Reframing Palestinian Human Rights Work: Geography, Politics and Terminology

Nakba - Internally Displaced Persons - Kwikat- and Amka - 29 April 2012 (©) Ahmad Shiekh Mohammed) Nakba - Internally Displaced Persons - Kwikat- and Amka - 29 April 2012 (©) Ahmad Shiekh Mohammed)

Many Palestinian human rights organizations limit their scope to territorial divisions propogated by the occupying power - Israel. Organizations are adapting to the current state of affairs rather than seeing the historic origins of the conflict. The Zionist colonialists entered this territory with the intention to permanently colonize it. Movements that started to emerge in struggle against this colonization slowly began to disconnect from each other, from one common struggle into various different struggles. So today, in 2013, based on the realities on the ground (the Wall, settlement expansion, discriminatory laws within Israel, the siege on Gaza), the reality which the colonial power evolved into has had a huge impact on those who are trying to resist this colonization.

Most organizations limit their mandate either to the occupied Palestinian territory or Israel only, based on Israeli realities on the ground, which aim to geographically isolate these two areas. Moreover, some organizations cirumscribe their scope of intervention even more narrowly - for example, only to the West Bank, to the Gaza Strip, to Area C within the West Bank, or to East Jerusalem. When they restrict their mandate in such a way, organizations are actually confirming the notion that the problem they are trying to combat confined only to areas occupied in 1967. Taking this faulty approach to a further extreme, in the cases where organizations limit their operations to the Gaza Strip or the West Bank only, the implicit starting point could even be considered the 1994 signing of the Oslo Accords. Yet the realities that we all deal with did not begin in 1994 nor in 1967; they began with the emergence of Zionist thought and the development of the idea of colonizing the area of Mandate Palestine. This is the starting point of the Palestine ‘question’ and should be recognized as such in seeking a solution. No organization will be able to find a solution, or anything which will come close to a solution, if the starting point is 1967. This practice of geopolitically dividing the Palestinians started in 1948 even within Palestinian communities that remained inside Israel.Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Galilee and the Naqab are highly divided by the Israeli authorities. For Israel, the Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab are an administrative category apart from that of Palestinians. Moreover, while Muslims and Christians are separate categories, Druze are also considered a distinct nationality. Palestinian NGOs inside Israel that operate according to these parameters deal with “Druze villages” and “Druze municipalities.” This is so because Israel applies different legal frameworks, budgets, and ministerial departments and thus has “influenced” the Palestinian side to adopt this approach.

However, political awareness to this issue is starting to emerge and grow among Palestinians in Israel since the mid 80s(See Palestinian Identity in Israel since the First Intifada, page 12 of this issue). Such political awarenesswas empowered by the First Intifada, and more soduring the 90s and the signing of the Oslo Accords. Palestinian citizens of Israel started to realize that they have been excluded from the political process or what was formerly called the ‘peace process’. Palestinian citizens of Israel have been marginalized by both Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which is, in a way, the first Palestinian NGO to have followed the geopolitical lines imposed by Israel. This is evident in the fact that the PLO limited its mandate to the 1967 boundaries, as a baseline for the negotiations. The realization of Palestinian citizens of Israel that their exclusion from the political process could potentially determine their fate brought about a re-evaluation of their relationship with Israel. Palestinian citizens of Israel arrived at the conclusion that their struggle should only be understood within a Palestinian discourse that goes back to the 1948 Nakba, not to the 1967 Naksa, as a point of departure.

Every Palestinian, be it an individual, organization, municipality, or movement who follows the divisions made by the colonial power in order to overcome this colonial project is doomed to fail. The Palestinian struggle is not a common struggle because it is romanticized; it is a common struggle because the created system in reality is fighting everything that belongs to this group of people. From its beginnings, the Zionist Movement intended to colonize a territory and replace the indigenous population with Jewish migrants. In effect, the ideology of the state of Israel denies the existence of Palestinian people within its undefined territory. At best, Palestinians are tolerated,this toleration can be revoked at any moment for any reason.This orientation is evident in many Israeli laws and military orders as well as decisions of the High Court andlower courts in Israel.

Terminology is a key factor in the classic colonial principle of “divide and conquer,” producing political divisions building on the prerequisite of a geographical fragmentation. Israel needed first to cut off existing relationships and ties among Palestinians and did so through the Nakba, which tore apart the social fabric of Palestinian society. Palestinians who managed to remain in the territory that became the state of Israel in 1948 had neighbors or family members who were forcibly displaced. Every Palestinian family was affected by the events of the Nakba. All Palestinians had a cousin, a sister, a brother-in-law, oran uncle who was forcibly displaced, who lost his/her house, farmland or property. After cutting off relationships between people and communities, Israel maintained the geographical scattering of Palestinians by prohibiting them from returning to their homes and inhibiting social continuity with Palestinians in declared “enemy states” – Arab states to which the majority of Palestinian refugees were forced to flee to. Slowly throughout the decades, social ties were lost. Maintaining such a geographical discontinuityfacilitated the creation ofa political division.

This issue of al-Majdal has raised certain difficulties. Our initial intention was to examine Palestinian citizens of Israel, and to this extent articles from organizations that deal with Palestinian citizens of Israel were collected. However, this practice of highlighting Palestinian citizens of Israel as a separate entity is problematic in itself and we should try to reframe the way we look at this situation. We are aware that by publishing a special issue focusing on Palestinian citizens of Israel, we are falling into the risk of dividing the Palestinian people into the separate categories set by Israel. Nevertheless, this al-Majdal issue on Palestinian citizens of Israel is intended to stress that this group of Palestinians is also suffering from Israel’s policies aiming at forcible population transfer and not to be portrayed as a distinct case. Human rights should not be limited to geography or political boundaries. BADIL’s work addresses the ongoing Palestinian Nakba in a holistic approach that bridges geopolitical boundaries. Therefore, in our analysis the forcible displacement within the State of Israel is one part of the overall exile of the Palestinian people and it must always be looked at through these lenses – a struggle covering all of Mandate Palestine and including all Palestinians

Such an understanding is vital to our work in dealing with the Palestinian quest for freedom, liberation and human rights. This is so because a proper understanding frames and guides the language in our analysis. As human rights activists and organizations, we are required to be more careful in the way we articulate reality through the terminology we use. Too often, we find ourselves using the terminology that was generated by Israel because, simply speaking, Israel is dominating the discourse. For example, the classification ‘Bedouin’ that Israel employed to the Palestinians living mainly in the Naqab was done in order to falsely distinguish them from the Palestinians. Unfortunately we can find Palestinians themselves using the term ‘Bedouins’, thereby indicating that this issue is separate from that of the Palestinians. Yet, the displacement of the Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab is connected to forcible displacement within all of Mandate Palestine even beyond the boundaries of Mandate Palestine, including the millions of Palestinian refugees currently living in forced exile and not being allowed to come back to their homes and places of origin.

If civil society seeks to struggle against the colonial process of forcible displacement, we should not stratify Palestinian people, but rather, use language as a common struggle against the colonial project which aims at erasing the existence and presence of the indigenous Palestinian community and population in Mandate Palestine. We should not, even indirectly, support this kind of destruction of the Palestinian people while accepting the division made by the colonial power. Some people think it is advantageous to use a “softer” language, or terminology, in order to try to convince their counterpart and in an attempt not to be seen as ‘radical’ or ‘controversial’ because the “Other” has deemed certain terms so. But when adapting to the Other’s language, people lose the potential to influence the Other, becausethey themselves have already succumbed to the Other’s ideas by adapting to their terminology.

Human rights organizations should look at the two dimensions of time and space. With regards to ‘time’ it must be asserted that the current situation is connected through what happened since 1948 or even prior to that, until this very day in 2013. With regards to ‘space’ it must be recognized that what is happening today in Bethlehem, Jenin, Gaza or Jerusalem is also happening in Haifa, Jaffa or the Naqab.

We have to dominate our own discourse. This could be achieved by introducing and establishing our own language and terminology. Everything is connected to the question of terminology.Because Israel is dominating the discourse, locally and internationally, international organizations are using the Israeli narrative, the Israeli-dominated terminology. We must develop the counter-movement by employing terms which are truly reflective of and correctly frame the reality as it is, without bowing to external pressures and without framing the situation in a manner of Israel’s choosing.