“They want the land without the people”: How Arab Israelis see annexation

For many Arab citizens of Israel, annexation proposals are seen as continuing a long-standing infringement of their rights.

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Nobody knows for sure what is the planned scope of Israel’s much-touted annexation of up to 30 per cent of territories in the West Bank. Indeed, nobody knows for sure exactly when the move will go ahead, or even if it will. On Tuesday, one day before his own target date, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his government “will keep working” on the issue “in the coming days”. A signal, perhaps, that he was going to miss it.

The process could in theory have begun as soon as Wednesday 1 July. Opposition to the move has stirred deep concerns and international criticism for weeks, however, alongside a promised “big announcement” from Donald Trump – whose controversial peace plan is the basis for Netanyahu’s actions.

The Belgian parliament passed a resolution last week urging sanctions against Israel if unilateral annexation goes ahead, followed days later by a similar call from the parliament in the Netherlands. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned against the move in an op-ed in Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, and Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, has called for a ban on the import of goods from illegal West Bank settlements, saying that “such a blatant breach of international law must have consequences”. Israeli daily Haaretz reported that a coalition of progressive Jewish organisations has been meeting with Israeli diplomats around the world to express opposition. And in an unprecedented intervention earlier this month, the UAE ambassador to Washington also expressed opposition op-ed in Yediot Aharonot. “Israeli plans for annexation and talk of normalization are a contradiction,” he warned.

Among Israelis, opinion polling paints a mixed picture. One poll published in June found that 32.2 per cent of Israelis supported annexation, while 41.7 per cent opposed it. But once you break opposition down demographically, there is a large disparity between Jewish and Arab citizens. According to another survey published in May, a slight majority of 52 per cent of Jewish Israelis support annexation, yet only 8.8 per cent of Arab Israelis are in favour. Looked at politically, the data highlights additional gaps: a majority of Israelis on the right are pro-annexation, but it is only supported by a minority of centrist or left-wing voters.

There were also major differences in the polling between Arabs and Jews on what political status Palestinians in annexed territories should get. While 47 per cent of Arabs in the May poll said Palestinians in annexed territories should be granted Israeli citizenship, only 20.2 per cent of Jews agreed. Some 23.7 per cent of Jews thought those annexed should be given the lesser status of permanent residency, compared to just 4.5 per cent of Arabs, while over a third of Jews said annexed Palestinians should not be granted any status beyond that which they have today.

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Internal opposition to annexation comes from various quarters. These include those in the Israeli peace camp who still believe in the possibility of two states, and who see the move as the death knell of the two-state solution. It also includes those who think it is dangerous for Israel in terms of security, and those who think the move goes against the democratic character of the state. Others have argued that Israel can’t afford to annex territories given the current economic climate. Opposition has also, along the way, come from settlers who said Trump’s plan would leave isolated settlements surrounded by a future Palestinian state. But for Arab citizens, who make up 20 per cent of the Israeli population, the proposed move is also a continuation of long-standing policies infringing on their civil and political rights.

“They want the land without the people on it, without equal status, just like they promoted under the Nation-State Law," says Mohammad Darawshe, director of the Centre for Equality & Shared Society at Givat Haviva, a non-profit.

Passed in 2018, this basic law, which has semi-constitutional status, declared that the right to exercise self-determination in Israel “is unique to the Jewish people”. It also downgraded Arabic from an official language to one with “special status”. Long before that law was passed, Arab citizens in Israel faced systemic discrimination, from underfunding to political marginalisation. Darawshe notes the fact that, as was evident in three Israeli elections over the past year, the prospect of Arab parties joining a governing coalition is still an Israeli taboo.

The Israeli right today "is advancing a messianic, racist state, that will be built on the basis of apartheid", Darawshe says. There is no respect "for the promise that my grandfather got in 1948, the promise that is in [Israel's] Declaration of Independence". That text states that Israel "will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex".

“All our life they talked to us about a hummus co-existence, that everything will be nice, but most of the time we maintain ranks,” says Darawshe. “Today the Arab public in Israel understands that we aren't willing to be the horse that is always ridden, and every once in a while he gets a little pat. That is not the co-existence we want. We want co-existence based on principles and equality,” he says, adding “I think that more and more the feeling that is growing in Arab society is the feeling of fear”.

For Palestinians in the Jordan Valley, East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967 without granting citizenship to the Palestinians living there, is a harbinger of what might happen. Some 300,000 Palestinians live there with residency status. They can’t vote in national elections and they can lose that status if they leave the area for continuous periods.

Aziz Abu Sarah, an activist, grew up in East Jerusalem. Two years ago he ran to be mayor of the divided city. “Our experience with annexation has not proven it to go well. We remain marginalised as a community and I think those who live in the areas that are going to be annexed will be marginalised,” he says, pointing to existing inequalities in East Jerusalem, on subjects as varied as housebuilding to school budgets.

“Our status in Jerusalem is that of a guest. We were born all of us there, our family, our grandparents, our great grandparents – and yet according to the Israeli government we are residents in Jerusalem, which gives them the right to get rid of us at any point that they would like us to vanish. This is what I think people in the West Bank should expect. It's not going to be an easy experience and in some ways it will make their lives a lot more difficult." He adds that Jordan Valley residents shouldn’t expect much help from the Palestinian Authority, either.

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The Trump Peace Plan also “contemplates the possibility” of Arab citizens of Israel currently living in the northern “triangle” area – around 260,000 people – becoming part of a future Palestinian state “subject to agreement of the parties.” In February, Netanyahu said this option, which would see Israeli citizens transferred to another state, was not being considered — but it still appears in the text of Trump’s "Deal of the Century” and, according to a Haaretz report, it was Netanyahu who originally suggested the idea to the Americans.

There is a contradiction here, says Abu Sarah. On the one hand, Trump’s plan implies that the US and Israel think it’s acceptable to “get rid of Palestinian people who are citizens of Israel at the moment”, and to transfer them to a state that does not yet exist, while at the same time extending sovereignty over land that could have been part of a future Palestinian state. Meanwhile, no-one is talking about the rights of Palestinians living in the territories that may be annexed. “That’s kind of an afterthought,” he says. "If there will never be a Palestinian state then let's not play games….if you want to annex, take the whole thing and give people equal citizenship.”

At an anti-annexation protest in early June in Tel Aviv, Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List alliance of Arab-majority parties, told the crowd that, “There is no such thing as democracy for Jews alone…Just like Martin Luther King and his supporters in the United States, we must realise that without justice there can be no peace. And there will be no social justice if we do not end the occupation.”

On this issue “I think there is a mass of Jews who are willing and who understand the importance of joining with the Arab public,” says Knesset member Aida Touma Sliman of the Joint List. “I want a partnership that can find a shared goal and go for it,” she says, adding that whether collaboration on this issue positively affects relations between Arabs and Jews in the longer-term is another matter.

For Touma Sliman, these latest developments are a continuation of the status quo, in which she both works in Israeli’s parliament to improve the lives of Joint List voters and opposes Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza. “We fight the occupation and ask for equality, and I don't think the two things contradict each other. Quite the opposite, we understand that part of our reality and part of the situation where we don't get rights and the equality is because we are Palestinians and because Israel continues the occupation of the Palestinian people. I think it’s meant to sharpen our demands.”

Would annexation mean the two-state solution is dead? “No, I think that the only option if we agree to give up and let Netanyahu and his government win is an apartheid state, and not a state of all its citizens. The moment that we say there is no possibility of changing the reality and setting up a Palestinian state then we are saying Netanyahu won.”

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Haneen Zoabi was the first female Arab lawmaker in Israel. A controversial figure, last year she left politics after a decade as a representative of the Palestinian nationalist party Balad. Even before annexation was in the headlines, Zoabi didn't believe Arab citizens could be truly equal in Israel if it is a Zionist state.

“What [proposed] annexation shows is that Israel doesn't differentiate [between Palestinians who are citizens and Palestinians who aren't]. It doesn't only want maximum land, it wants minimum Palestinians, and even if they are citizens, it doesn't matter", she says.

Annexation, says Zoabi, and the possibility mentioned in Trump’s peace plan of transferring Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state, are “part of a colonial project” going back to the Nakba in 1948, the term which Palestinians use to refer to the establishment of the State of Israel, the Arabic word for “catastrophe”. “I don't know how much more honest Israel has to be,” she says.

She thinks that Arab politicians in Israel should stop talking about equality and adopt Balad’s "discourse on Zionist colonialism". The solution, she believes, is “a state for all its citizens”. This is “the only possible democratic state, which is – we should always remember – a huge Palestinian historical compromise”.

Whichever way annexation goes, for Darawshe, the move would create "such a deep gap of values between Jews and Arabs in Israel, that in my opinion its solution will be more than 70 years in the future, if it even is possible to fix it”. A Jewish and democratic state is possible, he believes, but only if these two principles have equal standing.

The direction of travel that unilateral annexation indicates for the future of non-Jews in the Jewish state should serve as a warning to Israelis, he says. “I think that what is most important now is to make use of the opportunity we have to talk with the Jewish public in Israel and tell them that this step could bring a catastrophe and the loss of everything we have built together in terms of a shared society and a shared life.”

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.

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