Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Fateful Decisions: My Experience as a Palestinian Citizen of Israel

Note: This post was published originally as one of several articles in the Aljazeera project “Palestine in Motion” at the following link:  https://interactive. aljazeera.com/aje/2017/ palestine-in-motion/index.html  There each of the articles contains several photos. Also the editors added many relevant pieces of information.

Fateful Decisions

Do not be afraid; go and tell the brothers to go to Galilee: there they will see me. (Matthew 28:1-10)

Oh my defiant wound,
My homeland is not a suitcase
And I am not a traveller.
I am the lover and the land is the beloved. (Mahmoud Darwish: The Diary of a Palestinian Wound.)

A Return to the Galilee

Soon, my wife and I will leave Hawaii again.

It is always a struggle. The hardest was in 1970 after I finished my medical training. Beyond lucrative job offers, Hawaii’s comforts and beauty tugged at our heartstrings. But the Galilee won. I was needed there — and I owed Arrabeh more than she did Honolulu.

My family had sold land to our neighbours to put two of my four brothers and me through high school in Nazareth. In our subsistence farming culture, that was blasphemous. Land was holy and farming was worship. Still, with the promise of returning as a physician, I persuaded my father to sell another acre of land to pay for my one-way ticket to America. It was his last plot of land in our fertile Battouf Valley, believed to be the home of the ancient Natufians, the first settled agricultural society in human history. He held onto his olive grove and apricot orchard on the mountainside. Those roots go deep; to cop out when I became a physician would have been more than blasphemous; it would have been treasonous, un-Palestinian.

When I returned, there was no other physician among Arrabeh’s 6,000 people. Sheikh Kaid, the village imam, had led a committee of civic activists and brought running water into homes, a great public health feat. But no one had thought of liquid waste disposal. Soon, sewage seeped into the dirt alleys and pooled in puddles. This public health nightmare alarmed me more than the lack of garbage collection, electricity, telephone, paved roads and adequate public transportation combined. As I surveyed the situation, I discovered that it was black and white: All the Jewish settlements in Israel had a functioning sewage network, but no Arab village had one, nor could afford installing one.

I wrote memos to my superiors in the Ministry of Health. It wasn’t their responsibility, I was told. Arrabeh had elected a village council, an ineffectual invention representing the Zionist central authority in the village and the punching bag the state could blame for all its shortcomings. Israel was the state of the Jews, and we were left to stew in our own foul juices. After all, we didn’t serve in the Israeli army, the IDF. Israel was “a light to the nations,” but we were no nation; we were hardly human in their eyes. Incidentally, I should use the term bnei-miutim—minority members—in my reports and not Arabs or, God forbid, Palestinians, I was advised.

Though specialised in public health, I had to double as general practitioner. Among the Galilee’s rural Palestinian citizens of over 200,000, there were only two other physicians. Fast-forward to the present, and Arrabeh claims the highest physician-to-resident ratio in any town of its size in the world, thanks in large part to the sacrifices of parents and siblings that toiled away in construction and manufacturing to support those doctors’ studies. The mainly foreign-trained physicians, pharmacists, dentists and other health professionals among Palestinian citizens of Israel are fast becoming the backbone of Israel’s healthcare system, contrary to its planners’ vision. In 1976, an internal government document known as the Koenig Report recommended that the state should encourage our brain drain, among other measures.

Despite this, not a single hospital has been licensed in any Palestinian community in Israel, as Arrabeh’s own self-made media star, journalist Maqbuleh Nassar, has repeatedly pointed out.


“A Cruel Border Crossed Us”

In 1948 Arrabeh and a few dozen Palestinian villages miraculously escaped the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the systematic “erasure from space and memory” of 531 Palestinian towns and villages by Israel’s own count.

Like Arrabeh, many of those erased had previously survived the riptide of history for as many as four millennia since the Canaanites first established them. With the arrival of the invading Zionist forces, the 11-year-old child that I was at the time faced a weighty decision: carry the cage in which I kept the two blackbirds I had collected from a nest in our apricot orchard or abandon them.

My parents, meanwhile, faced the impossible choice of staying in Palestine, and likely suffering the fate of Deir Yassin – a Jerusalem village where Zionist forces massacred men, women and children – or leaving and becoming refugees like the distraught people of Suffoureyeh we had seen passing through our olive groves, some of whom lost children along the way. But soon, crossing to Lebanon was no longer possible. Every home in Arrabeh and in the two neighbouring villages, Sakhnin and Deir Hanna, planted a stick on its roof and tied a white sheet to it. The Haganah, a Zionist militia, took able-bodied, Palestinian men to labour camps as prisoners of war, and collected our milking cows and work bulls to feed its soldiers.

In the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, Palestine lost its cohesion as a nation; all Palestinian urban centres in what became Israel were ethnically cleansed. Our major human, cultural, and financial capital was decimated. But Nazareth was an exception: a commander of the invading Haganah, based on his exceptional awareness of the war crime they encoded, disobeyed the orders of his superiors. Still, countless Palestinians on its outskirts were forced from their homes and villages, and pushed into exile. In the 1950s, Ben Gurion saw this Palestinian geographic continuum as a demographic threat and wedged the Jewish Upper Nazareth, Natzeret Illit, in its heart. On one occasion, some three decades later, reverse xenophobia led to Upper Nazareth letting its collected sewage flood parts of its downhill neighbor, Kufr Kana or Cana of Galilee. When I, the regional public health official at the time, demanded they stop the public health menace the city countered with the demand that Kufr Kana stop their “sound pollution” of dawn-time call for prayer.  

In 1948 Aunt Samiyeh Rustom, exiled from her home in Sheikh Dannoun, one of three such aunts, passed through Arrabeh with her family on their way to Lebanon. They bequeathed us Arrabeh’s first radio and second Singer sewing machine, both adding to the prestige and livelihood of the Kanaanehs. It was only after Israel’s takeover of South Lebanon and its propaganda ploy of The Good Wall – during which Israel opened the gates in the barbwire border with Lebanon to allow workers and some visitors from South Lebanon to enter – that we briefly reconnected with our cousins again.

Shortly thereafter, the Sabra and Shatila war crime — the massacre of Palestinian civilians in two refugee camps in Beirut — shocked the conscience of the world. Ariel Sharon was then Israel’s defence minister. Under his command, Israeli soldiers besieged Sabra and Shatila and watched as the Lebanese Phalangist militias they sent in perpetrated the killings.

After the 1956 Kafr Qassim Massacre, Israeli military Commander Issachar Shadmi was fined one cent for ordering the execution of 49 Palestinian civilians, including 23 children. In contrast, Sharon fully escaped punishment for the Sabra and Shatila massacre and even went on to become Israel’s prime minister. That reconfirmed our convictions that Zionism was intent on expelling, if not exterminating, us. The IDF had contingency plans.

Then came the Oslo Accords, in which we, the 48 Palestinians (Palestinian citizens of Israel), were totally excluded as possible caddies for either side. In part, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin paid with his life for even flirting with us in election politics; his 1992 government relied on non-coalition, Arab support in parliament.

Then, at the start of the second millennium, Sharon played the fanatic religious card with a visit to Al-Aqsa mosque grounds in Jerusalem, and inflamed the Second Intifada. Demonstrations broke out within the Green Line, the imaginary armistice line that separates the occupied West Bank from Israel proper, in solidarity. Israeli police, most notably its snipers, killed 13 of our youth, including two from Arrabeh: Aseel Asleh and Ala’a Nassar. The earth rose and wouldn’t sit, as the Arabic exaggeration goes.

An Israeli investigative committee, The Or Commission, was appointed to look into the events. It fed media cycles for months before a hefty, final report blamed the violence on unequal access to state resources between Jewish and Palestinian communities. Plans for development funding for our communities were drawn then, but they are still being debated by the Israeli settler cabinet of today. No one was punished for the execution-style deaths of October 2000. Cynics discern a pattern of periodic punishments meant to keep us in line, not unlike Israel’s genocidal attacks on Gaza that its commanders call “mowing the lawn”.

When Palestinian civil society launched its boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign to hold Israel accountable under international law, we were represented. By this time we had already established the Galilee Society (see later) and it had spawned the umbrella organization of Ittijah—the Union of Arab Associations in Israel. Ittijah was led and energized by Ameer Makhoul, a civil society champion if we ever had one. He apparently played a role in placing the ending of Israeli discrimination against Palestinian citizens as one of the campaign’s three central demands. Not long after that, and with his continued international activism, Makhoul was arrested on drummed-up charges. He is currently serving a nine-year prison term.

A Will to Resist

All along, the central tenet in our state’s dealings with us has been the use of  “legal” land theft.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence spoke of equal citizenship for us, but binding laws were promulgated to grant special rights to Jews, starting with the Law of Return, which bestowed Israeli citizenship to any Jewish person, regardless of where they are from in the world. Nationality trumped citizenship. On its website, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, lists dozens of laws discriminating against us.

As leaderless peasantry, we were placed under draconian, Israeli military rule for nearly two decades (from 1948 to 1966), a period during which our land, our youth, our culture and our minds were targeted. The “abandoned property” of refugees, including internally displaced Palestinians, reverted to the state for the benefit of Jews only. We were elided from the beneficiaries of Israel’s “public domain,” for which our land was appropriated disproportionately. The cumulative effects of dozens of specifically-fashioned laws, and the discriminatory practices of the Jewish majority, led to the current situation in which Palestinian citizens, despite constituting one fifth of Israel’s population, own less than three percent and have legal access to less than seven percent of the land.

Despite this constant pressure, we made a fateful and subliminal decision. We decided that we would remain culturally Arab, nationally Palestinian, and emotionally still peasants, even when the land was being stolen out from underneath us, “a dunam [1,000 square metres] here and a metre there.” On all these fronts, Israel’s daily practices only reinforced our will to resist.

Organised land defence took the form of an attempt at establishing the Al-Ard Movement, a Nasserite, pan-Arab stirring that so alarmed Israel that a special law was passed to outlaw it. Its activists quickly found themselves behind bars or forced outside Israel’s borders, if not assassinated. At the other end of our community’s identity politics, Mapai, Israel’s leading Zionist Labor party, bribed and threatened mukhtars (appointed leaders) and clan chiefs who were losing their traditional roles. Some such co-opted figures successfully ran for parliamentary seats on “independent” Arab lists. Such lists were organised, financed, promoted, and carefully controlled by Mapai. They raised their hands when they were signalled to do so, often not understanding what they voted for or against. After all, Knesset deliberations were conducted in Hebrew, a language they did not speak.

Meanwhile, the Israeli majority’s open enmity to the Communists as the only legal, non-Zionist political party led to a contradictory phenomenon: “The Party” of international brotherhood of the proletariat became the only legal outlet for our Palestinian national sentiments. The advent of radio and print media helped. We locked the doors to our rented rooms in Nazareth and sat next to the dimmed radio to listen to Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president who called for pan-Arab unity. We held nightlong parties in secret, where we drank strong tea, ate knafeh (a Palestinian cheese pastry soaked in syrup), and listened to legendary Egyptian diva, Umm Kulthum. The likes of Rashid Hussein, Mahmoud Darwish, Samih El-Qasim and Taha Muhammad Ali crossed all restrictive borders to help us assert our identity. Their voices were heard across the Arab world.

Then the Naksa of 1967 — the setback, during the war of 1967 — connected us once again with our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. We regained our legitimacy in their eyes and in our own.


The Beginnings of Land Day

In 1976, as the Israeli state continued its mockery of justice and moved to codify greater discrimination against us, wide swaths of privately-owned, Palestinian land were targeted for another wave of confiscation. This hit three neighbouring Galilee villages the hardest: Arrabeh, Sakhnin and Deir Hanna, which have since become known as The Land Day Triangle.

But by this time, the stirrings of open nationalism were in the air. A Committee for the Defence of Land had been established.

Nazareth had conceptualised all of our inner sentiments, aspirations, and contradictions, in the persona of its new, young mayor, the communist party parliament member and eloquent poet, Toufiq Zayyad. He sensed the pulse of our community and forged ahead with a “revolutionary” decision: For the first time since the Nakba, we all stood as one and said “NO!”

A call was issued for a one-day strike, March 30, in objection to the planned confiscation of our land. The Zionist shadow theatre operators had organised a forum of Arab mayors in the hopes they would rubberstamp their dictates. Using his many gifts — a shrill voice, full command of the Arabic language, group psychology and great sense of humor — Zayyad outwitted the collaborators; he turned the tables against the defeatists, silencing their kiss-ass whimpering, and the one-day strike was unanimously endorsed at the meeting originally held to cancel it.

Alarmed, Prime Minister Rabin and his Defence Minister Shimon Peres imposed a curfew, and sent Golani Brigade troops in tanks into our villages to enforce it. Six young Palestinians were killed in the ensuing atrocities, the first being Kheir Yassin of Arrabeh. Ever since, Land Day has become a national memorial every year, commemorated by any and all Palestinians that survived.

That morning, on March 30, 1976, I made another fateful, personal choice: a neighbour called from across the field for me to come help his wife, who had gone into labour. I could see soldiers in a tank on the other side of the field. I waved at them with my stethoscope, and they pointed their automatic weapons at me. I went back inside, and told my wife that we were moving to Hawaii for the safety of our two children. I wrote a letter of resignation to the Minister of Health to the effect that I can no longer serve in a system that does what this one is doing to its Arab citizens.

But two years later, using the same justification of wanting to keep our children safe, we returned to the social warmth of our Palestinian rural community. I returned to my former ministry job, but this time, I had a clear partisan agenda: to mine the system against its wishes for the benefit of my people.

That’s where the plan to establish a non-governmental organisation, the Galilee Society for Health Research and Services, first came from; the NGO was legally registered in 1981. The Galilee Society fast became my public health forum. Repeatedly, I took leaves of absence from my MOH position to challenge the system to respond to my community’s health needs. Twice, in 1986 and 1992, while on such leaves, I led the process of organizing the first and then the second Arab Health Conferences with “my” MOH banning its employees from participating. The Follow-up Committee for Arab Health was thus established to work alongside and advise the political structure made up of all elected Arab officials in Israel, the Higher Follow-up Committee. The GS continues to serve the community today guided by its independent professional vision.


Uncovering the ‘Unrecognised’ Villages

The first significant project we, at the GS, addressed was the sewage problem in Arab villages. But along the way, and guided by the likes of Mohammed Abu-Elhaija and his indigenous NGO, The Association of Forty, we stumbled across another dark corner of Israel’s manipulation and land theft: the unrecognised villages.

The Planning and Building Law of 1965 had left scores of existing, Palestinian villages off its official maps, thus rendering them illegal and their residents trespassers. The state ultimately wanted the villages to be replaced by Jewish settlements. In the meantime, they were deprived of basic services and amenities.

Abu-Elhaija’s own village, Ein Houd, illuminated one side of this riddle. In 1948, as the residents of the original, Palestinian Carmel Mountain village were driven out of their homes, one family decided to camp out in their olive grove. This encampment grew into the new Ein Houd. Meanwhile, Israeli artists, some internationally famous, took over the original village, using it as an artists’ colony, Ein Hud.

Every time I take foreign visitors to the site, I let them stop for a beer at the bar, which is the former village mosque. I tarry in the designated parking area, the levelled and paved-over former cemetery, to read al-Fatiha (a prayer, the first chapter of the Quran) in memory of all the dead beneath it. Then, I drive up the narrow road to visit my friend, Mohammad, and his family, and reassure them that I didn’t forget their dead.

Normalisation, one might call it. Except that another friend, Susan Abulhawa, has featured the village and its exiled in her novel, Mornings in Jenin. Each of the scores of unrecognised villages has its own heart-wrenching saga.

Countless Bedouin villages in the Naqab (Negev), in southern Israel today, are also unrecognised.

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, romanticised the region as an empty desert in which he could expand his personal colonial project; it was “a land without a people,” like all of Palestine, according to Zionist propaganda. Israeli authorities have dismissed the centuries-old native claims to the land, and moved indigenous residents at will, denying them their land-based lifestyle and property rights. The current, settler-dominated government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coordinates its aggression to exile Bedouins from their villages with the Jewish National Fund, a quasi-state agency that holds and allocates land for Jewish purposes only.

The Israeli authorities have demolished the Bedouin village of al-Araqib, in the northern Naqab, over 110 times, to make room for a JNF-sponsored forest. The nearby Bedouin village of Umm El-Hiran, meanwhile, is to be replaced by a Jewish settlement of the same name. The list goes on.

The crisis of the Negev Bedouins is current, but the ill will against them is longstanding.

We at the GS had operated two mobile Maternal and Child Health clinics in their remote locales, one in the Galilee and the other in the Negev. We agitated for health services and water supply as basic rights. With the aid of two international volunteers, both human rights lawyers, we sued Israel in the International Water Tribunal and received a ruling against its inequitable treatment of its Palestinian citizens based on their race. The system tolerated my manipulations for a decade and a half before forcing another decision on me: leave the Galilee Society, or leave the Ministry of Health, where I was the highest-ranking Palestinian professional employee.

It was no brainer. The former health minister who forced me to leave his team is currently serving a prison term for bribery and corruption.


Divide and Rule

Another especially dispossessed group within the deprived collective of 1948 Palestinians is that of the residents of Arab neighbourhoods in Israel’s so-called mixed cities.

These residents were mostly internally-displaced villagers who sought refuge in abandoned city homes. The “legal owner” of their city residences, the Custodian of Absentee Properties, often prevented them from repairing their squatting quarters. Internal exile, social alienation, unemployment, physical disintegration, the apartheid policies of the state, and the daily practices of its field-level operatives turned the congregated former farmers into slum-dwellers. In turn, the burgeoning Zionist middle-class of these cities sought to protect its privileges by walling itself off from such “hostile” others. “Their suburban ethnic purity, their total residential segregation, and their social engineering” resulted in mental and physical walls of separation between the two groups, which were manifested through harsh policing practices, concrete and barbed wire.

Recently, the advent of millennial, Palestinian professionals and entrepreneurs has brought a breath of fresh, Levantine modernity into places like downtown, Arab Haifa, where, on occasion, it can feel like I am in Beirut, an experience I can only imagine.

While residential separation by race, like the separate-and-unequal educational system, is not absolute, the reality of persistent inequality is nearly omnipresent. Rural Palestinian communities in Israel are hemmed-in by the invisible borders imposed by the Zoning and Planning Law. Foot-dragging by the central authorities on requests to enlarge our building zones on the one hand, and our high population growth rates on the other, have resulted in young couples frequently building “illegally” on our remaining agricultural land. Tens of thousands of such homes face the threat of fines and demolition. Another zoning law, known as the Kaminitz Law, was recently passed to expedite the demolition of such “illegally” built homes.

As the Israeli state took shape, Ben Gurion set an upper limit to the country’s Palestinians at 15 percent of Israel’s total population. Decades later, Rabin raised that to 20 percent. Political scientists and demographers have since debated the nature of this demographic cap, using terms like a “ticking demographic time bomb” to describe us.

Then came Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian intellectual, political leader, and one-time member of the Israeli parliament from the Galilee, who popularised our demand for “a state of all its citizens”. This was intolerable, and Bishara escaped “with his feathers intact” — another apt Galilee expression — to the Gulf.

All these measures and the growing pressure on the state’s Palestinian citizens are taken in lockstep with the rapid takeover of Israeli politics by fascist, settler elements. Their poison is fast spilling across the vanishing Green Line.


The Genetics of One State

My wife and I could not have married in Israel; she and I nominally belong to different faiths. In its blatant divide-and-rule manipulation of its Palestinian citizens, Israel categorises us by religion: Muslims, Christians, and Druze.

Yet we resist these divisions, even if only symbolically. In response to Israel’s recent law restricting the call to prayer (the adhan) in mosques, for example, some Palestinian priests performed the call themselves from churches in a show of solidarity with their Muslim neighbours.

The divisions Israel tried to impose on our community have been increasingly rejected. Occasionally, youth in my extended family come to me as an elder for advice about their interfaith love affairs in college. But they don’t need much encouraging. Palestinian DNA, after all, is one of the most mixed on earth. We can trace bits and pieces of genetic flotsam added to our Canaanite (Kanaaneh?) roots over the millennia: from the Hexos, the Hebrews, the Persians, and the Arabs, all the way to the Crusaders and the Turks. The supposed racial purity of any group of people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is a myth, a falsity. Turning our survival into a form of resistance is our number-one skill doubly fortified with education.


Clinicians rarely retire, a reflection of their endless commitment to whatever they set out to achieve in their work. When I retired, I needed to reconcile my commitment to my people with leaving my clinic and centre stage at the GS. Nine-eleven was still fresh as the world finally discovered that we existed and made up 20 percent of Israel’s population. Zionist hasbara (propaganda), including by way of Christian Zionists, successfully conflated Arab and Muslim in the world’s media with terrorism. The image of the Palestinian changed from Yasser Arafat’s olive branch and gun, and Edward Said’s intellectualism, to a violent “Paradise Now” version of Hamas. I decided to contribute to setting the rerecord straight through my hobby of writing. This current exercise is in line with that quixotic decision.


A Birthday Gift

As I put the final touches on this piece before leaving Hawaii, I discovered an eight-year-old video online in which I had joined two indigenous Hawaiians in comparing the struggles of native Hawaiians and Palestinians. The video reminded me that while the odds for success may be narrow, solidarity is tangible.

Twenty-five years ago, the GS hosted a conference for health professionals from 18 ethnic minorities in western countries. Between us, we counted over a dozen commonalities in the health field alone. Since that time, awareness of the similar circumstances, and challenges, faced by oppressed groups around the world has spread even further – and faster.

One can hardly keep up: Palestinians are at Standing Rock, showing support for Native Americans, and at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Such inimitable human rights luminaries as Stephen Hawkins and Arundhati Roy acknowledge our cause. The BDS movement is catching on at a much faster rate than its anti-apartheid predecessor in South Africa ever did. The future of humanity is inseparable from that of peace and equality in historic Palestine. It is in the hands of those on both sides to stand up, be counted, and be ready to cross racist divides.

Adalah, the smart daughter of “my” Galilee Society, is another light guiding us all in Israel out of the Zionist nightmare. The group recently partnered with Visualizing Palestine to launch a new media project, unEQUAL, that will figure in an upcoming virtual exhibit titled Freedom, Bound. The project is “inspired by and rooted in the rich legacy of Black-Palestinian solidarity,” and evidence that lasting and critical links are being forged between the two oppressed groups.


The project’s creation was music to my ears! Not only that, but it was launched on Nakba Day, May 15, which also marked my 80th birthday. What better present could I have asked for?

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