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Land, loss and longing

November 29 2012




Expropriation of their land by the Israeli state is an ongoing injustice for its resident Palestinians. Cynthia Cockburn recalls the ‘politics of land’ in an alliance forged between Israeli Jewish and Israeli Palestinian women between 1983 and 2008.

One afternoon, back in 1996, or perhaps it was 1997, I travelled in a hired bus with a group of Israeli Jewish and Israeli Palestinian women to visit the ruins of two villages, Ikrit and Biram, in the Galilee. The women in the bus were members of an organization called Bat Shalom, Daughter of Peace. It was a trip that, despite the understanding and affection binding this particular group of women, gave rise to perplexity and anguish. We walked around the remains of the Arab villages, depopulated and dynamited by the Israelis back in 1948 to make space for their own settlers. We met former inhabitants, still protesting their loss. Then we had a meeting with some residents of the Jewish kibbutz established on this land, who told us how they had spent their hard-working lives making it productive. Hovering between us were unspoken memories of not one but two peoples persecuted and displaced in the 1940s.

For some sixteen years from 1993, the organization Bat Shalom had an office in Jerusalem and a partnership with the East Jerusalem Center for Women. Together they called themselves the Jerusalem Link. Their purpose was co-operation between Jewish and Palestinian women in activism for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights and the achievement of justice and statehood for the Palestinian people. More precisely, the women in the bus that day were part of an outlying northern branch of Bat Shalom, drawing its membership from across the Galilee, the Jezreel Valley and the Wadi Ara. The Jewish women were mainly inhabitants of the agricultural kibbutzim and moshavim in the area, while the Palestinians lived in neighbouring Arab towns such as Nazareth, Ara and Umm el-Fahm. The focus of this local branch differed somewhat from that of Bat Shalom in Jerusalem. They wanted an end to the Occupation, yes, of course, and recognition of the wrong done to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians scattered to the winds on the creation of the state of Israel. But they saw this as inseparable from the urgent issue of equality and justice for the Palestinian population who, though displaced from their land, remained within the borders of the Jewish state. Numbering almost a million and a half today, they are one-fifth of Israel’s population. Bat Shalom believed an Israel sufficiently democratic to afford them full inclusion and rights would surely result in a peace agreement in the whole region.

an Israel flag in a new neighbourhood.

New strategic Jewish settlement building is part of the Judaization policy for northern Israel.

It is significant that this outlying group called itself Bat Shalom ‘of the North’, without specifying the ‘north of what’. Officially, the area in which they lived, south of the Lebanon border and north of the Green Line, is of course ‘Israel’. But many of its Palestinian inhabitants and a few progressive, peace-minded Jews, including those in Bat Shalom ‘of the North’, problematize its ownership. They prefer to speak of themselves as living not in ‘Israel’ but in an indeterminate space called ‘Israel Palestine’, a usage that neither obliterates the past nor forecloses on the future.

The reason for this doubt about naming the area is not simply that it has a high proportion of Palestinian inhabitants. It is that much of the area was actually outside the boundaries of Israel as laid down by the United Nations in its Partition Plan of 1947. It was pragmatically seized and incorporated into Israel in the fighting that followed Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence. It is could thus be seen as ‘occupied’ territory just as much as those areas outside the Green Line commonly termed the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’, held under military control by Israel since the 1967 war.

In his book Palestinians in Israel, Ben White (2012) writes of the expropriation of, and alienation from, land as being ‘the defining dynamic’ in relations between the Israeli state and its Palestinian minority. In the early years of its life the state progressively took over Arab settlements, turning the uprooted remnant of Palestinian farmers and traders into what they laughably term ‘present absentees’. Neither the internally displaced nor the Palestinians outside Israel’s borders have any right of return to the spaces and places that are historically theirs. In the meantime the Palestinians have necessarily changed from being rural to urban people, crowded into ever-denser villages and towns as their lands have diminished and their population multiplied. In the ‘north’ today the Palestinian municipalities, while containing over 70% of the population have jurisdiction over a mere 16% of the land.

Around 90,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel live in over 40 ‘unrecognized’ villages deprived of water supply, electricity and other basic services. Palestinian’s homes are frequently demolished not only in these but also in legal Palestinian towns and villages. In a majority of Jewish local communities, admissions committees ensure segregation, setting criteria that determine those entitled to live there. An aspiring Palestinian resident is likely to be refused on ethnic grounds – as ‘lacking compatibility with the social-cultural fabric’ of the community.

These measures however have not been enough to appease the Zionist sense of ‘unfinished business’ in the north. In a succession of initiatives, from the Koenig Memorandum of 1976, to a 2003 town-building plan by Ariel Sharon, and recent threats by rightwing politicians of wholesale ‘transfer’ of the tenacious Palestinians, the aim has been to ‘Judaize’ the north.  Recently there has been a move to construct smaller ‘hilltop settlements’, or mitzpim, at strategic points in the Galilee, similar to those notoriously built in the West Bank. Placed on dominating heights, their purpose is to separate and control the Arab population centres.

A new generation of Israeli Palestinian women commemorate Land Day, northern Israel, March 2012

A new generation of Israeli Palestinian women commemorate Land Day, northern Israel, March 2012

During the first few years of northern Bat Shalom’s project of co-operation between Jewish women and Palestinian women, they used to organize an annual event held on the Jewish festival of Sukkot. They would set up and decorate a tent – I remember visiting one on the crossroads near kibbutz Megiddo – and hold three days of activity, with one day devoted to themes of particular concern to Palestinian Israelis, the second to the Occupation, and the third to ‘feminist issues’. Then some incoming Palestinian members pointed out that celebrating Sukkot, a Jewish festival, notwithstanding its critical and feminist twist, required Palestinians to step onto Jewish terrain. The group sought a new focus for their annual event and chose ‘Land Day’, 30 March. This was the date in 1976 that the National Committee for the Defence of Arab Land had held a general strike to protest the confiscation of Arab land in the Galilee. There had been massive demonstrations, Israeli police killed six protesters, many were injured and hundreds arrested. Now, Bat Shalom invited women to come and tell their memories of the Land Day uprising, and indeed of the Nakba, for many women still living today experienced in their youth that original ‘catastrophe’ of 1948.

On Land Day this year, 2012, I was again in the Galilee. I had returned to look up the women of Bat Shalom I knew and wrote about fifteen years earlier. I went to the big rally held by Palestinians in the Arab town of Sakhnin, drawing thousands of women and men, girls and boys, with massed flags of the political tendencies, the Palestinian national flags for Hadash, the red hammer and sickle for Balad. But I found no Bat Shalom group with whom I could mark Land Day. For Bat Shalom of the North ended its activity in 2008, and Bat Shalom in Jerusalem a year later.

The reasons for its demise lie in a loss of hope. The Israeli peace movement as a whole is currently inert, with no peace process in sight for some years now. Intrusive Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank has deeply eroded the terrain formerly imagined as an independent state for Palestinians. The alternative to the ‘two state’ solution, that some radicals would in fact prefer, is the creation of a single multicultural state in the region, in which Jews, Palestinians and others would live in genuine equality and democracy.  But the Likud coalition government in power since 2009, giving eminence to Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beit Einu party, has unleashed a vicious racism that makes any such anti-Zionist deviation less, not more, thinkable.

Palestinian national flags at the commemoration of Land Day at Sakhnin, northern Israel Palestine, in March 2012.

Palestinian national flags at the commemoration of Land Day at Sakhnin, northern Israel Palestine, in March 2012.

Yet Israel has to change if anything is to change for Palestinians, wherever they live. As Bat Shalom women always argued, equality is indivisible. That women are unequal citizens in Israel (and the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report for 2011 ranks it down at 55th, below most other developed countries), is related to the ecomic inequality that was the subject of mass urban protests in the summer of 2011. That too is related to the inequality of Israel’s Palestinian citizens on pragmatic measures of income, health and education. And that in turn is linked to the gross inequality (if one can call it that) of Israel and the Occupied Territories. As Sonia Zarchi, formerly of Bat Shalom, told me, ‘There can be no equality for women in relation to men or equality on any other dimension, until there is equality between Arab and Jew. All the equalities come, or fail to come, together.’ In this scenario, for the Occupation to end, Israel must simultaneously be reborn.

Originally published by Open Democracy

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