Palestinian Israelis Proclaim their Identity—as Pro-Palestinian Left in U.S. Fights Republican Attempts to Exploit It
By John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
Palestinian citizens of Israel have, in the context of the recent war, begun to promote their own interests and identity. While Israeli Palestinians were sticking up for their own rights, some Democratic politicians in the U.S. got in trouble with the language they used in supporting the rights of Palestinians. On one side, there are Palestinians suffering under the Israeli state, and on the other, the Republican party, a segment of which cares not one wit about the rights of Palestinians, but seemingly only about its own power-based need to control government without any concern for its results, except its narrow, selfish interests
Israel’s Arab citizens Increasingly asserting their Palestinian Identity
Palestinian citizens of Israel, also known as Israeli Arabs, have had a tough time ever since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Known colloquially as ’48 Arabs,’ they have always had to be careful of being overheard by the Shin Bet, or domestic security police, saying anything untoward about Israel. While Palestinian Israelis have been much better off than the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, their citizenship has not always been equal to that of Israeli Jews.
Some Palestinian citizens of Israel have grown up not being very cognizant of their Palestinian-ness. A young Palestinian professional, interviewed by the Washington Post, claimed he’d not mostly thought of himself as an Israeli, but recently began to recognize his Palestinian heritage passionately. Now politically active, he says, “I didn’t know anything about being Palestinian, but then I opened my eyes.” He is one of about two million Palestinians, comprising 1/5th the total of Israel’s population.
A more sanguine point of view is held by a Palestinian politician serving in the Knesset. Also interviewed by the Post, this member of the Israeli parliament responded,
“For a long time, a lot of the world did not know about our existence. What’s happening now is a rediscovery of the Palestinians of Israel.” He noted further, “We became citizens in the state that was established on the ruins of our homeland, so it’s a very complicated situation.”
Palestinian citizens of Israel are bonding more and more with their families and other Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. They wish to honor their roots in both historic Palestine and their links to the occupied territories. They say, according to a Palestinian Israeli professor in Israel, per the Post, “Israel has tried through different tools to de-Palestinize and to Israelize and to split the identity, but we are all part of one community. We are all Palestinians.” Palestinian identity has blossomed in the past several years, particularly for younger Palestinians. It is those Palestinians “who did not experience the trauma of Israel’s birth — to Palestinians, the ‘Nakba,’ or catastrophe.”
Palestinian and Jewish Israelis in the more Arab-Jewish-mixed cities of Israel clashed, and the damage was significant. Arabs burned synagogues and attacked Jews. Police responded, even to peaceful protests, with the help of Jewish settlers, who came in from the West Bank to help the police. The predominance of arrests was of Arabs. Palestinian Israelis recalled they’d never seen such police violence against them during their lifetimes.
A recent denigration of Palestinian citizens of Israel was the 2018 law promulgated under Netanyahu’s anti-Palestinian regime, which said that Israel is “the Jewish homeland” and that the Arabic language was demoted to secondary status. Netanyahu is now out of the leadership position and a new leader, Naftali Bennett, is in power. He is even more virulently anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab than his mentor and predecessor, Bibi.
Palestinian politicians had been considering that, following the seeming emergence of pro-Palestinian sentiment around the world, that they could even possibly demand a greater portion of the national budget for community improvement and help for Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert. It is difficult to envision new prime minister Bennett, unless he shows some deference to the minority Arab Islamist Ra’am party that joined his alliance in electing him, adopting some kumbaya, pro-Palestinian sentiment that would lead to improved Palestinian lives, much less an Israel-Palestine peace agreement.
Republicans try to exploit Democrats on Internal Friction over Palestinian Issues
While Israeli Palestinians were sticking up for their own rights, some Democratic politicians in the U.S. were in trouble with the way they were supporting the rights of all Palestinians. It all started with a tweet by Representative Ilhan Omar. The tweet hinted at a disagreement within the Democratic party over Israel. Specifically, the bruha began because of Omar’s tweet about questions posed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding “how victims of crimes by the Israeli or Afghan governments can find justice?”
The question conflated actions of the U.S. and Israel vis-à-vis Palestinians with those of Hamas and the Taliban. Omar insisted she was not equating these groupings morally but was accused of doing just that. Her exact words were, “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”
Some Jewish Democrats objected to her language, which led to a response of bigotry. Republicans immediately began to exploit this division among Democrats, hoping to create discord that could affect their vote on such important bills as infrastructure. Republicans are now trying to force Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee to which she was appointed as a freshman representative. They equated her language to that of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, who suggested the requirement to wear a mask to protect against Covid was just like the yellow star the Nazis afflicted on Jews during the Holocaust.
With the threat of the Republicans to remove Omar from her committee assignment, the Democrats circled the wagons. As the Post reported, one Democratic aide noted, “Republicans have more exposure than we do, so the chance for a tit-for-tat is possible, especially since they are the ones having the antisemitism problem.” Senior Democratic leaders are against removing Omar from the committee. Some even supported her directly, accusing her attackers of Islamophobia and racism.
Omar was supported by her fellow-Muslim, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the sole Palestinian member of Congress, who the Post quoted, “House Democratic leadership should be ashamed of its relentless, exclusive tone policing of Congresswomen of color.” It was speculated by aides to liberal lawmakers, including Omar, Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, known as ‘the Squad,’ that irritating the leftwing of the base could affect critical votes needed by the Democratic caucus. Speaker Pelosi quickly lowered the temperature of the debate by working both sides of the argument.
One liberal Democratic colleague commiserated with Omar, noting that the daily death threats she incurs compares to the one a month he gets. He offered, “I think we all recognize that Omar is subject to invective and personal hatred…That doesn’t mean I can’t disagree with her on public policy, but it means I’m aware of the terrible things that are thrown her way every day.”
Whether it’s a matter of Palestinian citizens of Israel or Palestinians living in the occupied territories proclaiming their identity and equality—or certain members of the U.S. Congress fighting for the very same rights of Palestinians, the struggle is similar. The opposition in these two cases is, respectively, Israel’s religiously based government which only treats some of its Palestinians better than others, but both with less than full democratic rights; the other, a Republican grouping in the U.S. Congress, who cares not one iota about the rights of either category of Palestinian, but seemingly only about its own power-based need to control government without any concern for its results, except its narrow, selfish, right-wing interests.
“Long overlooked, Israel’s Arab citizens are increasingly asserting their Palestinian identity,” Washington Post, 6/11/2021
“Republicans aim to exploit Democratic Discord on Israel,” Washington Post, 6/11/2021
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya-Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an advisor in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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