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Political mobilization of palestinians in Israel: The al-'Ard movement

Abstract

During the rise in Arab nationalist mobilization in the 1950s throughout the Arab world, al-'Ard was established in Israel parallel to these movements but with a unique combination of nationalist pan-Arab ideology tailored to the special situation of Palestinians in Israel. While its ideology was pan-Arab, its activities and demands focused on issues that were most urgent to Palestinians, such as the right of return, and on issues specific to Palestinians within Israel, including the cessation of the military government and of land confiscation, and the extension of social and economic rights. In my discussion of al-'Ard, I attend to the agency of Palestinian citizens who resisted Israeli dominance in various and innovative ways; they presented a challenge to Israeli claims of democracy by asserting their rights to negotiate their status as part of the new state and as part of their history. These attempts faced profound Israeli repression and an extensive system that the Israeli government utilized to maintain its control over the Palestinians. This repression and control were part of the Israeli rejection of Palestinian political rights as a national minority and as citizens of the state. It is also an expression of the Israeli policy that clearly viewed Palestinian rights as limited by the existing definition of the state as Jewish. Any attempt to challenge this definition led the state to combat it, asserting that it was acting as a "defensive democracy" in repressing Palestinian political mobilization. When al-'Ard started as a political movement, the Israeli government was still in the zenith of its use of military repression against the Arab minority that stayed within the state in order to assure they would remain a marginalized minority that would not interfere with the Zionist program to build the "Jewish state" in Palestine. The international situation, the tension with Egypt and the Arab world, and the fresh memories of the 1948 and 1956 wars did not allow any space for Palestinian discourse within Israeli society to be voiced. The Israeli-Jewish public, told that its very existence was still endangered, was all too ready to accept governmental policies toward and representations of the Palestinian minority, including the claim that al-'Ard was an agent of the Arab world set to destroy the state. In this tense context, al-'Ard's leaders expressed their ideas in a direct, uncompromising manner and were influenced by statements of Nasser and the nationalist discourse in the Arab world that they often repeated. This contributed to alienating the movement from the Israeli public, which viewed it as a threat. It also isolated al-'Ard from big segments of the Palestinian community who lived under the repressive mechanisms of military rule and witnessed the suppressive measures used against the movement. This isolation aided the government in its determination to break it. Al-'Ard members were harassed and the movement was restricted and eventually banned. It was not allowed to practice political freedom in a democratic way and could not compete to win the support of public opinion for the ideas it represented. Although many of the positions and struggles that al-'Ard assumed at the time already existed within the Israeli Communist Party, the latter was tolerated more due to the CPI's joint Arab-Jewish nature, and to the greater caution that its activists exercised in expressing their positions. By 1965, al-'Ard was banned and all its activities were terminated. Edward Said asserts that it was the first resurgence of Palestinian national consciousness after 1948 (Said and Barsamian, 1994: 24). Its members maintain that the movement's political impact and inspiration remained (Qahwaji, 1978: 66). They claim that they raised and strengthened national awareness, organized national activism, exposed oppressive Israeli policies, and led to a greater involvement of Communist activists in the nationalist movement (Qahwaji, 1972: 474). They also maintain that they developed a young leadership who were pioneers in the struggle for Arabs' rights in Israel thereafter (Amun et al. 1981: 27). They contend that the founding of al-'Ard led to an ideological continuation in nationalist Palestinian groups and parties that developed later, including Abna' al-Balad (Sons of the Village) and al-Tajamu' al-Watani al-Dimuqrati (National Democratic Assembly) (interviews, Me'ari and Jiryis, 2005). However, although both of these movements espoused an ideology similar to al-'Ard, they developed in different historical contexts and played different roles, especially after the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. At the same time, it could be argued that the oppressive measures that were taken against al-'Ard deterred others from trying to establish other political parties and from being active within the Palestinian community in Israel. It took almost twenty years until another independent party, the Socialist List led by Muhammad Me'ari, was established. However, during that time, there was no lack of Palestinian community activities, as the CPI gained strength as the main oppositional voice of the community. It is hard to determine, after the fact, what the long-term impact of al-'Ard was. In particular, it is difficult to assess the extent of the support it achieved; furthermore, the support it could have achieved had it not been suppressed is hard to verify. The openly pan-Arab nationalist discourse it used helped make it part of the wider Palestinian discourse outside Israel. Yet, even members of the movement itself were obliged to take further precautions in their future political activities or leave the country altogether. What is clear from exploring the history of al-'Ard is that Palestinians within Israel found various ways and utilized different spaces in order to resist Israeli hegemonic and exclusionary policies and assert their identity.
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