Palestinian Identity in Israel since the First Intifada: Un-erasing the Nakba

Land Day in al-Naqab, 2011 (© by RW / BADIL) Land Day in al-Naqab, 2011 (© by RW / BADIL)

Palestinian identity in Israel underwent many evolutionary transformations since 1948. Palestinian citizens of Israel had to adapt to a political system that aimed to erase them: an inherent and an integral component in Zionist thought. The erasure of Palestinian existence from Palestine has taken several forms. Ideologically speaking, the Zionist movement depicted Palestine as ‘a land without a people’ long before the establishment of Israel, and the clearest physical manifestation of this approach was the ethnic cleansing (‘demographic erasure’), of the majority of Palestinian society from Palestine during the 1947−1948 War and afterwards.1 Other aspects of erasure take place on social, political and linguistic levels. Suleiman2 provides an extensive survey of the socio-linguistic erasure of Palestinian history and existence by looking at names, toponyms and code-names. Masalha3 depicts in detail the historical, political and ideological bases of the policy of erasure that Israel has carried out against Palestinian locations in Israel, as well as the Palestinian activities that counter it. The historic erasure of Palestinians, both physically and historically, is best summarized by Oren Yiftachel:

The act of erasure had been led, for many decades, by the Jewish state’s apparatuses, those that aim to erase the remnants of the Arab-Palestinian society that lived in the country until 1948, and to deny the catastrophe that Zionism inflicted on this nation. The erasure that came after the violence, the flight, the expulsion and the demolition of the villages is visible in all discourses − in textbooks, the history that Zionist society tells itself, in the political discourse, in the media, in maps and now also in the names of the sites, roads, and junctions. Palestine, which lays under Israel, is disappearing from the Israeli-Jewish physical reality and discourse.4

As a result of the contradiction between Zionist ideological erasure and Palestinian actual existence, Palestinian citizens of Israel became ‘Present-Absentees’. Although this label was originally bureaucratically coined to refer to Palestinian internal refugees in Israel, illustrates wider Palestinian existence in Israel where “the land Palestinian internal refugees in Israel, on which they live is their homeland, but the dominant culture is not their culture and the country is not their country”.5 However, the term ‘Present-Absentee’ does not express the actual dynamics of Palestinian experience in Israel as described above. The ‘Absentee’ aspect of the term should not convey passivity because it is a continuing action applied to the Palestinians in Israel. Thus, a better way to describe Palestinian experience in Israel is through the phrases ‘present-absentified’, ‘present-erased’ or, in Arabic, (al-hadir al-mughayyab). Palestinian citizens of Israel (the indigenous people of Palestine living in Israel), are subjected to a continuous process of alienation from their space. 

Palestinian citizens of Israel have dealt with their erasure in a variety of ways over the years. In this paper I will present Palestinian un-erasure and identity since the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987. My presentation will be based on analyzing a group of novels published by Palestinian citizens of Israel between 1987 and 2010. This group of novels reflects aspects of Palestinian discourse in Israel over those years. Other novels, not presented here, reflect other dimensions of Palestinian identity in Israel.

Folklorification of the Nakba

The first Palestinian Intifada swept through the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a popular uprising against 20 years of Israeli military occupation. The Intifada, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War in 1991 led to the Madrid peace talks in 1992 followed by secret talks in Oslo. This peace process proceeded until its collapse in 2000 with the outbreak of the second Intifada. The first Intifada and its associated developments moved Palestinians in Israel to reconsider their political stance and identity in light of a peace process that excluded them from the solution to the Palestinian problem. The outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 marked a transformation in Palestinian political participation in Israel evidenced in the local demonstrations held in solidarity with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.These events had a marked influence on Palestinian identity in Israel, and since the mid-1980s we see clear Palestinian efforts to unearth their history, memory and culture.

In the 1980s, Palestinians in Israel and elsewhere began to publish village memorial books collecting information about their villages (many of which no longer exist), with the primary aim of preserving the history and memory of these villages.6 According to Palestinian historian Nur Masalha, the accounts in village memorial books:

[...] reflect the beauty of the landscape, richness of the land and of village and city lives. These narratives about the land testify to the intimate and intense experience of everyday life on the land–the names of the valleys and wadis, hills, shrines, streets, springs and water wells, cultivated fields and vineyards; the importance of all kinds of trees (olive, almond, grape) and other natural elements in memories of the past.7

An academic parallel to this ‘trend’ is evident in the increased interest of Palestinian academics in Palestinian folklore during this period. See for example, Min’im Haddad (1986), who wrote about Palestinian Folklore: Between Obliteration and Revival [Al-Turath al-Falastniyy: bayn al-Tams wa-l-Ihya]. Another Palestinian citizen of Israel who wrote about Palestinian folklore is Shukri Arraf (1982), who among other things wrote: Land, Man and Effort: Deals with Material Culture [Al-Ard, al-Insan, wa-l-Juhd: Dirasa li-Hadaratina al-Maddiyya ‘ala Ardina].

In the literary scene, Palestinian novels in this period provide a detailed description of social and cultural life in Palestine before 1948.Nostalgic-folkloric novels, as I would call the group of novels analyzed here, provide what anthropologists call ‘thick description’ of Palestinian folklore, social life and traditional social figures. Such novels collate numerous tales, myths, songs, proverbs, poetry as well as traditional medicine. Palestinian food, clothing and numerous household items, tools and equipment as well as animals, birds, wild plants, herbs, trees and insects are all part of the folkloric narrative appearing in these novels. Events in the plots, moreover, are immersed in the ‘space’ of the village. Streets, alleys, gardens, the village square, the water-spring, the threshing grounds and the houses are described in detail (both as private and as public spaces). The social interactions associated with these spaces are also described.

The historical narrative embedded in these novels pays close attention to a number of aspects of the 1948 War: the military assistance of the Arab countries (seen more as a burden than a blessing); the occupation of villages; Israeli massacres and brutalities against civilians; the expulsion of Palestinians; and the return, or attempted return, of Palestinian refugees to their homes. The historical narrative presented in these novels is comparable to narratives presented in history books concerning the Nakba, or testimonies of people who witnessed and survived its events. The similarity between the accounts of experiences of witnesses and survivors, and the accounts of characters in the novels is evident in two ways. Firstly, characters recount a nostalgic view of a past that has been lost and destroyed.8 Secondly, the similarity to accounts by witnesses and survivors is evident in the retelling the historical events and, the methods and patterns of expulsion by the Israeli forces - in what could be described as a ‘folklorification of the Nakba’.

The ‘folklorification of the Nakba’ refers to the writing of folkloric narratives about Palestinian life before 1948 while ‘injecting’ these narratives with historical accounts of the war in 1948, in an attempt to offer a collective narrative. The folklorification of the Nakba, as a narrative technique, has been identified by Dina Matar in her recent book, What it Means to Be Palestinian, collating Palestinian memory narratives from across the Middle East:

[...] almost all [interviewees], irrespective of who they were and where they ended up, had a personal story to tell about the focal date of 1948 and insisted on telling it. A similar structure of telling, in which personal stories converge on and intermesh with the collective (nationalist) Palestinian narrative of dispossession and loss [...].9

Since the Intifada transferred the center of gravity of the Palestinian conflict to the Occupied Territory,  the rewriting of the Nakba in folkloric narratives is an attempt to emphasize that the Palestinian conflict began in 1948, not 1967. It is a way of restoring the Nakba as the primary event in the Palestinian national ethos: an event that unites all Palestinians everywhere. The peace process also planted the seed of this belief among Palestinians, Israelis and the international community. The exclusion of Palestinian citizens of Israel from the historic reconciliation has had serious implications for the identity of Palestinians in Israel.

Palestinian memories of the Nakba question the status quo and provide a nagging counter-narrative.10 Palestinian nostalgic-folkloric novels function (in the collective memory of Palestinians) in some ways comparably to village memorial books. In nostalgic-folkloric novels, the Nakba for Palestinians in Israel is omnipresent because it alludes not only to the erasure of space, but to the erasure of culture as well.Remembering the Nakba provides a narrative “of continuity that marks not only the past within the present, as legacy, scar, outcome, wound, etc., but also the past still at work within the present, still actively re-engendering it in its own shape [...]”.11


The first Intifada resurrected Palestinian national awareness among Palestinians in Israel, while adapted to the structural limitations of the Israeli political and administrative system.

Mahmud Ghanayim arrives at a similar conclusion that “[...] despite the double identity evinced by [Palestinian literature in Israel], there have been many attempts to shift decisively toward a distinctive identity that would break the tie with Israeli reality”.12 In political terms, national currents among Palestinians in Israel began to strengthen after the Intifada, reflecting their collectivization: In 1992 an Arab-dominated political movement − The Equality Covenant − called for the first time for the transformation of Israel from an ethnic state into a democratic state for all its citizens, and articulated in sharp focus the need for equality and state transformation. Towards the 1996 Israeli elections, this movement was organized into a political party − The National Democratic Alignment [...] thus bringing the issue of equality to the fore of Arab politics.13

This political direction of the National Democratic Alignment (NDA) is essentially different from the line that the Communist party took for many years. Azmi Bishara characterized the activity of the communist party in Israel as one of struggling against discrimination, not for equality. Bishara argues that it was “a struggle which defined equality negatively as an absence of discrimination, rather than according to a positive definition which would see Israel as a state of all its citizens.”14

The NDA ideological basis “rejected the status quo and called for the establishment of a secular democratic state in the entire territory of Mandatory Palestine, and called for the return of the refugees who left their homes in 1948.”15 The transformation in political activity among Palestinians in Israel is reflected in the massive expansion of their civil society struggle after the Intifada. This is evident in the fact that until 1990, there were “about 180 public societies among the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel. In the last nine years since 1990 a new 656 Arab societies were established.”16 The expansion of Palestinian civil society NGOs in Israel marks the realization of the need to take an active role in shaping the lives and future of Palestinians living in Israel:

The wide network of Arab NGOs forms a counterpublic where the interests of the Arab community are represented in such areas as urban planning, health services, educational infrastructure, legal rights and services, and human rights monitoring. The NGOs serve an important function, providing goods and services much needed in the neglected Arab community.17

Palestinian citizens of Israel, by being exposed to the Intifada discourse of freedom, liberation and dignity, adapted their own struggle inside Israel. This adaptation refers to Palestinians in Israel providing a contextualized definition of their struggle in search of equality.

In other words, Palestinians in Israel in the period since 1987 see their situation as a national “rather than a problem of budget discrimination against a minority.”18 The quest for full equality with Jewish-Israelis in Israel substitutes the quest for national determination based on political pragmatism. The political vision of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the 1990s is based on a strategy of compromise as the means to achieve long-awaited peace in the Middle East. This vision includes the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state within 1967 borders, involving the right of return for the refugees, as well as the granting of full civil rights to Palestinians in Israel. Full equality with Israeli-Jews in Israel means turning Israel into a state of all of its citizens − a bi-national state − which would amount to self-determination for Palestinian citizens of Israel, because it would mean the de-Zionizing of Israel. This is a situation that Palestinian citizens of Israel are willing to accept. 19


  1. See Pappé, Ilan, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld, 2007).
  2. Suleiman, Yasir, A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Suleiman, Yasir, Arabic, Self and Identity: A Study in Conflict and Displacement (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  3.  Nur Masalha, ‘Remembering the Palestinian Nakba: Commemoration, Oral History and Narratives of Memory’, Holy LandStudies: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 7/2 (2008): 123-156
  4. My translation of Oren Yiftachel’s Introduction to Kadman, Noga, Erased From Space and Consciousness: Depopulated Palestinian Villages in the Israeli-Zionist Discourse (Jerusalem: November Books, 2008), p. 8.
  5. Ibrahim Muhawi, ‘Irony and the Poetics of Palestinian Exile’, in Ibrahim Muhawi, & Yasir Suleiman (eds), Literature and Nation in the Middle East (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p. 34.
  6. Slyomovics, Susan., The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); Rochelle Davis, ‘Mapping the Past, Re-Creating the Homeland: Memories of Village Places in Pre-1948 Palestine’, in Ahmad H. Sa’di, & Lila Abu-Lughod (eds), Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007): pp. 53-75.
  7. Masalha, Remembering the Palestinian Nakba: Commemoration, Oral History and Narratives of Memory, p. 143.
  8. See also: Davis, Mapping the Past, Re-Creating the Homeland: Memories of Village Places in Pre-1948 Palestine
  9. Matar, Dina, What it Means to be Palestinian: Stories of Palestinian Peoplehood (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011), p. 25.
  10. Davis, Mapping the Past, Re-Creating the Homeland: Memories of Village Places in Pre-1948 Palestine, p. 6.
  11.  Italics in original, Yaqub, Nadia G., Pens, Swords, and the Springs of Art: The Oral Poetry Duelling of Palestinian Weddings in the Galilee (Leiden: Brill, 2007), p. 114.
  12. Mahmud Ghanayim, ‘A Dream of Severance: Crisis of Identity in Palestinian Fiction in Israel’, in Meir. Litvak (ed.), Palestinian Collective Memory and National Identity (New York; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 196.
  13. Nadim N. Rouhana, ‘Israel and Its Arab Citizens: Predicaments in the Relationship Between Ethnic States and Ethnonational Minorities’, Third WorldQuarterly, 19/2 (1998), p. 287.
  14. Azmi Bishara, ‘On the Question of the Palestinian Minority in Israel [Hebrew: Al Sheʾelat Hamiʿut Hafalastini Beyisraʾel]’, Theory and Criticism [Hebrew: Tiorya UBikoret], 3/Winter (1993), p. 11.
  15. Ghanem, Asʿad, The Palestinian-Arab Minority in Israel 1948-2000: A Political Study (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 117.
  16. Ibid., p. 172.
  17. Amal Jamal, ‘The Arab Leadership in Israel: Ascendance and Fragmentation’, Journal of Palestine Studies, 35/2 (2006), p. 12.
  18. Ghanim, Honaida, Reinventing the Nation: Palestinian Intellectuals in Israel [Hebrew: Livnot Et Hauma Mehadash: Intilektuʾalim Falastinim Beyisraʾel] (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2009), p. 142.
  19. See: Bishara, On the Question of the Palestinian Minority in Israel [Hebrew: Al Sheʾelat Hamiʿut Hafalastini Beyisraʾel]; Asʿad Ghanem, ‘The Palestinian Minority in Israel: The ‘Challenge’ of the Jewish State and Its Implications’, Third World Quarterly, 21/1 (2000): 87-104; Ghanim, Reinventing the Nation: Palestinian Intellectuals in Israel [Hebrew: Livnot Et Hauma Mehadash: Intilektuʾalim Falastinim Beyisraʾel].