The Galilee First, if the world is serious about Israel and Palestine!

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Attorney Sabri Jiryis (L) and Sam Bahour standing on the rooftop of the 113-year-old Saint Elias Church in the Palestinian village of Fassouta in the Western Galilee. The South Lebanon skyline is in the background.

Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands and Israeli dominance over Palestinian lives comes in a variety of shapes, forms, and flavors. Understandably, the international community and many Israeli citizens are in an uproar today about the impending Israeli annexation of large swaths of the West Bank, however, their hypocrisy can no longer be concealed.

Not only is this yet another act of de jure annexation by Israel, but the upcoming act of annexation is being made out to be the overarching issue at hand. It is not, per se. For decades, Israel’s actions on the ground have always pointed to the dangerous place we have reached today. For countries of the world or Israeli citizens to be surprised that the U.S-Israeli partnership is about to embark on another catastrophic and illegal act is only evidence that they have been sleeping at the wheel for decades. The time has come for serious stakeholders to hold Israel accountable for all their acts, in Occupied Palestine and Israel, and not only threaten to take action if the next round of annexation materializes.

Palestinians in Israel

The horrendous reality of the Palestinian communities inside Israel — in places like Akka, Haifa, Nazareth, Jaffa, and the Negev — is not about being regulated to sit in the back of the bus; they could only wish for such blatant racism. Here, racism is multilayered, ideological, well-camouflaged, state-sponsored, and non-stop.

Anyone who thinks that stopping the next Israeli annexation of additional parts of the West Bank would bring peace closer would be well-advised to peel away the veneer of democratic façade, one that covers an Israeli plan with only one goal in mind — completing the campaign of ethnically cleansing Palestinians — on both sides of the Green Line — that started with the creation of the State of Israel.

I witnessed the state of Palestinian citizens in Israel on a visit to Northern Israel in 2012. My trip took place on a beautiful fall day, I sat in a friend’s living room in the village of Fassouta at the northern tip of Israel, adjacent to the Lebanese border, in the part of Israel called the Galilee. This is where the Palestinian citizens in Israel are concentrated. Five generations of Palestinians were sitting in the room. As expected in Palestinian society, within no time, politics was the focus of the discussion. But this political discussion had a different twist from what most of those following this conflict are accustomed to. The issues had to do with the Palestinian citizens in Israel and how the Israeli government systematically and structurally discriminates against them.

Bilateral negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, better known as the infamous Middle East (Oslo) Peace Process, began with a model (and accompanying actions on the ground) of . The idea was that the Palestinian Authority, which the Oslo Accords created, would start by being set up in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank city of Jericho, a sort of pilot phase before subsequently deploying to all of the Palestinian areas defined in the Accords. The standing joke at the time was that what Israel, the military occupying power, really meant was !

With two decades of a never-ending “peace process,” Israel diverted the world’s attention, including the Palestinian leadership, away from the discriminatory workings within Israel itself. As the parties quibbled over who violated the Oslo Agreement first and most, Israel never stopped strangulating the Palestinian towns and villages inside it. Even back then, some of the mainstream, international research outfits, such as the International Crisis Group (ICG), were forced to take note. Their March 2012 report titled, “Back to Basics: Israel’s Arab Minority and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” stated:

That’s researcher-talk for a slow and calculated campaign of displacing an entire population in broad daylight — world, take note.

Israel is empty

As one travels northward in Israel, a stark reality cannot be ignored. Israel is empty. Most of the lands which comprise the State of Israel, as it is recognized worldwide, are empty of any population. The sad irony is that less than one hour’s drive north of where we were sitting, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, who, since 1948, have been prohibited by Israel from returning to their homes, dwell in squalid refugee camps, waiting for international law and UN resolutions calling for their return home to be respected.

Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, a Palestinian researcher with the Palestine Land Society, and a refugee himself has extensively documented this phenomenon of empty lands in Israel, lands that Palestinian refugees call home. The undeniable fact is that allowing Palestinian refugees to return home would geographically disrupt very little on the ground in Israel. It would, however, threaten the very basis of its existence as a supposedly exclusively “Jewish state” and create a demographic majority of Palestinians — a normal expectation, given that they were the majority in 1948 before being expelled. Ironically, whether Palestinian refugees are permitted to return to Israel or not, Israel will face the same existential question from natural demographic growth — What will Israel do when Jews in Israel become a minority?

One strategy, multiple applications

Another startling realization, when traveling around the Palestinian farming villages in the Galilee, is that the hilltops are dotted with gated, Jewish Israeli communities and Israeli government-declared nature reserves, all creating a physical barrier to the natural growth of the native Palestinian communities. Added to these physical obstructions to Palestinian development, Israeli law provides for another platform, a legal one, whereby hundreds of Israeli communities can keep out Palestinians on cultural grounds.

Coming from the occupied territory of the West Bank, these physical obstacles and legal tools looked to me much like the illegal, Jewish-only settlements that surround every Palestinian city. The physical location of both types of these residential colonies is not random, but rather a sharp demographic weapon to interrupt and stunt the growth of the Palestinian communities.

I wanted to see more but had to head back home to the West Bank. Now that I am a Palestinian ID holder, which means I have West Bank residency status issued by the Israeli occupation authorities, I cannot be in Israel as a tourist. My U.S. citizenship — my only citizenship — is useless now that I am classified as a West Bank Palestinian in the Israeli government’s eyes. Israel is the only place on earth where I am not recognized as the American that I am! Thus, my Israeli military-issued permit, which allows me to enter Israel, restricts my movement so that I have to be back by ten in the evening to what I call my , also known as the metropolitan area of Ramallah.

What is now clear to me, and wasn’t when I first arrived in Palestine shortly after the Oslo Accords were signed, is that the system of command and control, which oppresses nearly five million Palestinians under military occupation, is strikingly similar to the system which controls nearly two million Muslim and Christian Palestinians inside Israel, who are Israeli citizens.

The ultimate Israeli goal is to erase Palestinian collective memory, limit Palestinian education, squeeze Palestinian living space, and strangle any serious notion of Palestinian economic enterprise. But Palestinians are not going anywhere. This was confirmed when I asked a law student from this Galilaean village where he plans to be in five years. Without hesitation, he answered, “Here, in my village, and not for the next five years, but for the next 10 and 20 and 100 years.” Eight years have passed since his answer. He is still in his village, now married and with a son.

After hours of deep discussion in that quiet Palestinian village of Fassouta, tucked away in the velvet-like green hills of the Galilee, a veteran Palestinian researcher, who was quiet for most of the time, spoke in a calm, definitive voice. He said that everything we were discussing, in terms of how much harm Israel is doing to Palestinians living in Israel and under military occupation, is true, but in the village, the numbers speak volumes. Over the past 72 years, since Israel’s creation, and despite all of its attempts to force the Palestinians off the land, the population has increased as per official Israeli statistics. As long as the Palestinians exist on this land, he asserted, their rights are bound to be realized.

Annexation here, annexation there

The ultimate goal of more annexation is to get more Palestinians to voluntarily leave Palestine and Israel.

All the way home, I could not get out of my mind a new political slogan that would reveal the extent of the Palestinian tragedy, . Instead of managing the conflict as if the only contentious issue is about those of us living under Israeli military occupation, the international community, Israeli citizens, and Palestinian leadership as well, should call for the world to witness the reality of Palestinians inside Israel.

If Israel is bent on discriminating against one-fifth of its citizens, what should we expect of it in the occupied territory, areas that are not internationally recognized as Israel? Indeed, the next time I am asked what I think the solution to this conflict is, my answer will be ready: Let us start with full equal rights for Palestinians inside Israel. In other words, The Galilee comes first if Israel — and the world — is serious about peace and truly desires historic reconciliation with the Palestinians.

Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy NetworkHOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians@SamBahour

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Writer, businessperson, activist.

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