabs then move to poor apartment neighborhoods that were built originally for Jewish immigrants in the 50’s in the new part of the city.

Just talked to another Israeli expert on the issue. My question: “Is the process of the original Arab inhabitants of the Old City moving out, a… process of natural gentrification (developing poor neighborhoods, attracting higher income people, pushing out lower income people) or is it a policy of making the Old City more Jewish?” 

She said: “Both processes are converging. The Old City of Acre is in fact in a very bad condition. It does need development and restoration. Surely some private investors have an aim of making it more Jewish. The question is whether the municipality is controlling that process to make sure development is done with the original local inhabitants, who are Arabs, or whether it is leaving it up to the free market process of gentrification. The latter would be irresponsible.”

“Leaving it up to the free market would increase tensions between Jews and Arabs, because it is a fact that Arabs are forced to move out because they are in a weaker economic position. In our national context, where there is still conflict, it is a government responsibility to prevent eruption of conflict and promote inclusive development with the local inhabitants and avoid them moving out.” 

“And of course, the fact that the Israel Land Administration owns most of the houses in the Old City is an element of the conflict. Why is that? Why don’t the local Arab inhabitants who live there for generations own their houses and why are they owned by the Israeli government?”

“But, in any case, if it is left to the free market, also rich Palestinians could come in and invest. This is not happening either. In the end the result is very sad: originally Arab cities like Jaffa and Acre are slowly but surely being emptied of their original Arab population who remained there after many others were pushed out in 1948.”

Went to an unrecognized Arab neighborhood in Acre from before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Today it is a slum, without basic services and spatial planning and with garbage all over the place. It is squeezed inbetween a railroad and new industrial zones. There was never any planning to integrate this neighborhood into the urban structure of Acre, while other new middle class residential areas were also built in a segregated way, for example one for Israeli army officials and their families.

This is a modern middle class “center parks style” area, not integrated into the urban structure of the city either, but rather separated from the surrounding poorer apartment blocks by a fence and a secured entrance. The Israeli expert: “The separation mindset in Israel is not only between Jews and Arabs, but also between classes.”

Attended a meeting of a group of Jewish and Arab citizens of Acre who want to promote equal development and coexistence. They started the group after ethnic tensions erupted in 2008, turning Acre into a scene of violence for 5 days. 

Arab citizen (journalist) of the group: “There is still a huge gap between Jews and Arabs in Acre and it is due to government and municipal discrimination against Arabs. As long as the authorities are not dealing with this gap, a new explosion is awaiting us. The atmosphere in Israel is getting worse for Arab citizens. Right wing minister of foreign affairs Lieberman is bargaining on our future. He is promoting hate against us, polarization and mutual fears.” 

Jewish citizen of the group: “Many Israelis still consider the Arab citizens of Israel who stayed in 1948 as a threat, an enemy. It has to change! We are in 2010 and the Arab citizens of Israel should be treated as full citizens of the state, not as a threat to be contained and controlled.” 

Other Jewish citizen of the group: “It is not government policy to discriminate. The policy is equal, the law is equal.”

Hard to see how they will agree on a common strategy if they can’t agree on the causes of the tensions…

Bought a postcard stating “FALAFEL: ISRAEL’S NATIONAL SNACK”. Falafel is of course an Arab dish. Confronted Palestinian customers in a falafel restaurant in Acre with this postcard. An old man: “They need to show their belonging to this lan…d, because their history as a country here is only 60 years, so they need to steal our history, culture and traditions to build historical legitimacy.” An employee in the restaurant (a bit insulted): “I don’t see the problem. What can we do?” The old man: “He does not want to see the problem. He does not know the situation from before 1948.”

HAIFA

Wednesday 6 October

Was in Haifa and learned more about past and present there. Haifa was always a “mixed city” from before 1948. Up to 1948, there were 75.000 Jews and 75.000 Arabs. During 1947-1948, the process of the creation of the state of Israel, 70.000 Arabs left and were subsequently barred from returning to their homes. The Old City of Haifa was completely demolished by Jewish militia, to make sure the refugees had nothing to return to. Today a few mosques and churches remain standing in-between office buildings, skyscrapers and apartment blocks. Now only 10% of the registered population in Haifa is Arab, but still the mayor exploits the image of Haifa as city of coexistence for over a hundred years, as if the Nakba (ethnic cleansing of Haifa in 1948) never happened. 

Learned from an Israeli expert (of Shatil, an Israeli organisation promoting democracy and equality in Israel) why tensions between Jews and Arabs are less outspoken in Haifa. Recently a Palestinian urbanised middle class developed, who “conform easier to the system”, making them being perceived as less of a threat by the Jews. And the Arabs who are today in Haifa are not the original inhabitants, because they almost all left in 1948. This makes it easier to “manage coexistence”. 

They are perceived as the “easy Arabs”, whereas in Acre, where there are still quite some original inhabitants in the Old City (who are not urbanised middle class and conformed, but poor and traditional), they are perceived as a threat. Which is one of the reasons why Acre is a bomb waiting to explode and Haifa is not. 

Now in Kibbutz Hazorea, where I am visiting friends of my uncle. They live in the Kibbutz for over 50 years. The Kibbutz was established in 1936 by young German Jews who decided to leave Germany after Hitler came to power. They were influenced by the sociologist ideology of the Kibbutz movement and started developing a community in the beautiful valley east of Haifa. The land in the Kibbutz is partly owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the private Jewish organisation owning 13% of all the land in Israel “to the exclusive benefit of the Jewish people”. The JNF helped to develop the Kibbutz. 

Learned about the history and ideology of the Kibbutz. Saw the Kibbutz companies that are managed by people from the Kibbutz. Saw the dining room, where people eat together. Was explained by my friends that people of the Kibbutz put their salaries into the common Kibbutz account, out of which every member then gets an equal share. Remarkable! 

Thursday 7 October
Is in Haifa and met with human rights activists fighting legal and cultural battles for equality of Palestinian citizens of Israel. An expert at Adalah (legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel): “We are more and more delegitimized for demanding equality, because lately the insistence on the Jewish character of the state has become stronger. That is not just symbolic. Out of it come discriminatory policies which have a big impact on our lives.” 

“Discrimination against us is a planned government policy. That’s why equality, which should be a legal right, is becoming more politicized in Israel and part of the public debate. We are seen as the main fore fighters of equality, so we are in the front line of the delegitimization and criminalization process against human rights organizations going on in Israel.” 

“We are 20% of the population but Palestinians own just 3% of the land. This is not just a coincidence.” 

The director of Baladna (an association for Arab youth in Israel): “In the education system there are big gaps in budget spending between Jewish and Arab schools: where 1 shekel is invested in an Arab child, 5 shekels are invested in a Jewish child. Most Arab schools are badly equipped, Jewish schools are well equipped.” 

“The content of the school curricula, also in Arab schools, is controlled by the Ministry of Education: Arab children are obliged to take courses in Jewish religion, culture and history, while courses on Islam and Christianity are optional. There is a prohibition on teaching the Palestinian culture and recent Palestinian history of the conflict before and after 1948. Arab teachers have to be cleared by the security services. Security checks on education only happen in totalitarian regimes. The goal is to create an ‘Arab Israeli identity’ and erase the Palestinian identity in Israel.” 

Met with politically highly aware and active Palestinian teenagers in Haifa. “We can’t learn about our most famous poet Mahmoud Darwish and he is from here! The Palestinian narrative is forbidden in school curricula. The Ministry of Education is seeing to that. I took lectures in Haifa university about Palestinian culture. One of the topics was what happened in 1948, what we call the Nakba and they their war of independence. There was a multiple choice question about it. The answer considered the correct one, was supposed to be ‘We cannot judge if there was a planned and forced exile of Palestinians in 1948’ Of course we can judge, it was historically documented by Israeli historians that it was planned. But the education system is trying to erase our history. In official history books approved the Ministry of Education, also the ones written by Arabs, it is stated that ‘Arabs in 1948 left voluntarily’”. 

Learned that a lot of Israeli policies and budget is going into erasing Palestinian identity and shaping a new “Israeli Arab” identity. Met with young activists who organize to resist against this goal and to empower young Palestinians to take control of their identity. 

Director of Baladna: “A recent government program of civil service in national institutions and the security establishment (as an alternative for army service) tried to lure Palestinian citizens of Israel into the Israeli army, tying them more to the state, making rights conditional upon civil service, adding to their confusion of what people they belong to (the Israelis or the Palestinians). We don’t want rights on the condition of so called loyalty to the state, we want rights as citizens, like the Jews.” 

Learned that a minority of Palestinian youth in Israel is joining the Israeli army. Why? They want to belong to the society in which they live and they feel that by showing ‘loyalty’ everything is easier. Some of those Palestinian youth are even serving as Israeli army soldiers oppressing their own people at checkpoints in the occupied territories. 

Most of my Palestinian friends in Israel are politically aware and active. But the majority is not. Many Palestinian parents in Israel are scared to let their children be active for the Palestinian cause of equality. This generation of parents grew up under a military regime in Israel and they are scared their children might be arrested. And when that happens, they are left without any human rights protection against the state. “We don’t feel safe as citizens against the state. Israel doesn’t apply human rights and democracy on us, only on the Jewish citizens. In that sense it is a ‘Jewish democracy’ but not a democracy for all its citizens. This is a contradiction.”

Talked to my friend’s uncle, owner of a food and beverages shop chain in business since 1916. He is from the generation of parents I am talking about. “So which places have you visited?” he asked me. “I have been travelling in the Occupied territories until now” I replied. “So this is not occupied?” He got me on that one. But the rest of his words were somewhat surprising to me:

“I don’t consider myself Palestinian. I am Arab. I was born in Israel. When I was young, in the 60’s and 70’s, even the word ‘Palestine’ was a taboo. Every expression of Palestinian identity was suppressed. After 1948 we were forced into submission, acceptance and conformity. We had to abandon our identity in exchange for calm. We grew up here in Israel. Until there was ‘peace’ with Egypt and Jordan, I had never seen an Arab society! How can I identify myself? We grew up as Israelis. Try to imagine that.” 

“Today it is easier to express Palestinian identity. Young Palestinians in Israel are falling into two extremes: there are the ones who completely abandon their identity and don’t care about it. They want to be like the Jewish Israelis and go along with being ‘Israeli Arabs’. And then there are the ones who are aware and politically active. They reconnect to their Palestinian identity. They resist against the creation of an ‘Arab Israeli’ identity.”

“If I would consider myself Palestinian and identify strongly with the people who were kicked out of here in 1948, then I would have to consider my Jewish neighbours as enemies. I don’t want to do that.” 

This man seems to prefer to abandon his identity and accept discrimination against him, in favour of the Jewish identity of his neighbour, in return for peace and quiet and coexistence. And I don’t feel I can blame him or judge him. He is the ‘product’ of decades of submission which leaves its mark. Suddenly I am more aware of the crucial importance of Baladna’s work. 

Learned there is a growing trend in Haifa: Palestinian youth in Haifa found a new way to resist the process of erasing our identity and it is through art and culture. 

One of my friends: “I feel a foreigner in my own native land. Just one example: every time I travel I am completely humiliated and intimidated at the Israeli airport, just because I am a Palestinian. I feel like being treated as criminal or a threat to their country, instead of as a citizen of my country.” Stayed at my friends place, in an amazing house on the hill, overlooking the whole bay of Haifa. And now going into the city to discover it more!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11706116

http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/supreme-court-backs-jews-only-housing-in-jaffa-neighborhood-1.323421

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