Palestinian protests in Israel showcase ‘unprecedented’ unity

Palestinian citizens of Israel say widespread protests reflect a shared movement against Israeli colonialism.

Palestinian citizens of Israel gather next to a mosque during confrontations between far-right Jewish settlers and Israeli police in the mixed town of Lod (Lydd), central Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. [Heidi Levine/AP Photo]

During the past week, Israeli incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and raids on the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood Sheikh Jarrah continued, while a brutal Israeli military offensive on the blockaded Gaza Strip has left many Palestinians dead.

But an extraordinary phenomenon has also taken root inside Israel, where thousands of Palestinian citizens in towns, villages and so-called “mixed” cities have taken to the streets to assert their identity while living in a self-defined Jewish state.

“What is remarkable is that within ’48 [modern-day Israel, with reference to the 1948 declaration of the state], Palestinians who have long been ignored or deemed as ‘Israeli Arabs’ are once again restating powerfully that they are Palestinians,” said Layla Hallaq, a Palestinian activist based in Haifa.

Hallaq told Al Jazeera that the current demonstrations are “unprecedented” and characterised by a popular solidarity movement among Palestinians within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in the diaspora.

“Their protests are not only of solidarity, but one of a shared cause and mutual pain experienced by every Palestinian.”

Israeli forces detain a group of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the city of Lydd on May 13 [Ahmad Gharabli/AFP]

Making up about a fifth of Israel’s population, Palestinian citizens of Israel number approximately 1.6 million people today.

Unlike the majority of Palestinians, who were ethnically cleansed by Zionist paramilitaries before and during the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, these Palestinians are descendants of those who managed to remain in their towns and villages or were internally displaced.

They are sometimes referred to as “1948 Palestinians” in reference to their location within territory that was forcibly taken over to establish the Israeli state. The territory is also described as being “within the Green Line”, in reference to the line demarcating Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories under its control.

Despite holding Israeli citizenship, rights groups have documented several dozen Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens across a wide spectrum of issues, including education, housing, political participation and due process. They are treated as second- and third-class citizens.

Mass protests

During the past week, Palestinian protests have taken place in towns and cities across Israel, from the Naqab (Negev) Desert in the south to Ramla, Yafa and Lydd (Lod in Hebrew) in the centre of the country, to the “Triangle” region and to Haifa and Nazareth in the north.

The demonstrators rallied in solidarity with Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, who are facing imminent forced expulsion from their homes, and against the Israeli storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which left hundreds of Palestinians wounded.

It is not the first time Palestinian citizens of Israel have protested against Israeli policies.

In 1976, six Palestinians were shot and killed for protesting Israeli mass land expropriation – an event that came to be known as Land Day and is commemorated annually on March 30. In October 2000, 13 Palestinians were shot dead as they joined in the second Intifada, triggered by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa compound.

Still, Israel historically has pursued a policy of fragmentation of the Palestinian population under its control, both inside the country and in the occupied Palestinian territories, making sustained shows of solidarity between Palestinians in various parts of historic Palestine all the more difficult.

But experts have said the continuing protests inside Israel show how connected Palestinians really are.

“The recent events highlight not only the unity of the system of colonial oppression, but also the unity of Palestinian struggle,” Nimer Sultany, a reader of public law at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told Al Jazeera.

“Like in previous rounds of protests, such as in October 2000, Palestinian protesters in 1948 areas showed in practice the necessity and practicality of an anti-colonial struggle.”

A picture shows burned cars and a rubbish container in the city of Lod on May 13 [Ahmad Gharabli/AFP]

‘Colonial objective’

Sultany said Israel’s policy of maintaining a Jewish majority within the Green Line is no different from its demographic engineering in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, where it works to dispossess Palestinians from their lands and impose a Jewish presence instead.

“The colonial objective of maintaining ‘Jewish demographic control’ or ‘Jewish sovereignty’ and Judaising Palestine is the same in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as much as in the Naqab, al-Jalil (Galilee), the ‘mixed cities’, and the Triangle,” he said.

One example is the city of Lydd, a city about 25km from Tel Aviv, which has now become a flashpoint for protests. The city, once populated by 19,000 Palestinians before Israel was established, was ethnically cleansed of most of its residents in July 1948. More than 200 were killed in the massacre, which former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took part in.

Lydd today has a population of 77,000 people, 30 percent of whom are Palestinians. For years, Palestinian residents have complained of institutional racism, which fuels marginalisation and poverty. Hardline Jewish settlers also have been moving in from the occupied West Bank since 2004, fuelling tensions.

Palestinian citizens of Israel gesture and wave Palestinian flags during the funeral of Mousa Hassouna in the central city of Lydd near Tel Aviv, on May 11 [AFP]

On May 10, as tensions escalated in East Jerusalem over Israel’s planned forced expulsions of Palestinian families and attacks on Al-Aqsa, a Palestinian flag was affixed to a lamp-post in place of an Israeli one in Lydd. That same night, a Palestinian resident named Moussa Hassouna was shot dead by a Jewish settler. Settlers attacked his funeral the following day.

The violent confrontations continued, with hardline Jewish settlers being bussed in from the occupied West Bank.

Mayor Yair Revivo, who has been accused of inciting against Palestinians and is close to Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last week said he had lost control of the city. On May 11, Revivo met Netanyahu, who then announced a state of emergency in Lydd – the first since 1966. At least 16 units of Israeli border police also were deployed.

“The Jewish state will not tolerate pogroms against our citizens,” Netanyahu said in a televised address on Saturday night. “We will not allow our Jewish citizens to be lynched … At the same time, we will not allow Jews to take the law into their own hands and attack innocent Arabs.”

Settler violence

But while Israeli police said a suspect in Hassouna’s murder has been arrested, Israeli Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana called for the shooter’s release.

“The arrest of the shooter in Lod and his friends, who apparently acted in self-defence, is terrible,” Ohana said. “Law-abiding citizens carrying weapons are a force multiplier for the authorities for the immediate neutralisation of threat and danger.

Fadi Abu Kishek, Hassouna’s neighbour in Lydd, told Al Jazeera that settlers are coming from outside the city and “burning Palestinian cars, attacking the mosque, vandalising our cemetery, and marching in areas where Palestinians live”.

The mobs comprise far-right fascist groups such as Lehava, the Hilltop Youth, and football ultras La Familia and Beitar Yerushalayim, and sometimes other Israeli residents from the cities join in, Abu Kishek said.

“The settlers incite and attack, the Palestinians respond by defending themselves, [and] the police arrive on the scene and start throwing sound bombs and arresting Palestinians,” he said. “This is the reality we are dealing with.”

Jamal Abu Kasher, a resident of Lydd, looks at one of the several vandalised graves in a Muslim cemetery on May 14, 2021 [Heidi Levine/AP Photo]

Other cities have witnessed attacks by mobs of Jewish settlers, some of whom have marched in the streets under the protection of Israeli police, shouting “Death to Arabs”.

In Bat Yam, a city in central Israel, a mob brutally lynched a Palestinian man in a scene that was aired on Israeli national television, while videos and images shared on social media showed vandalised Palestinian homes and families attacked in front of their children in Haifa and Akka (Acre). Two Palestinian children also suffered severe burns when Molotov cocktails were thrown into their family’s home in the Ajami neighbourhood of Yafa.

Adalah, a legal centre for Palestinian citizens of Israel, reported that far-right Jewish Israelis have used social media to organise their attacks in recent days, and they have sent messages to each other saying they are “dying to kill Palestinians”.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has expressed alarm at the outbreak of violence inside Israel.

“I am particularly concerned at reports that Israeli police failed to intervene where Palestinian citizens of Israel were being violently attacked, and that social media is being used by ultra-right-wing groups to rally people to bring ‘weapons, knives, clubs, knuckledusters’ to use against Palestinian citizens of Israel,” Bachelet said.

Meanwhile, at least 800 Palestinian citizens of Israel – including dozens of minors – have been arrested in one week, according to lawyer Janan Abdo. “Many among the detainees required medical treatment, and there are a lot of head injuries,” Abdo said in a statement.

The Israeli police on Monday announced it had arrested 1,000 citizens – 850 of them Palestinian. The remaining 150 were left-wing Jewish Israelis.

No Jewish settler or Israeli that took part in the far-right mobs were arrested, but 116 Palestinian citizens of Israelis were indicted by the prosecution.

Co-existence ‘a lie’

Both Hallaq and Sultany rejected the description of the continuing violence as “inter-communal strife”, an expression they said does not recognise the power imbalance between Israel as a colonial power, and Palestinians who are colonised.

“What we have witnessed in the past week is a natural reaction of a people who have been facing occupation, oppression, siege and discrimination for 73 years,” Hallaq said. “These are state-sanctioned systematic and racist attacks against the Palestinian minority inside Israel,” Sultany added.

For Abu Kishek, the resident of Lydd, the Israeli crackdown on recent protests has shone a spotlight on the oppression Palestinians experience across all of historic Palestine – and ripped the veneer of “co-existence” off the so-called “mixed” cities inside Israel.

“This coexistence slogan is one directed at the West and an absolute lie,” he said.

“Israel has appropriated the past, present and the future. They treat us like we should be grateful to them for allowing us to live here, when this is our land.”

Source: Al Jazeera