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?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Israel’s Trademark: Palestinian House Demolition

Note: A minimally edited version of this post was published at Mondoweiss under the title "By Their Bulldozers You Shall Recognize Them" with some illustrative photos and readers' comments. To access that go to the link:

First a revelation: This morning, out of curiosity and because I could, I threw the phrase “Home demolition as collective punishment” at Google. It yielded the return of “about 3,360,000” references. I went through the first one hundred links. Without exception, they all dealt primarily if not exclusively with Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes.

You would think that much attention would get Israel to reconsider. But no, it seems few in Israel notice that the whole world is looking over the shoulder of their planners and policy makers. Building permits for new homes is the parallel mechanism for control of urban space: In East Jerusalem only 2% of requests for building permits from its Arab residents are granted by the city administration. But they are not full citizens. When Israel annexed their city after its occupation in 1976 they were granted only residency. Israel does everything at its disposal to encourage them to relocate out of its “united eternal capital.” Over 14,000 have had their residency revoked since 1976. In Area C, the 60% of the West Bank’s total area, which is under full Israeli control, only 6% of requests for building permits have been granted in over a decade.

Within the Green Line, in ‘Israel proper,’ master plans of Palestinian towns and villages take many years to be drawn by the engineering firms to which the Ministry of the Interior assigns them, at the expense of the villages, of course. Then they linger for decades under fitful deliberations by the many responsible governmental agencies. After the approval of such plans, any amendments meet with similar lengthy processes. In the meanwhile the Palestinian citizens of Israel keep on with their unchecked high reproductive rates, high enough not only to overtake that of the Jewish majority but also to more than make up for the assisted and welcome immigration waves from Ethiopia, Russia and France and for the constant trickle of fanatics that the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Agency can bribe to relocate to “the only democracy in the Middle East.” The cumulative effect of the never-ending planning process adds up to the status quo where one fourth to one third of all Palestinian citizens of Israel live in illegally constructed homes lacking building permits. The dynamics of Israeli politics with its sharp turn to the right and the gradual takeover of fascist settlers of the executive powers of the state, including within the Green Line, has brought the issue to the current boiling point: Today a settler, himself residing in a home lacking a building permit in an illegal settlement in the West Bank, is in charge of Building-Law enforcement leading to the recent wave of home demolitions of Palestinian homes in such locales as Qalansawe and El-Araqeeb. His latest act of enforcing the law in the Bedouin village of Im-El-Heran led to the death of one resident and one policeman and the wounding of, among others, the lead Arab parliament member. Other Arab towns in Galilee have just received notices of impending demolitions by the same authority. More violence is sure to be in the offing shortly. For us, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, Im-El-Hiran is shaping into our symbolic Standing Rock. Except that liquefied hate is to flow in its planned pipeline.

This latest turn of criminality is too fresh, still too hot for me to handle rationally. But bear with me while I try to ferret out some of the underlying issues between the state of Israel and its Bedouin citizens in the Negev, el-Naqab to them: In the 1950s, while under military rule, many tribes were dislocated from their native ancestral lands to make space for an Israeli military airport. They were assigned to new locations in the Negev. In recent years, on the initiative of the Jewish National Fund, the state, lacking the decisiveness of a military government, is pussyfooting with the Bedouins, advising them to move again. Their new spaces are now needed for a national park (in the case of El-Araqeeb) and to build a new Jewish settlement with the name of Hiran (in the case of Hiran). Guarding against miscegenation necessitates throwing out the Bedouins who don’t object to sharing their half-century-old village with Jewish guests.  In one particularly memorable case one tribe was displaced from a scenic hilltop to make space for a cemetery as per the request of a particularly religious Zionist Christian multi-millionaire from Colorado as I recall. The catch was that the cemetery was for his dogs.

The chronic dispute between the Bedouins in el-Naqab and their state of citizenship is based on the state’s claim to their ancestral lands. The process of formal registration of land ownership initiated under the Ottoman rule and continued under the British Mandate never reached the Negev in an orderly manner. Besides, traditional mores and intertribal relations recognized the boundaries of each other’s land holdings and dominions. Israel and the JNF now claim all traditional tribal lands as state lands. Hence 51 Bedouin villages are considered “unrecognized villages”. In reality most of them were de-recognized after the fact and hence all government services to their residents and such basic amenities as water, electricity and paved access roads are denied them. Overall, this alienation process has undercut the Bedouin community’s wellbeing to such a degree that their infants die at three times the national infant mortality rate. In similar fashion, over 70 Palestinian villages elsewhere in Israel were bypassed by the Zoning and Planning Law promulgated in the 1960s thus rendering them all illegal though many among them predated the state. This entire swath of citizens live in illegally constructed homes with the threat of demolition hanging over their heads.

No new Arab town or village has ever been built in Israel compared to over 500 new Jewish settlements. (Funny! That also is the approximate number of Palestinian towns and villages emptied and destroyed in the Nakba.) But wait: No fudging of figures or mixing of the races. In the Jewish State, you have to guard the Jewishness of the Jews. That is at the bottom rung of Israeli reality. Let us then start with residential segregation; “We are here and they are there,” as Rabin put it in a different context, that of justifying the Apartheid Wall. But we have mini-Apartheid walls within ‘Israel proper’ as well. In some of the so-called mixed Israeli Cities, plush Jewish neighborhoods are separated from neighboring Arab slums by walls with barbwire.

Netanyahu has just ordered and his police force has recently overseen a well-planned military style double-digit series of home demolitions in Qalansawe, apparently to focus attention on the monstrous act and away from the media’s latest fracas with him over his likely infringement of the law and shady financial dealings. A certain added gain is the appeasement of the unruly settlers in the West Bank so they give him and his allies time to work out a deal to legalize the likes of their illegal settlement, Amona, built on private Palestinian property in the West Bank. “You see,” he seems to say, “I dare act against unruly Israeli citizens. You better hold your horses and give me time to do the needed political maneuvering so Amona and others like it are legalized after the fact and I don’t have to demolish them.”

At a deeper level we are speaking of a vengeful and chauvinistic man who sees his most threatening contender for the premiership of the country, Naftali Bennett, overtaking him on the right. With one masterstroke he vents his anger, albeit at his Arab whipping boys, while at the same time appeasing his many fascist supporters threatening to abandon him for Bennett with implementing the ill-wish of Yukhreb Beitak—may your house be ruined—only a cut below the standard slogan of Mavit La’aravim—Death to Arabs—shouted at soccer matches and political rallies.

Notice, though, that this swift act of vengeance is of the same genre and has the same twisted logic as the infamous ‘Price Tag’ attacks. They are standard anti-Palestinian retribution vandalism and racist attacks that fascist settler gangs often commit to vent their anger and to express their displeasure at acts taken or planned by the government. Except that here the entire system and the clear majority of “the nation” are complicit in the atrocity. The current Israeli administration carried it out based on laws enacted by the Israeli legislature with a clear nod from the Israeli Supreme Court. And it seems to be cleverly timed not to attract too much attention: Who in the international media would take the time out of covering President Donald Trump’s swearing-in ceremony? Remember the timing of Israel’s attacks on Gaza?

So, go back a little! Where is this Qalansawe hellhole and who are its lawless residents? The first thing that comes to mind is strawberries. A combination of fertile sandy soil, the right Mediterranean temperate climate, and traditional farming practices relying on the daily toiling of all the members of large families made strawberries the mainstay of this agricultural village. The delicate fruits from the fields of Qalansawe and its neighboring villages in the mainly Arab area known as the Triangle were picked at dawn, ferried to the nearby airport by helicopter and flown over to European capitals to be on their markets by the time they opened for business. The income from the swift agribusiness was enough to swell the bank accounts of the Jewish middlemen and to lift the heads of the Palestinian farmers out of the dirt of their fields, enough in fact for them to send their children to universities at home and, more often, abroad. That is why Qalansawe ranks right after Arrabeh, my hometown, in the number of its sons and daughters with MDs. We had our olives, watermelons and the more profitable plastering skills of our men in construction and they had their strawberries and chrysanthemum exports. One can only imagine how much better off they would have been, perhaps enough to push them to first place in the desperate higher education competition, had they not lost so much more land to the Zionist masters in the underhanded swap between Israel and Jordan after the Nakba, the agreement apparently negotiated at some intimate rendezvous between Golda Meir and King Abdullah (the grandfather) of Jordan.

But I digress. Neither strawberries nor honeypot philandering are at the heart of the matter here. The curse of home demolition as a collective punishment to teach the ‘bloody natives’ a lesson was first brought to Palestine by the British in 1945, a means of coercion they had practiced in North Ireland. Faced with the rebellious indigenous Palestinians objecting to the implementation of the Balfour promise they had made to Zionist leaders, the British masters needed to convince those locals of the disutility of their stand. First, the British troops took to breaking into the homes of rebel sympathizers where they would wreak havoc and thoroughly trash the contents. They would dump all the stored food supplies on the dirt floor in one heap: wheat flower, barley, sorghum, broad beans, lentils, etc. They would spill over it the stored olive oil, the pickles and cured black and green olives, any fresh milk, any kerosene and any poisonous material they could find in the house.  Then they would mix it all together and leave. When that seemed not to have the desired effect, for the villagers took care of each other, the British thugs changed tactics: Someone in the top echelon of the Mandate system must have heard the natives use the ultimate Arabic ill-wish curse of “Yukhreb Beitak!” That was when they remembered their evil practices against the Irish. They started blowing up private homes, sometimes even a whole village, as a collective punishment.

Israeli governments, under the enlightened guidance of such Nobel peace laureates as Shimon Peres, seemed glad to inherit the home demolition atrocity from the British Mandate. Of course, in the Nakba and under the guise of war, most Palestinian communities were deliberately erased. Then later on, under the military occupation of Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, it became the standard means of retribution for punishing “armed resistance,” internationally downgraded to “terrorism” in line with Israel’s redefinition of it. Within the Green Line it became a ‘collective punishment’ of a different sort, not to punish armed resisters and their families and supporters but to settle accounts with civilians. They used it to keep ’Israel’s Arabs’ in line on the most basic and highly contested issue between the two peoples, land. On occasion, the simple tool of erasure of individual homes is extended to an entire community, witness the case of the Bedouin village of Araqeeb in the Negev. Over a hundred times the state would knock down all of the tribe’s homes and every time the residents, Israeli citizens since day one, would pick up the pieces and erect them again as homes. The state and the Israel Land Authority never provided them with an alternative: Just get the hell out!

I recall the first house demolition incident in my home village in Galilee. The Helou brothers, stonecutters and house builders of Arrabeh, had built a modest stone home for themselves in their land at the edge of the village. At the time, no sane villager bothered with building permits. This was in the early 1950s more than a decade before the Israeli legislators promulgated the Planning and Zoning Law. But the Helou’s new home was an exception, a clear physical outlier beyond the perimeter of the old village, an eyesore in the midst of the olive fields at the side of the only paved road to Arrabeh. When the police arrived with the bulldozer at dawn that morning someone in the family cried out for help and within minutes the whole village woke up to the booming voice of Ammu—Uncle—Fayez, the blind town crier, calling from the mosque’s minaret on everyone to come to the aid of the Helou’s. Alas, by the time everyone arrived wielding their sticks and stones, the two-room residence was already a pile of rubble and the police and their horrible machine had departed. Not long after, a new and outlying home in the neighboring village of Deir Hanna, that of a hapless widow and her children with no land to build on inside the village, was also demolished in a predawn military-style operation. The lesson was clear from these and similar cases: Stay within the traditional limits of your village or else!

But Palestinians are a hardheaded lot. In Arrabeh, that same Saturday, our newly enforced day of rest, Ammu Fayez let out another early-morning call for help from the minaret of the mosque asking all skilled construction workers in the village, which meant nearly all its able bodied men, to donate their labor that day to the ‘bereaved’ Helous. Before sundown the house was up again and the concrete roof fully in place. A festive meal was enjoyed by all and the Helous went on to beget a veritable clan at the center of a new neighborhood in Arrabeh with many illegally built residences. A similar fate awaited the poor widow in the neighboring village.

Over time, house demolition became the parallel tactic to the never-ending wait for village master plans and the legally required detailed plans for each neighborhood. Local planning committees are under the thumb of officials of the Ministry of the Interior. The land is too valuable to the state for its owners to use it at will. It is the reserve the State of the Jews needs for its ‘real citizens.’ Soon it would all become clear. In another and more thoroughly considered turn of the land acquisition (read: theft) process, planners sprang to action. Such lands, outside the now formalized and constricted Palestinian village limits, minus what the state has confiscated for the ‘public good’ were placed under the control of the invented “Regional Councils” of Jewish settlements. Now, even if the Palestinian residents of Arab villages like Arrabeh formally own the land, its destiny, future plans and tax revenues revert to neighboring Jewish settlements. That is how, as of 2004, the Misgav Regional Council in Galilee, for example, had a population of 18,000 residents and a land reserve of 180,000 dunams , while Sakhnin, one of several Palestinian towns enclosed on all sides by Misgav, had a population of 23,000 and a land reserve of only 9,000 dunams. I own a couple of Acres of Misgav’s land reserves. And I know the ultimate fate of that property of mine. And I don’t trust all of my liberal Jewish neighbors in Misgav who like to hobnob with me and my Arab co-villagers over beer and hummus.

Well, how does one deal with such an impossible situation, especially in “The Jewish State” with its commitment to maintaining a ‘demographic balance?’ Israel’s founder and first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, set the limit for the Palestinian Citizens of Israel, or “Israel’s Arabs” as the country’s officials, journalist and academicians insist on calling us, at 15% of the total citizenship of the country. Then Yitzhak Rabin, no less a credible authority on the matter, pushed the upper limit to 20% to no avail. Policy makers, planners, academicians, journalists and politicians, in short the whole ‘Jewish nation,’ look at that tipping point and see red.  They explain, advise, lecture and threaten to no avail. They build a consensus against the monstrous reality by calling it “a ticking demographic time-bomb.” That way all bets are off. They tighten whatever screws they can and hope the Palestinians would get the message: LEAVE!

Except that in his “Passers Between the Passing Words” Mahmoud Darwish had beat them to that one; he had read their message: Himself a refugee, he vented his anger by summing up what Zionist Israel had done to him. They had destroyed his home, taken away his land, thrown him out and were manipulating empty words to make his exile permanent, in death as in life. They even tampered with his “memory of memories.” Ultimately they would deny him burial in his family’s cemetery in his erased home village of Birweh in coastal Galilee. He screamed his outrage by flinging back at them the curses they had practiced on him:
“Live where you wish but do not live among us
It is time for you to get out
and die where you wish but do not die among us.
Get out of our land
our continent, our sea
our wheat, our salt, our sore
our everything, and get out

of the memory of memories.”