– By Olivier Loose, EPMED contributor, & Salomé Ietter, EPMED co-director
On the 10th of May, the S&D Group in the European Parliament held a seminar on Palestinian Arabs in Israel, with MK Ahmad Tibi, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Chairman of Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al); MK Osama Sa’adi, Member of the Knesset and Director General of Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al) ; Jafar Farah, founder and director of the Mossawa Center – The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel; and the MEPs Victor Boştinaru and Elena Valenciano (S&D Group Vice-Presidents), Reinhard Bütikofer (Greens-EFFA), and Neoklis Sylikiotis (GUE-NGL).
Introduced by MEP Gianni Pittella, S&D Group President, the discussion revolved around two panels, a first one focusing on the situation of the Palestinian Arab community in Israel, and a second one discussing the role of the Palestinian Arab community in Middle East peace efforts.
The Palestinian Arab community, forming 23% of the population in Israel, is suffering from many discriminations, and a lack of attention from the international community. Targeting the European Parliament, Ahmad Tibi called the audience to focus on this minority group. However, defined as a Jewish and democratic country, Israel maintains a problematic contradiction for Mr. Tibi. Being a democracy would mean guaranteeing equal citizenship, regardless of ethnicity. Yet, Israel defines its version of democracy primarily in ethnic terms. On all societal and policy levels, Mr. Tibi reminded us that Palestinian Arabs are being pushed back, whether regarding education, sports, employment or culture. As a way of example, only 10% of public sector employment is given to this minority group; while in the Central Bank of Israel, no Palestinian Arabs employees are to be found. Criticizing the “most racist government of all times”, Mr. Tibi underlined that the term “peace process” remains an illusion, as neither there is a process underway, nor peace prospect.
Touching on the ongoing Palestinian Arab prisoners’ hunger strike, Mr. Tibi consideres it as a ‘moment’ to take a stance for the EU and the international community, denouncing the denial of basic rights of those 1800 prisoners. MK Osama Sa’adi, also chairman of the prisoners committee, noted that there is now a threat by the government to force-feed to prisoners.
For Mr. Sa’adi, two intertwined issues are to be discussed in priority. The first one revolves around the ‘Palestinian issue’, namely the occupation, the recognition of the state of Palestine and the 1967 borders. The second focuses rather on equal rights, citizenship and discrimination. Mr. Sa’adi, recalling that we are now in the 20th Knesset, noted the increasing amount of passed discriminatory laws. The 17th Knesset saw 6 of them passed, the 18th 8 of them, while the current Knesset is already counting 21 discriminating laws – the worst case being the legalization of settlements.
Jafar Farah, founder of the Mossawa Project, noted that the establishment of the Arab Movement for Renewal by Knesset members is an achievement. What we need today, according to him, is partnerships, civil society movements and agreements, that will strengthen the ties between the EU & the Arab Israelis to rally support from within the Israeli society. The lack of support against these laws, notably by the European Commission – an attitude that Mr. Farah regrets – is intimately connected to the lack of awareness and legitimacy the issue gets in the Israeli population. Through his movement, Mr. Farah wants to reach out not only to the leftist groups, but to tackle the identity issue on a broader scale. The debate addressing the criteria forming Israeli identity must be nation-wide.
Agreeing that the EU needs to take a clearer stance against these laws, MEPs Sylikiotis and Bütikofer disagreed in the qualifier to give to the State of Israel. While MEP Sylikiotis criticised a politics of apartheid led by Israel, MEP Bütikofer disagreed on calling Israel an apartheid state or even an undemocratic state, arguing that it could only elicit more defensive reactions from Israel and move us further away from the goal of a two-state solution.
Colored by the controversial wish of Israel to maintain both a democratic and a Jewish identity, the discussion came down to questions of identity, respect and tolerance of an ‘other’. Both more awareness and empathy are required to ‘feel the pain of the other side’ for Ahmad Tibi; in other words, to listen to the other’s narrative. As he concluded:
“We are only asking to respect the other’s narrative because a nation and its culture and people are represented by a narrative. We must not choose sides, but merely respect a narrative (…) Arabs in Israel are victims, but it is more difficult to NOT be a victim of victimhood. Out of all people, Jews should understand this” – MK Ahmad Tibi
Image credit: Olivier Loose