We, Palestinian Israelis

15 May, 2022
Al Quds/Jerusalem (pho­to Benyamin Kanafani).

 

Jenine Abboushi

 

I took my chil­dren to vis­it Pales­tine a num­ber of years ago, and dur­ing our time in Jerusalem, a dear friend told us to meet him near work, at Café Aro­ma across from Ben-Yehu­da mar­ket. Once we arrived, we ordered juice and cof­fee from one of the many servers behind the counter and took a table near the door. Still stunned by our walk from Dam­as­cus Gate to Yafa Street, I mar­veled at how sep­a­rat­ed the Israelis made West Jerusalem seem, with land­scap­ing and new struc­tures, cre­at­ing an exclu­sive domin­ion. How seam­less this same walk felt years ago when I lived in Ramal­lah and came to Jerusalem! Then we some­times encoun­tered check­points, but noth­ing like the giant, elec­tri­fied cage that is the Qalan­dia cross­ing we pass through today to get to Jerusalem. Head­ing to Yafa Street with the chil­dren, I felt we tra­versed into anoth­er world, which con­jured up old feel­ings of being made a stranger in my home­land. I searched for famil­iar places, Pales­tin­ian traces in the old stone build­ings, try­ing to locate a cin­e­ma, or the stores I knew in the 1980s. I could not always make out who might be Pales­tin­ian in the street.  My chil­dren per­haps absorbed my dis­qui­et, and looked uncom­fort­able as they sat at the table at the café with their large, fresh­ly-squeezed juice. 

Café Aro­ma espres­so bar (pho­to Nass­er Atta).

Café Aro­ma is a bois­ter­ous spot with a long counter and many young men serv­ing peo­ple in the kind of prac­ticed labor that trans­forms into chore­o­graphed move­ment. We qui­et­ly watched the inter­ac­tions between peo­ple. Sud­den­ly a woman, prob­a­bly in her late 50s, cut off our view, press­ing against our table, telling us in a scold­ing voice and with big ges­tures to get up and give her the table, lean­ing over to see how much was left in our cups. “Stay put,” I calm­ly told my star­tled chil­dren, and we had to hold our ground until she final­ly retreat­ed, eying a new­ly cleared table. This expe­ri­ence of course fur­ther undid what may have been a pleas­ant café moment, until my friend Nass­er stepped in. Before catch­ing sight of him, we heard his voice boom­ing warm greet­ings in Ara­bic to all the servers, to our sur­prise, and with their joy­ful respons­es, hands up, the café was soon filled in Ara­bic sym­pho­ny. He hugged and kissed us and explained that the shabab, young men, are all from the Mutha­lath, the Tri­an­gle, and he intro­duced us to them. They were sud­den­ly beau­ti­ful in their broad smiles, in all the col­or and flu­id­i­ty of bicul­tur­al peo­ples. The chil­dren were enchanted.

 

This ease in mov­ing through our coun­try was at first cul­ti­vat­ed, an under­stand­ing and deci­sion, and then it became nat­ur­al, grown of a sim­ple truth: we belong to all of Pales­tine, even with the mas­sive Israeli alter­ations and thefts, human and mate­r­i­al dam­age to our peo­ple that is so painful to us.

Soon we head­ed out and we strolled through the old city. I do not know any­one who loves Jerusalem, all of its worlds and his­to­ries, more than Nass­er, to the point of embody­ing the city in his per­son. Play­ful with the chil­dren, he called into sev­er­al sou­venirs shops as we passed (“Ya Abu Samir, are you still sell­ing those trin­kets that say “Holy Land, Israel” on them?” “Yes,” came the sim­ple answer, fol­lowed by their friend­ly greet­ings.) His antics, cre­at­ing a ver­i­ta­ble itin­er­ant cir­cus, had the chil­dren in hours-long hilar­i­ty, encour­ag­ing me, in turn, to accom­pa­ny him in the open, human com­port­ment he assumes, ever since we were teenagers, going all over the coun­try, speak­ing with every­one no mat­ter who or what they are. By his exam­ple, I learned this way of being, and dur­ing the rest of my jour­ney with my chil­dren, I vest­ed myself in this half-for­got­ten con­scious­ness, like a favorite old jack­et, and my chil­dren fell into a sim­i­lar, watch­ful ease.

Yafa Street -(pho­to Nass­er Atta).

This ease in mov­ing through our coun­try was at first cul­ti­vat­ed, an under­stand­ing and deci­sion, and then it became nat­ur­al, grown of a sim­ple truth: we belong to all of Pales­tine, even with the mas­sive Israeli alter­ations and thefts, human and mate­r­i­al dam­age to our peo­ple that is so painful to us. And we keep mov­ing about, offer­ing our pres­ence in acces­si­ble parts of our his­toric land, mix­ing with all peo­ple, refus­ing to be iso­lat­ed and sep­a­rat­ed, or under siege with­in. Com­ing of age, West Jerusalem was where my friends and I would seek lovers’ anonymi­ty, shop at Hamash­bir or the small bou­tiques around Yafa Street (where my moth­er bought me my first bra), buy con­doms for first amours — in a near­by world away from the watch­ful eyes and vil­lage gos­sip of Ramal­lah. I would watch with long­ing the Israeli, or maybe Pales­tin­ian Israeli girls — nev­er know­ing which — we saw chat­ting in groups on street cor­ners, with their curly hair, long and thick, tanned bod­ies and cut-offs — and those sexy, flat brown leather san­dals every­one wore.

We felt this was our world as much as it belonged to Pales­tin­ian Israeli cit­i­zens. While at Birzeit Uni­ver­si­ty, we some­times vis­it­ed friends and com­rades at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty (once spon­ta­neous­ly danc­ing debke on stage, lam­en­ta­bly out of sync, as we had not been prac­tic­ing but the stu­dents there said we could have just stood on stage smil­ing and they’d be as thrilled we were there amongst them). We would romp around the old city and West Jerusalem, some­times cut­ting class­es to get there. While Birzeit stu­dents, we would also go to the cin­e­math­eque for film fes­ti­vals, like a Czech fes­ti­val I once attend­ed in full. And when I took my chil­dren to this favorite place, it was so cut-off from the old city that again we felt we were forced to enter anoth­er dimen­sion to get there, just steps away from Bab Al-Khalil, Jaf­fa Gate.

Walk­ing our Jerusalem, a rel­a­tive­ly small city, if dense and deep, now involved cross­ing fron­tiers at once out­landish and inti­mate. On the way, my chil­dren point­ed out the dou­ble roads that we passed over: one per­fect­ly paved with sleek bus­es for Israeli use, and the oth­er of fad­ed tar, with shab­by vehi­cles, used by what the Israelis call aravim (us). Indeed, it looks like French colo­nial Alge­ria, from Pontecorvo’s scenes of the inef­fa­bly oppos­ing worlds of the French city next to the med­i­na in The Bat­tle of Algiers.

Our gen­er­a­tion of stu­dent activists in the 1980s learned to move through all of Pales­tine even while liv­ing under Israeli occu­pa­tion, as this was before Israel’s bar­ri­cad­ing wall that now cuts through the land, tak­ing an improb­a­ble course, fre­quent­ly shift­ing to swal­low new­ly con­fis­cat­ed Pales­tin­ian land. We had sig­nif­i­cant social and fam­i­ly life across the Green Line, par­tic­u­lar­ly by our year­ly pil­grim­age to the Nazareth’s Vol­un­tary Work Camp, con­ceived to cre­ate solu­tions as the “Arab” part of the city con­sis­tent­ly lacked Israeli state fund­ing for infra­struc­ture. Our con­tacts with Pales­tini­ans min el-dakhil, from inside (the Green Line), were pow­er­ful, mark­ing us. Fam­i­lies opened their homes to accom­mo­date young vol­un­teers from the West Bank. By day, we worked clear­ing lots and land, plant­i­ng, help­ing to build a foun­da­tion of a school one year, work­ing in for­ma­tion by pass­ing, in a long line, black rub­ber con­tain­ers of cut stone, singing and chant­i­ng to light­en the load and draw us togeth­er as the one peo­ple that we are. By night large crowds of vol­un­teers met at the camp­site, lis­ten­ing to speech­es, singing, sit­ting on the ground in cir­cles, mak­ing new friends, both inter­na­tion­al and Israeli citizens.

Bab Al-Khalil /Jaffa Gate (pho­to Nass­er Atta).

We all were excit­ed to be able to meet leg­endary fig­ures like Taw­fik Ziyad (poet, com­mu­nist may­or of Nazareth, and Knes­set mem­ber), and the Pales­tin­ian writer Emile Habi­by, author of the much-trans­lat­ed Ara­bic nov­el, The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pes­sop­ti­mist. On the way to Nazareth every year, our West Bank group would buy pic­nic food from a deli near Tel Aviv beach and go swim­ming, tak­ing bus­es across the city, despite our wor­ry that if we were noticed we might be tak­en in by the police.

In recent decades, the Israelis sep­a­rate Pales­tini­ans from each oth­er quite ruth­less­ly by seal­ing off Gaza, by mak­ing pass­ing across the Green Line exhaust­ing, humil­i­at­ing, often impos­si­ble. Despite dimin­ished con­tact between the Pales­tini­ans who are Israeli cit­i­zens and the rest of us who have West Bank hawiy­at—or no papers at all, like my fam­i­ly, who lived there in pre­car­i­ty — dur­ing the 2021 intifa­da, all of Pales­tine rose in protest togeth­er, from both sides of the Green Line. We are one people.

And yet prob­a­bly the most emo­tion­al­ly painful source of dis­crim­i­na­tion for Pales­tini­ans min al-dakhil, from the inside, is the dis­crim­i­na­tion they expe­ri­ence in Arab coun­tries and at the hands of oth­er Pales­tini­ans. Pales­tin­ian Israeli pass­port hold­ers are rou­tine­ly ques­tioned: How could they accept such a pass­port? Speak Hebrew? Are they trai­tors? My friend Ruba Husari, at the time work­ing as a jour­nal­ist for Al-Hay­at, once inter­viewed Taw­fiq Toubi (born in Haifa in 1922, a jour­nal­ist, com­mu­nist par­ty deputy, and mem­ber of the first Israeli Knes­set, remain­ing a mem­ber for 49 years). She says she will nev­er for­get how angry and hurt he told her felt when deal­ing with Arabs. He said “We are trai­tors because we did not leave our homes and are still liv­ing in them? Because we are al-sami­doun, the stead­fast, here on our land?”

Rula was adamant about keep­ing her Israeli pass­port, retain­ing her rights to her home­land, and her three chil­dren are also Israeli citizens.

And Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Israel liv­ing in Jor­dan, for exam­ple, are some­times inex­plic­a­bly or open­ly denied jobs because of their Israeli pass­ports. Anoth­er friend, Rula Abu Kishk, moved with her fam­i­ly to Ramal­lah from Nazareth in 1975. Her moth­er Ikhlas Fahoum was from a promi­nent fam­i­ly in Nazareth, and her father Bakr Abu Kishk was from a Bedouin fam­i­ly from the vil­lage Abu Kishk, destroyed by the Israelis. The fam­i­ly was com­pen­sat­ed some two per­cent of the worth of their lands, and dis­placed to the mid­dle of nowhere near Lod air­port, on a lot sur­round­ed by Nir Zvi moshav that reg­u­lar­ly tries to buy out their land. Giv­en his new­ly acquired Ph.D. from the States, the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture want­ed Rula’s father to devel­op Jew­ish areas, and when he insist­ed on work­ing in Arab areas, they made him stay home.

Rula Abu Kishk and the author on Radio Street, c. 1980 (pho­to cour­tesy Rula Abu Kishk).

He met Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi who helped con­nect him to Birzeit Uni­ver­si­ty, where he was then hired as an eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor. The fam­i­ly moved to Radio Street, and they were like­ly the only Israeli cit­i­zens liv­ing in Ramal­lah at the time. Rula believes it is igno­rance of their own his­to­ry that explains the illog­i­cal ques­tion­ing she and her fam­i­ly endured over the years. (Would they have been less taint­ed, more legit­i­mate­ly Pales­tin­ian, had they hand­ed over to the Israelis their keys, homes, lands, and exiled them­selves to avoid becom­ing Israeli cit­i­zens?) The Abu Kishk girls feel hurt that their father was once blocked from pro­mo­tion at Birzeit by some­one on the board, and like­ly with the com­plic­i­ty of cen­tral admin­is­tra­tion, because of his Israeli cit­i­zen­ship. Rula’s sis­ter Reem notes that until today the uni­ver­si­ty does not rep­re­sent their father in their accounts and pho­tos of past fac­ul­ty, even though he was high­ly respect­ed, and estab­lished an impor­tant research cen­ter for the University.

Liv­ing in Amman today, Rula recent­ly had a job offer as a project man­ag­er with­drawn from her because of her Israeli cit­i­zen­ship, and she sus­pects she was passed over after inter­views for oth­er jobs for sev­er­al years now for the same rea­son. She did work with USAID for many years in Jor­dan, as they have the clout to impose their can­di­date. There is no law for­bid­ding hir­ing her as an Israeli cit­i­zen, she explains, just prej­u­dice. Had she accept­ed Aus­tri­an cit­i­zen­ship (by her hus­band Suhail), she would have had no prob­lem find­ing jobs. But Aus­tria allows for a sin­gle cit­i­zen­ship, and Rula was adamant about keep­ing her Israeli pass­port, retain­ing her rights to her home­land, and her three chil­dren are also Israeli citizens.

This dis­crim­i­na­tion against Pales­tini­ans who are Israeli cit­i­zens is typ­i­cal in Jor­dan. Azmi Bishara’s sis­ter was denied employ­ment; she now owns Tanoreen, a very suc­cess­ful Pales­tin­ian restau­rant in Brook­lyn. And Jor­dan is over 90 per­cent Pales­tin­ian! In its offi­cial dis­course fol­low­ing Oslo, Jor­dan insist­ed upon Jor­dan­ian iden­ti­ty and the assim­i­la­tion of Jor­dan­ian nation­als of Pales­tin­ian ori­gin (“We are all Jor­dan­ian”  and “Jor­dan First”). The Israeli goal is to erase Pales­tin­ian iden­ti­ty, and the Jor­dan­ian goal is to neu­tral­ize inter­nal con­flicts between Pales­tini­ans and native Jor­da­ni­ans. This less­er-known out­come of Oslo is large­ly suc­cess­ful, and new gen­er­a­tions of Pales­tini­ans most often call them­selves Jor­da­ni­ans instead of Pales­tin­ian Jordanians.

It is only as Israeli cit­i­zens that Pales­tini­ans min el-dakhil can fight for equal rights, where gen­er­a­tions speak their two lan­guages, and live bicul­tur­al lives.

The Israelis also try to con­fis­cate Pales­tini­ans’ Israeli pass­ports, par­tic­u­lar­ly from Jerusalemites. Zaher Hid­mi, my cousin’s hus­band, now liv­ing in San Diego, says that once when he flew out of Tel Aviv air­port the bor­der police would not return his Israeli pass­port, say­ing he doesn’t need it now that he has an Amer­i­can one, and he can get it back if he returns. Zaher told them that what they are doing is ille­gal under Israeli law, which allows dual cit­i­zen­ship. The bor­der police hand­ed it back, and Zaher there­after kept it hid­den with his moth­er in Jerusalem. Lat­er she gave it to a Pales­tin­ian who said he could renew it for a sum of mon­ey. They nev­er saw him again, and they found out that he works for the Israeli police. Zaher says he will hire a lawyer to get his Israeli pass­port reis­sued and apply for cit­i­zen­ship for his two Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can sons. 

The choice of a name is a deci­sion, a belong­ing. And for Pales­tini­ans who were not suc­cess­ful­ly dri­ven out by Israel, there con­tin­ues to be a real strug­gle in nam­ing Pales­tin­ian Israeli cit­i­zens (and many would be offend­ed by this name). The Israelis still call Pales­tini­ans “Arabs,” as if to indi­cate they could as well live in any Arab coun­try. Like many col­o­nized peo­ples, the Pales­tin­ian Israeli cit­i­zens most often refer to them­selves as Arabs (they are Arabs, but they are Pales­tin­ian Arabs — and it is per­haps the most endur­ing suc­cess of the PLO to have imposed the Pales­tin­ian iden­ti­ty in the world). New gen­er­a­tions are increas­ing­ly insist­ing on being called Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Israel, replac­ing Arab Israelis, fol­lowed by ‘48 Arabs, then ‘48 Pales­tini­ans. And yet names that do not include “Israeli” arguably rein­force prej­u­dice, shame, and deny a real­i­ty in which we need to impose change. It is only as Israeli cit­i­zens that Pales­tini­ans min el-dakhil can fight for equal rights, where gen­er­a­tions speak their two lan­guages, and live bicul­tur­al lives.

Israel would like to con­tin­ue to steal more land and water, to dri­ve the Pales­tini­ans into Ban­tus­tans inac­ces­si­ble to one anoth­er, and per­haps retain a tiny minor­i­ty of aravim amongst them­selves for folk­loric pur­pos­es, and to prove they are not racist and do not engage in eth­nic cleans­ing. And if our strug­gle for jus­tice and equal­i­ty remains strong, in the most opti­mistic sce­nario we may all one day become Pales­tin­ian Israelis (or anoth­er post-Zion­ist coun­try name), and every­one who lives today in his­toric Pales­tine remains, and we apply the Pales­tin­ian right of return. There is no appar­ent pop­u­la­tion prob­lem to date, as Israel admits all Jews as cit­i­zens upon arrival.

I live in this future already. We must sup­port the Pales­tini­ans who choose to stay in their coun­try, against con­sid­er­able odds, in all of Pales­tine. We are one people.

 

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