The View of Arab Citizens of Israel
by Huwaida ArrafModerator Delinda Hanley: And I hear Huwaida, or her entourage children. Huwaida Arraf is going to talk about the situation of Arab citizens of Israel. Huwaida is a Palestinian American lawyer and human rights advocate. And as the daughter of an Israeli-born Palestinian, she is also a citizen of Israel. In 2001 Arraf co-founded the International Solidarity Movement, which has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
She was one of the organizers of a delegation of American lawyers to Gaza in February 2009, and she co-authored the report on their findings. She is the former chairperson of the Free Gaza Movement, and led five successful sea voyages to the Gaza Strip to challenge Israel’s illegal blockade. She was one of the primary organizers of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, too. Please welcome Huwaida. Please write down some questions for the speakers. You don’t have many opportunities to ask these questions.
Huwaida Arraf: Good afternoon. I’m honored to be with you today and especially on such a distinguished panel. I was asked to speak about the situation of—well, actually the title of the talk was, “The View of an Arab Citizen of Israel.” In order to give you that view, I think I need to start off by saying that I don’t use that term, Arab citizen of Israel or Arab Israeli or Israeli Arab. I use the term, Palestinian citizen of Israel, not even Palestinian Israeli.
And this is not to negate my Arabness at all. Palestinians and Palestine is a very proud part of the Arab world. But it is because it is an assertion of my national identity, and a national identity that Israel has been trying to eradicate systematically for decades. And for a while, Palestinians inside Israel actually went along with it.
After 1948 the thought was, we will try to assimilate as best as possible, keep our heads down, but that is no longer. I should note when saying that identifying myself as a Palestinian citizen of Israel is a way of asserting national identity, you might ask, well, what about Israeli nationality?
Actually, the Israeli Supreme Court—I don’t know if many of you know—ruled that Israeli is not a national identity because Israel considers itself the state of the Jewish people instead of being the state of its citizens. This allows for the systematic discrimination of anybody that is not Jewish. The previous panelists talked a lot about this, so I won’t go into it as much, except to tell you some personal experiences.
Before that, I need to also assert that Palestinians inside Israel, as you all probably know, we are the remnants of the Palestinian people who survived the ethnic cleansing of 1948. And after that, after most Palestinian Christians and Muslims were kicked out of Palestine or killed—we did not relinquish our national identity—Israel changed our political status against our will and made us a minority in our own country. And that is how we remain. People inside continue to fight for basic rights up against this institution that defines itself as existing for the Jewish people; therefore, no matter what in that political system, we cannot be equals.
I am also an American citizen, and it pains me or annoys me to no end to repeatedly hear about how we Americans and Israelis share the same values. Now since Israel’s last election, we heard the White House actually express its “deep concern” over the video that surfaced of Netanyahu talking about or fear mongering about how the Arabs are coming out to vote in droves.
And while that was a positive recognition and a first step, it did not go far enough, and it was also couched in quite problematic language. Because in an interview, Obama said “although Israel was founded based on this historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly.” And there could be nothing further from the truth because since 1948 we have been discriminated against in all facets of life.
People tell me—but you are a citizen, and you can vote, and you can travel freely. Yes, I’m a citizen, and yes, I can vote, and yes, I can leave from Ben-Gurion airport, whereas Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot do that. Some of us, though, a lot of us to have to go through extra Israeli security because we stand up for or oppose Israel’s policies. And so while I can travel through Ben-Gurion airport, I am always pulled aside, and it takes quite a long time till they search every nook and cranny of everything that I’m carrying and everything that is on me. Whereas Jewish Israelis or Jews coming from anywhere in the world don’t have to go through that.
But also the little things—I think not so little—but things that you might not hear about. My grandfather passed away fighting to keep his land. We come from a small village in the Galilee, a village that is now about half its size. My grandfather was the largest landowner in that village. Israel kept taking part of that land to build what they called moshavim-like settlements inside Israel for immigrants that they pulled over from abroad in order to increase the number of Jews inside the country.
When I was younger, because I was born in the United States and my parents years ago (and I won’t say how many so as to not let you know how old I am), but many years ago, my parents left when my mother was eight months pregnant with me because they wanted to raise up or to start their family in the United States, where they wouldn’t live under occupation in Beit Sahour—which is where my mom is from, it’s a West Bank town near Bethlehem—or live as a discriminated-against minority inside Israel. And so I was born and raised here. But, as Delinda said, because my father is an Israeli citizen, he was able to give me citizenship, and therefore I am also an Israeli citizen.
Now, when I was younger, we could go back and forth and my father tried to take us all the time—almost every summer—so we could maintain a connection with our land and with our family there. In 1986, that was the last time we went as a family. Because by that time, I was old enough to be cognizant of the discrimination that we were treated with, the humiliation that we were forced to endure as we were separated and strip-searched. Even as children when we were traveling, I was the oldest of four kids at that time, and even as young kids we were strip-searched. We were held for so long that the plane took off without us. This is when we were searched actually in Amsterdam—as Israeli security was in Amsterdam—on the way to Israel, and the same thing leaving. So my father decided that he wasn’t going to go back again with us as a family.
In 2000, his siblings were telling him that, you know, your father is getting sick and he’s dying, you should come see him. He wouldn’t go. And the next time that he went was to attend his father’s funeral. And I think that that’s a mild case, because things are so much worse in many other instances where families are completely separated from each other. Where Jews anywhere have a right to come and get almost automatic citizenship in Israel, but Palestinians who were made refugees cannot be reunited with their families that remained and that are now citizens of Israel.
Maybe you know about the citizenship and nationality law that was passed in 2003. So a Palestinian citizen who marries a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza cannot bring that spouse to live with him or her inside Israel; and therefore, you have also dividing families. Also a citizen cannot bring his or her kids, if they are over a certain age, to live with him or her inside Israel, again tearing families apart.
Little things—like my sister decided in 2000, she married a Palestinian from our village. She decided that she wanted to live there. She was going to bring her stuff over. She shipped her car from the United States. There is a law on the books that the Israelis allow for citizens returning. They allow all these exemptions and all these perks because they want mainly Jews to come back. So she was supposed to be exempted according to this law from having to pay a tax on her car. Her car was worth $12,000. They wanted to charge her $17,000 tax on the car. But she said, look, I’m qualified for this exemption. I’m a citizen who is returning to the country. And for over a month [she went from] office to office, lawyer after lawyer as her car was being held, and in the end someone told her, but this doesn’t apply to you because you’re not Jewish.
So the laws on the books don’t actually—there are about 50 laws right now that discriminate against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, but they don’t actually say that they discriminate against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. It is just how it is applied. It’s generally couched in more generic terms. For example, there are over 700 community councils that get to decide what people come and live in their communities. This is a de facto green light for these councils to say that Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, do not fit the bill to live in our community. But it doesn’t say that, you know, this is what these councils are for, but that’s what they are for.
I don’t want to take up too much time, but I want to—one thing also I wanted to mention is, when some of us, I said at the beginning that we became more cognizant of the fact that we are connected to our Palestinian brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza; we are one people. It is only by Israel’s systematic policies that try to paint us as another and divide us not only physically but also psychologically.
Those of us who have been trying to break that have been targeted in various ways. The Knesset, the Israeli political body, is considering over and over again specific laws that would label citizens as terrorist supporters or terrorists as a way to strip them of citizenship or prosecute them or worse.
We have in exile, also a prominent political leader, Azmi Bishara, who the Israelis went after as possibly being a traitor. Ameer Makhoul, who’s sitting in jail, also he’s a Palestinian political leader from inside Israel, for the same reason. And myself I’ve been active mainly in the West Bank and Gaza for a long time. But when we were considering those first boats to Gaza, although I very much wanted to be on them, it was a decision that was not easy to make, because would Israel then paint me as a terrorist supporter because I was going to be on my way to Gaza?
But I ended up being on that boat and we got our boats into Gaza. And when I got a few seconds to speak to the Gaza people, the thousands and thousands who came to welcome us, what did I say? I said that, “I’m a Palestinian born in the United States. My mother is from the West Bank; my father is from inside Israel. I live in Ramallah. I work in Jerusalem and I’ve come home to Gaza. Because we are one people, we will not be divided.”
I have my daughter here with me. Well, because my husband [Adam Shapiro] is busy with my son, but also because I wanted to tell you briefly about their situation. They are also citizens of Israel. Now, I could not pass my citizenship on to them unless they were born in Israel. Again, this is another law that is not specifically meant to just say–—it doesn’t say it discriminates against Palestinians specifically. But when applied, yes. If I had my son or my daughter here [in the United States], I could not pass my Israeli citizenship onto them.
An Israeli Jew might not be able to either, but an Israeli Jew can always go and claim automatic citizenship to Israel. My kids would not be able to. So if I had them here [in the U.S.] surrounded by my family and my husband, who was not allowed to be with me because Israel bans him from entering, if I had them here, then in the future Israel could say that, they cannot come in and they cannot know their land or their family. So my husband and I made that decision a couple of years ago that I would—we traveled together actually and he was arrested—here is my husband. He was arrested by the Israeli authorities. He sat in jail, we tried to challenge it, but in the end it didn’t work. I was nine months pregnant, they deported him and he only got to see his son [Diyaar] the first few weeks via Skype. The same thing with our daughter Mayaar, but we guarantee that they at least now have this Israeli citizenship so that in the future, hopefully, you know, Israel will not be able to deny them access to their homeland.
To the question whether the Israeli Lobby is good for Israel, I think I agree with Gideon Levy in the sense that, if we’re talking about in Israel or whatever you want to call it, really, but if we’re talking about the well-being of a society, the future of kids in that society to be able to live free, not discriminated against, and to thrive in that fashion, then what the Israel Lobby is doing is completely antithetical to that. I don’t want my kids to grow up [there], even though they can have access to the country, but feeling as a discriminated-against minority or even worse.
And so I’m working here hopefully with all of you. Why this conference is so important is that, we build the alternative lobby. Yes, we hear about how powerful AIPAC is, but that’s only because we have not yet stepped up to the plate. Because look at all of us. We are here today and so many more who aren’t here today that think the way we do that that place—Israel, Palestine, whatever you want to call it— should not be a place of racism and discrimination and apartheid and killing. It needs to be something better for all of the kids of that region no matter what race, religion or ethnicity.
And to do that, we raise our voices. So if the Israeli Lobby is going to continue doing what it’s doing then we raise our voices even louder. We join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. That is putting pressure on Israel, and I think the stranglehold that the Israeli Lobby has on the United States is breaking. I bring my kids to these conferences in the hopes that in the future I can just show them a picture, because what we are fighting for, the reality that we live today, won’t be a reality when they are old enough to understand.