‘I’ll take it!’ I said, glancing round the empty apartment. The lady didn’t smile or show any sign of agreement. I was beginning to feel uneasy. She’d looked up at me questioningly when I knocked on the open door of her office a few minutes earlier. Something about me must have given me away.
The new blocks of flats were in a perfect location, halfway between my village and Nahariyya, a small seaside town in the Galilee. I’d be close to my parents, my work and the beach. I’d driven past many times while they were under construction, and as soon as they were advertised for rent I was impatient to have a look. I’d finish work every day and go jogging on the beach …
‘Can I help you?’ the lady had asked, still measuring me up.
‘Yes, I’d like to see one of the apartments you’ve advertised for rent.’
My accent gave me away; I was an Arab. She looked uncomfortable. I was used to this. I’d just smile and pretend I hadn’t noticed. She fiddled around with a bunch of keys and escorted me out of the office, towards one of the blocks. ‘We have one here,’ she said.
I was a little disappointed when she opened the door. The apartment was bright and new, but it was very small. ‘Do you have anything larger?’ I asked.
‘No, this is all that’s available.’
‘OK.’ One couldn’t argue with the system. Well, I could, but I wouldn’t get anywhere. ‘How much is the rent?’
‘Uh, I need to ask you something first. Where are you from?’
This being Israel, I didn’t pause to consider the inappropriateness of the question. ‘Fassouta. It’s a village about twenty minutes from here. Near Ma’alot,’ I ventured, referring to a Jewish town near my village. It would have been pointless to mention an Arab town.
‘Right.’ She nodded, frowning. ‘I’ll need to ask you to bring two references with your application, then I’d need to check with the neighbours.’
‘Yes. I need to ask them if it’s OK for you to live here, because, well, no apartments have been given to Arabs here. But if the neighbours are OK with it, we can proceed. I’ll just put the application through quietly,’ she added, lowering her voice to imply that she would have to make an exception.
I swallowed, thanked her and left. That was the end of it. I wouldn’t get permission from the neighbours to rent an apartment. This was one of the many reasons I found myself, not long afterwards, moving to Ramallah in the West Bank, part of the Occupied Territories.
More than one and a half million Palestinians live in Israel, not in the West Bank and Gaza, but in Israel itself, in the Galilee in the north, the Triangle in the centre and the Naqab (Negev) in the south. After the wiping out of Palestine in 1948, about 15 per cent of the Palestinian population remained in the new state of Israel. On the surface, we are far more privileged than our brethren in the West Bank and Gaza; having Israeli citizenship and a passport means that we can vote, we have access to good education, public healthcare and social benefits, and we can travel easily, although we can’t visit some Arab countries. We don’t live in an occupied zone surrounded by checkpoints, with the constant threat of clashes, Israeli army incursions and settler violence. We are free to study almost anything we choose, in a country with a large job market. But this is a façade behind which is a system of rampant structural and institutional discrimination. As Palestinians, we spend every minute of our lives paying for the fact that we are not Jewish.
When I lived in my family’s village of Fassouta, in the Galilee, I was reminded every morning as I drove to work of my people’s dispossession. First, I had to drive through the remains of Suhmata and Dayr El-Qasi, two Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948. All that remains of Suhmata is a mass of shrubs and some stones that survived the Israeli bulldozers when they ploughed the village into the ground. In the miracle of Israel’s creation, Dayr El-Qasi was turned into Elqosh, a Jewish village, some of whose residents live in houses that were not destroyed in 1948, perhaps because they appreciate the Arab architecture. The Palestinians of Dayr El-Qasi and their descendants have lived in refugee camps in Lebanon ever since.
Some of the Palestinians of Suhmata became internally displaced persons, and a few of them live in Fassouta and other nearby villages. They visit the site of Suhmata once a year, on Nakba Day, to commemorate their village. Which is worse: being far away from your old home, or having to drive past every day and see its ruins while not being allowed to return?
It was only thanks to a fluke of fate that I wasn’t living in a refugee camp an hour or two’s drive away. My village is very close to the Lebanese border, and each time I looked over the hills into Lebanon, I had the surreal feeling of their being so close, yet so far away. There isn’t much security for the Palestinians who remained; some members of the Israeli government and various academics regularly call for the expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens through ‘demographic transfer’ – code for forced displacement – the ultimate aim being to achieve the ‘purity’ of the Jewish state.
After Dayr El-Qasi and Suhmata, I would drive past Kfar Vradim, an opulent Jewish community whose rows of neat villas, lush gardens, fountains and wide pavements contrast sharply with our narrow streets full of potholes. The differences between Arab villages and Jewish communities in Israel, often lying right next to each other, are so marked that one can immediately tell which is which. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Palestinian villages evolved over hundreds of years, while the new Jewish communities were built in a methodical way, their homes all alike. They seem to have fallen from the sky, and I see only ugliness in this beauty and order, because my mind unwittingly turns to how they came to be there.
Second, the budget allocated for infrastructure and economic development in Arab towns and villages is a fraction of that allotted to Jewish ones. It’s the same with the budgets for health, education, housing and employment; the list goes on. The state would explain this by pointing out that government budgets are based on the amount of tax revenue collected by each local authority, including business and property taxes. Since the number of employment initiatives and businesses in Arab municipalities is a bare minimum, there is much less tax collected than from Jewish communities. Thus, rather than funding economic development projects in Arab areas, the government allocates smaller budgets to them and the vicious cycle continues.
In 1966, my father, Sabri Jiryis, wrote The Arabs in Israel, a book describing the life of the Palestinians in Israel and their systematic oppression by the state. The core message of the book still applies today, fifty years later. Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians in Israel has long ended, but its attitudes to its Palestinian citizens remain largely unaltered.
By the time I got to work, I would already be in a state of deep alienation, and my interactions there didn’t help. I was the only Arab among thirty or so Jewish employees, and I always had the feeling that I was lucky to be there – as though I had no right to such a job. Although many Palestinians hold professional jobs in Israel, the majority survive through menial or marginal work. Construction and manufacturing are two of the largest employers of Palestinians. Palestinians are largely excluded from senior or well-paying positions in private corporations or public institutions; few Arab engineers work in the Electricity Authority or telecommunications companies, and they are excluded from the defence and aviation industries, among others. I had been so conditioned to the near-impossibility of finding a good job that, when I got one, I could hardly believe it. My family and friends were astounded when I told them my salary; what was normal by Jewish standards was considered a fortune in our community.
I often overheard my Jewish colleagues talking about their military service. Most of them were called away for a few weeks from time to time to do reserve army duty. There were heated political discussions about the then recent Oslo Accords and Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. Throughout all this, I was silent and extremely uncomfortable. I was born in Lebanon and, in 1983, when I was ten years old, my mother was killed when the PLO’s Research Centre in Beirut was bombed. In 1995, I came to Israel as a result of the Oslo Accords. I couldn’t help wondering, as I looked round the room at my colleagues, how many of them had served in Lebanon during the 1982 invasion. But I pushed these thoughts away. I was back here now, and I needed the job.
A friendship blossomed with an older British colleague, who was Jewish and had moved to Israel as a teenager and married an Israeli. One day, I invited her and her husband to my home in Fassouta. She gladly accepted, but the visit was tense and uncomfortable. Conversation was strained, each topic I brought up received a lukewarm response, and they ate and left as quickly as possible. I cleared the plates away afterwards feeling puzzled and deflated. At work the next day, she apologised, telling me her husband had a high rank in the Israeli army and was uncomfortable visiting an Arab home.
I was stunned by her forthrightness, but appreciated being told the truth. Except in a few cities, Palestinians and Jewish Israelis live deeply segregated lives. Social division isn’t the only problem caused by this stratification. Palestinian communities are not only kept separate from Jewish ones: they are kept within strict boundaries by the Israeli government. The government does not often allow new building zones in Arab towns and villages. Thousands of Arab homes are under threat of demolition by the state for being located outside permitted zones. Fassouta, for example, has 11,000 dunums (one dunum equals 1000 square metres) within the jurisdiction of its local council, but only 650 dunums have been approved by the government for new building since 1988. The result is overcrowding; many have to move elsewhere. But many Jewish communities forbid Palestinians to live or even work in them.
One day, one of my colleagues stood in the doorway of my small office, beaming, coffee cup in hand. He had always been friendly. He leaned against the door, studying me quizzically as he drank his coffee. Then he said rather thoughtfully: ‘You’re not like other Arabs, eh? You’ve made something of yourself.’ I wondered if he thought he was paying me a compliment in singling me out from my crude, backward race. ‘I tell you, you Christians,’ he said, lowering his voice as though sharing a secret, ‘you’re different. We have no problems with you!’
At the end of the day, I’d arranged to meet my cousin for a trip to a mall in Haifa. We chattered in her little car, Arabic music playing, exchanging village gossip and news of the upcoming wedding season. For a while, I was transported out of the reality of life in Israel. But the dream shattered the minute we drove into the car park. Hebrew signs were everywhere. Inside the mall, there wasn’t a single sign in Arabic, though the mall served mostly Palestinian shoppers from the surrounding villages, and Arabic is the second official language of the state. We walked into a shop and felt that familiar nervousness in speaking our language. But I wasn’t about to talk to my cousin in Hebrew. As we looked at the clothes, we chatted in Arabic, though our voices subconsciously dropped. Seeing an assistant, I pointed to a dress, asking her for the right size to try on. ‘Those are the last pieces!’ the sour-faced woman snapped and walked off.
I turned away uncomfortably, but we weren’t surprised by the response. Rudeness is a known characteristic of the country, and for some reason Israelis are amused by this. But the chutzpah of Israelis’ dealings with each other and the rest of the world is one thing; the chutzpah, loaded with a tacit dislike and contempt, used when dealing with Palestinians is another. When a more cheerful-looking assistant bounded up to us to help, we were grateful.
I tried on the dress. ‘Wow!’ the assistant exclaimed as I came out of the fitting room. Then she added: ‘You’re so beautiful; one would never think you were an Arab!’ I returned the dress and left the shop. It’s not possible to live in Israel for even one day and forget that we are us and they are them. In most of my interactions with Israelis, I feel barely concealed hostility, cautious suspicion or, at best, an attitude of benevolent tolerance.
As my cousin and I lined up for burgers, I glanced curiously at the Jewish Israeli family near us, crowding at the shawarma stall. Palestinians didn’t seem to exist in this country, but our food was sought after. The shawarma had a kosher label. We were bending over backward trying to integrate, and the state was happy for us to operate our falafel and shawarma stalls and do other menial jobs, but that was the limit of our usefulness.
A few years later I went to the UK to do an MBA. Afterwards, back in Fassouta, I had to find a job. I still had an Arab name and no army number (Palestinians are exempt from military service in the Israeli army). Months later, I still had no job. Finally, in desperation, and with mounting debts to pay off, I took one I didn’t want.
The job was in Karmiel, a Jewish town in the Galilee built on land confiscated from three Arab villages: Deir al-Asad, Bi’na and Nahf. I blocked this out daily as I went to work; I desperately needed the job, and I also needed to cope with the mental and emotional trauma of being back in Israel. The Second Intifada was raging in the West Bank and Gaza, and, every night, I watched the horrors unfold on the news. I had nightmares full of bloodied corpses and the wailing of victims’ families. During the day, I could barely focus on anything. At work, I’d hear my Jewish colleagues talk about ‘battering them’, and gleefully discussing Israel’s victories. I couldn’t respond. A colleague, in her late twenties like me, announced loudly at the lunch table that the government was making a mistake in not ‘going in there and obliterating everything – people, trees, cats, dogs, everything – and solving the problem once and for all’.
The alienation, of course, exists on a communal level, not just a personal one. Each year, on Israeli Independence Day, many Palestinians are overtaken by such depression that we elect simply to stay at home. While Jewish Israelis are out flag-waving, having parties and barbeques, we are commemorating our destroyed villages, remembering our dead and those who cannot come home. Each year is a painful reminder that another year has gone by and nothing has changed. The entire country is even more plastered in Israeli flags for weeks before and weeks after.
For decades, it was illegal to raise a Palestinian flag in Israel. Palestinian citizens of Israel are still not referred to as Palestinians by the Israeli establishment, but by a great oxymoron of a term, ‘Israeli Arabs,’ carefully concocted to imply that Israel was always there and we were always a minority group within it, and to erase our Palestinian identity and make us nameless ‘Arabs’, a race that includes citizens of 22 countries. Several more names have been created to describe us, some by our Arab brethren, among them ‘1948 Arabs’; ‘Arabs inside the Green Line’ (of the 1949 armistice between Israel and the neighbouring Arab countries; can you imagine using this definition to introduce yourself to someone?); and my favourite, ‘Arabs of Inside’, which would evoke a puzzled response from anyone outside this mess. The explanation for all these names is as pitiful as it is useless: the refusal of some Arabs to recognise Israel and to call it by its name – another case of sticking one’s head in the sand.
I thought about Israel’s definition of itself as Jewish and democratic, and wondered, what if you’re not Jewish? The answer seemed to be, well, you should leave.
Eventually I did. I moved to Ramallah in the West Bank, part of the Occupied Territories. I soon realised I’d jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. It took a while for this to register. My initial feelings on visiting Ramallah were euphoric. My heart fluttered along with the Palestinian flag that I saw on rooftops and in front of official buildings. I gazed at the government ministries with a sense of pride; here were elements of Palestinian sovereignty, here was a fragment of Palestine, all was not lost! There were no Hebrew signs, people spoke Arabic and were friendly and welcoming. It was almost like a different country.
Despite all this, the reality of Israeli military control and Palestinian dispossession is much more blatant here. It’s evident in the humiliation involved in waiting in endless queues at the checkpoints, in the violent clashes that happen every day, in the sprawling, illegal Jewish settlements gobbling up our land, in the frustration of movement restrictions, in the constant feeling of insecurity. The Palestinians are doing Israel a colossal favour by calling this an occupation. It’s not a temporary state of affairs, but a systematic dispossession just like that of 1948, only at a slower pace.
For Palestinians, the choice between life in Israel and life in the West Bank is a choice between two systems of Israeli aggression, different only in their manifestations. Both are deadly and soul-crushing. Most Palestinians are losing hope that there is a way out of this mess.