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The interior diaspora

Last week, the Israeli attorney general ruled against reopening the investigation into how 13 Palestinians (all but one of them Israeli citizens) were shot dead by police during unrest in October 2000. The decision did not come as much of a surprise, given the seven-year long refusal to bring charges against either police or senior officials.

These deaths – and indeed, the subsequent lack of accountability – have served as a reminder of the difficult relationship between “Israeli Arabs” and the Jewish state. With the creation of Israel 60 years ago, four-fifths of the Palestinians inside the new state’s borders were expelled; the others remained (albeit with a quarter becominginternally displaced“).

In recent months, attention has been concentrated principally on the settlement “outposts” in the West Bank, Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza and Palestinian rocket fire, and of course, the Annapolis peace process. The concept behind this Bush/Quartet-driven initiative is nothing new; through mutual confidence-building measures and thrashing out compromises on “final status issues” there can be a final two state settlement.

This consensus, however, sidelines or completely ignores two Palestinian constituencies with a significant stake in any eventual peace agreement: the Palestinians in Israel and the refugees. Together, in fact, they represent around 60% of the total Palestinian population, a reality obscured by the sometimes exclusive focus on the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

While the West Bank-based Fatah leadership negotiates with the Israeli government, Palestinians in Israel are becoming increasingly assertive about how they see a future solution. In little over 12 months, leading Arab organisations have published four documents that examine everything from land distribution and economics, to concepts of citizenship and how to challenge Israeli laws that discriminate against the country’s Arabs.

The different proposals have shared fundamental values. In the words of Mada Al-Carmel’s Haifa Declaration, “our vision … is to create a democratic state founded on equality between the two national groups,” a solution that “would require a change in the constitutional structure and a change in the definition of the State of Israel from a Jewish state to a democratic state established on national and civil equality between the two national groups, and enshrining the principles of banning discrimination and of equality between all of its citizens and residents.”

Adalah (The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel), the same group that has been campaigning for justice for those killed in October 2000, is also working on a “democratic constitution”, a draft of which was released last year. This was greeted with outrage by many for its redefinition of the Israeli state “not as Jewish but as ‘democratic, bilingual and multicultural’,” objectives – according to the Jerusalem Post – that are “both enticing and deceptive”. Even the internationally respected political scientist Professor Shlomo Avineri felt able to slam the draft Constitution as a plan “‘for Israel’s annihilation as a Jewish state’” coated “‘in the outward trappings of human rights and justice’”.

In its December newsletter, Adalah noted that the “hysteria” of the reaction was “characteristic of colonial regimes, which viewed any challenge to their constitutional structure, based on repression, as a strategic threat”. So while for some, the presence of Arabs in Israeli malls and hospitals undermines claims that a Jewish state in Palestine is intrinsically discriminatory, others admit honestly that the demand of Israel’s Palestinians for legal equality “threatens the Jewish character of Israel and therefore is too high a price to meet”.

Even if the Palestinians inside Israel feel alarmed that the current high-profile peace talks mean “their destiny is being negotiated without their participation”, at least they are proving themselves able to articulate their demands with clarity and depth. The same cannot be said of the fragmented communities of Palestinian refugees who have found that since Oslo, according to Karma Nabulsi, their “civil and political status” has been put “into an existential limbo”.

Nabulsi, in her essay, Justice as the Way Forward, points out that with the creation of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Legislative Council inside the Occupied Territories, Palestinians living outside the territories have felt severely “disenfranchised”. Despite the fact that their rights to self-determination and return are presumed to be part of the peace process, Palestinian refugees lack an effective mechanism for making their voice heard (even if the Annapolis participants were prepared to listen).

There is an urgent need, therefore, for the diaspora Palestinians to find “ways of reconnecting and restructuring the body politic” so as to give “primacy to the role of the collective and popular Palestinian agendas in forging national direction”. A reformed, revitalised, and democratised PLO could be a good step forward in this regard. After all, a lasting settlement will necessarily require that Israel makes peace with the refugees and vice versa.

The official peace process’s marginalisation of the Palestinians in Israel and in exile is no accident – key players stand to benefit from the existing framework. The western-approved Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, who like Abbas and Fayyad are almost exclusively drawn from Fatah, would dearly love to have their Oslo role of compromise-making “statesmen” reaffirmed by the establishment of a truncated Palestinian fiefdom. Israel, meanwhile, desperately needs to smother or confuse discussion about both its own Palestinian population and the refugees, since their rights cut painfully to the core of the conflict.

In an excellent post (”Palestinians are Nobody’s Negroes”), Lawrence of Cyberia recently made the following observation:

“The I/P conflict is not about how many nonexistent West Bank roadblocks the IDF can fool Condoleezza Rice into thinking have been removed this week … [It] is, at base, about what it means to create a state for Jewish people in land with a pre-existing population that is overwhelmingly not Jewish.”

In fact, Palestinians in Israel and the refugees have featured in Annapolis diplomacy, but only in so far as their basic rights are being implicitly repudiated, with Olmert’s demand that the Palestinian party recognises Israel “as a state for the Jewish people”.

Formulating a just, lasting settlement requires that the voices of the Palestinians inside Israel and the refugees around the world are heard – and their rights upheld – as much as the Palestinians living under military occupation. Their exclusion guarantees continued conflict; their inclusion holds the key to peace.

Published in the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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