The One Secular Democratic State Campaign
In the early eighties, an elderly Israeli man came into the office of Al-Fajr English Newspaper where I worked in East Jerusalem, and introduced himself as a journalist from the Israeli ‘Maariv’ newspaper, Israel’s second most widely circulated paper at the time. He said he was investigating what he described as the ‘phenomenon’ that drives Palestinian citizens of Israel into relocating to East Jerusalem, which was occupied by Israel in 1967. He told me he read a story in the ‘Haaretz’ about the time the Israeli forces stormed into the newspaper offices to hand me an order forbidding me from going into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for “security reasons”. That time, they brutally beat me up inside the police vehicle before they took me to the wretched Al-Maskobeyah Prison in Jerusalem, where they beat me up again. In the Haaretz article he had read, I was described as a ‘Arab-Israeli Journalist.’ ‘Arab-Israeli’ is the way Israel describes the Palestinians who have survived its crimes of ethnic cleansing, and whom it forced into Israeli citizenship as part of its colonization scheme. Calling us ‘Arab-Israeli’ is a deliberate act that aims to sever us from our Palestinian people’s history and culture. This is how they make invisible our national identity and replace it with a hybrid identity that is loyal to the Jewish State. For decades, we have been subjected to media blackout and to marginalization from all international and regional powers, including Arab ones.
The story of my arrival from one of the small villages of Galilee, Kaukab Abu al-Hija, in the north of Palestine/Israel, where I was born and raised, to being employed at the newspaper, is an interesting one, as it speaks of the doctrine of Israel’s oppression and control over our lives. I was called to work for the paper after I had sent an article explaining Israel’s manipulation of education in Arab schools as an instrument of control and suppression of the Palestinian narrative. The Israeli Intelligence that controls the Arab section of the Israeli Ministry of Education did not like my political views and my opposition to the educational curricula imposed on Arab schools, which completely exclude and distort the Palestinian narrative. I was fired from my job as an English teacher, but that was not enough to satisfy the Israeli authority, so they continued to harass me in my new job as a committed journalist, and accused me, ironically, of betraying the State of Israel by working for a Palestinian newspaper because I was “an Israeli citizen”, even though the newspaper was licensed. This is the complex situation that continues to reproduce itself inside Israel, which leads those of us who are committed to, and belong to, the Palestinian people to search for a complex equation to confront the system of oppression that we live within.
In truth, since I was fired from teaching in 1980 only four months after I was employed, I have been involved in a growing national political movement that places the Palestinian national identity at its core, and calls for the establishment of a democratic secular state in all of historic Palestine. It is a movement of the Abnaa al-Balad, the ‘sons of the country’. Along with my comrades, I contributed towards its reconstruction and to the formation of its central leadership committees, and was elected as its Deputy Secretary-General.
Back to the Israeli journalist: he continued his interview with me, which lasted about two hours. His central question to me was “How do you accept, as an Israeli citizen, living in the occupied territory?” He identified himself as a liberal Zionist who does not accept settlements in the territory occupied in 1967. The interview turned into a tense political debate and a heated confrontation between two people with contradictory narratives. Mine was the story of a people exposed to the largest robbery in broad daylight, dispossessed of their homeland by invading foreign aggressors. His was an account about a people who claim that, after 2000 years, have returned to their land. The next day, the interview ran under the headline “Settler Awad Abdel Fattah is calling for Yasser Arafat’s State of Palestine!” The title was not a complete surprise, given his proactive questions during the interview, but I did not expect him to make up such a provocative and humorous headline, describing me as a “settler.”
This gave me a good insight into the minds of liberal Zionists and the Israeli labour movement, and their moral schizophrenia towards the Palestinians. They, who occupy our land, kill and persecute our people, take our homes and villages and populate them with Jews from outside Palestine and, then, they claim that theirs is a democratic state. The inflammatory part of the headline was intended to link me to Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian revolution, viewed by Israel as a murderer and a terrorist, not as a fighter for the freedom of his dispossessed people.
In the interview, I conceded that advocating for one secular democratic state is perceived by Israel, and amongst large sections of Palestinian society, as unrealistic and risky. At that time, those who dared speak of it suffered a great deal of persecution and abuse. I also conceded that some Palestinians, who were made citizens of Israel, support equality and the two-state solution as espoused by the Israeli Communist Party, the majority of whose members are Arabs. However, there were others, who have been domesticated by the policies of intimidation, containment and the push for Arab citizens to vote for the Zionist parties; for them, adapting to colonization was the only way to survive.
My early political awareness came from two sources: the first was my parents, who spoke of the brutal ways our village was occupied. My father repeated, with great sadness, the story about the martyrdom of his brother who was part of the Resistance. My mother wept whenever she was reminded of her uncles and aunties who were forced to flee when the Zionist gangs conquered our village. Like hundreds of thousands of our people, they fled to surrounding Arab countries, seeking refuge, only to live and die in exile without being allowed the right to return. All they left behind is their story to fuel the struggle for their children and grandchildren, so they may return.
My second source of political awareness came from a Socialist Zionist Kibbutz built with modern infrastructure on land belonging to our village. It had running water and electricity, when our village did not. In fact, it took thirty years of hard work by the people of the village to finally get Israel to connect us to the grid. My father, like the other villagers, would look at the Kibbutz and sigh in pain at the accelerated crawl of settlements, wondering how did they rob us of our land? How do they cultivate fruit on our land and force us to pick the fruit for low wages as if we were strangers, or even slaves?
Our village is a microcosm of how looting took place by way of settlements and expulsions.
Our village extended over 20,000 acres of land before 1948; today all that is left is 2,000 acres. It is now surrounded by four settlements, whose total population is not up to half of the population of our people in the village. What remains of land for Palestinians who are citizens of the State of Israel, is now less than 3% of their original land, the result of the looting, confiscation, settlement and Judaization activity.
Western governments have glorified Israel as a “democratic, enlightened” country at a time when it was imposing a repressive military rule that infringes on the freedom of its “Arab” citizens, allowing the confiscation of our land and the destruction of our socio-economic fabric. This is the Israel that prevented the implementation of United Nations resolution 194 on the Right of Return. This is the Israel that killed more than 5,000 Palestinians who tried to return to their homes in the early years after its establishment, without any accountability to the international community which continued to grant it legitimacy.
After the aggression of 1967, Israel widened the discriminatory policies it implemented against the Palestinian citizens of Israel to cover its newly occupied territory—the city of Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, an unintended outcome of its brutal occupation of the remainder of our historic homeland was that Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line were able to connect once again. This ushered in a new phase of political and cultural interaction that was open to all Palestinians in historic Palestine.
Since the mid-seventies, Palestinians inside Israel reclaimed their place as a part of the Palestinian people, contrary to the perceptions abroad that we are submissive, have accepted our inferiority and political marginalization and dissolved into the Jewish State.
The transformation of our people was marked by the latest four decades of struggle, organization and development of educational and cultural training. The first outcome was clear during the unrest and strikes on Land Day in March 1976, and the street confrontations that erupted against the Israeli forces. The second was in 2000, when we joined the second Intifada together with our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In this Intifada, as well as the First Intifada of 1987, several Palestinian citizens of Israel, were martyred and many wounded.
Since then, we have passed through deep transformations, both internally and with Israel, as well as with the Palestinian people and the national cause. This was reflected in the third uprising which swept Palestine from the river to the sea, intifadat al amal, the ‘uprising of hope and dignity’, of May 2021, where we actively participated through massive demonstrations and street closures. This is how the Palestinians, who were made citizens of the State of Israel, presented themselves in the conflict: as a living and dynamic force, after decades of neglect and underestimation of both their weight and energy.
Abna’a al-Balad and a secular democratic state in historic Palestine
In 1972, a local national movement appeared in the Palestinian city of Umm al-Fahm, situated within the 1948 Israeli borders. At the time, the Israeli Communist Party was the only party legally permitted to run, and many Arab intellectuals and nationalists found within it an outlet to express their feelings and political positions, even though they did not support its Marxist ideals and its legitimization of the State of Israel. After the strikes on Land Day, the Abnaa al-Balad movement emerged, a new central national movement, with a large presence of Arab students from five Israeli universities.
Abnaa al-Balad movement affirmed that we, the Palestinians inside the 1948 border, are a part of all Palestinian people and, like the rest of the Palestinian people, we are under occupation and that the national movement of the Palestinians that grew up and crystallized in exile, led by the Palestine Liberation Organization, represents our aspirations. Abnaa al-Balad believed that the PLO had a legitimate right to all forms of resistance. However, due to the different political circumstances that Palestinians inside the 1948 borders encountered, we felt the need to adopt a mode of civil, cultural and legislative resistance. Therefore, we set up organized branches of the movement in Israeli universities, as well as in some Arab towns adopting a political, ideological and confrontational discourse against Israel, it being an aggressive colonial settler entity.
We adopted the program of the Palestine Liberation Organization at the time, which was the return and liberation of all of Palestine and the establishment of a secular democratic state, where Palestinians and Israeli Jews can live equally. The movement also adopted the principle of a boycott of Israeli elections as an exercise in refusing to accept the legitimacy of the settler entity. Not surprisingly, most of the leaders and cadres of the movement were subjected to various forms of persecution, including repeated arrests, torture, being fired from work, having university enrolment terminated and our newspapers shut down, but there was never an official ban on our activities. I, myself, was arrested for a few days, several times, and three of my brothers served prison sentences of between two to three years, each.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, the US Iraq invasion, regional wars, Israeli aggression, the disintegration of the Arab countries and the fall of the PLO leadership through the signing of the Oslo agreements, forced us, Abnaa Al-Balad, and other progressive groups, to come up with a new national and political strategy summed up in the slogan of “national identity and full citizenship”.
Confronting Zionism from within
The Oslo agreement caused a deep fracture in the course of the Palestinian struggle. It reduced the Palestine issue to the establishment of a Palestinian state on 22% of our historic homeland, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The issue of refugees, a core Palestinian issue, disappeared. As for us—the one and a half million Palestinians inside the 1948 borders who constitute 20% of the population of Israel—we were expunged from the conflict. This was an acceptance of the abuse, subjugation, level of discrimination and injustice we encounter under the rule of the Jewish State. This surrender to Zionism was a repudiation of the legitimate resistance and continued existence of the Palestinian people on this land and their enormous sacrifices for over a hundred years as they fought for freedom and justice. That is why most Palestinian factions initially opposed this agreement, only adapting to it later as it became a reality.
The Israeli leadership and, to some extent, the Palestinian leadership were shocked by the strong opposition to Oslo by national Palestinian movements inside Israel, especially Abnaa al-Balad and other Palestinians who withdrew from the Communist Party of Israel that supported the Oslo agreement. We decided to regroup, establish a new political party, and take our fate into our hands, as we refused to be taken out of the conflict and the resolution.
The party was named the National Democratic Assembly-(Tajamoa). A strong momentum was building and, within a short period, thousands of people came to support it. Tajamoa ran for seats in the Knesset for the first time in 1996, after a long boycott of these elections by those who are now its members. It achieved important representation, and I served as the Secretary-General of this Party until I resigned in 2016.
The Tajamoa party represented a new popular, political and intellectual force. Not only in its response to Oslo, but mainly in its call for a State of all its citizens, thus challenging the Jewish character of the State of Israel while re-emphasizing the national and collective identity of the Palestinian citizens.
We continued to adhere, though implicitly, to the principle of liberation and the establishment of one secular democratic state in all of historical Palestine, even at a time of deep transformations marked by a retreating revolutionary climate. As agents of change, isolation from society—which was undergoing profound socio-economic and cultural transformation—meant losing the ability to influence, or worse, vacating the floor for Zionist parties, and Arab parties that, exploiting the climate of defeat that was evident in the Oslo agreement, were oriented toward assimilation. We called for equal citizenship and pride in our Palestinian identity as an essential requirement to improving our living conditions, and to sustain our existence as a national and indigenous minority.
This development in political thinking manifested itself in a remarkable proposition put forward by a new generation in a climate of revolutionary retreat and misleading campaigns and defeatism. We aimed to expose the contradictions inherent in the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic State, and to show that without the abolition of the “legal” structure of racism and colonialism, Israel would never be a secular democratic state and, consequently, Palestinian citizens would remain inferior citizens, oppressed and discriminated forever.
The transition from the discourse of colonialism to one of citizenship rights and challenging the Jewish nature of the state by participating in the elections to the Knesset to address our people and Israeli and global public opinion, required a great deal of intellectual courage, and, perhaps, risk. However, our deep understanding of Zionism, intellectual and moral standards and universal values, protected us against being co-opted politically, and kept a window open to developing a just, comprehensive vision of liberation that extends to all of Palestine. These political and intellectual experiences reflected the maturation of the collective, and the ability to be responsible towards the greater good. This resonated with the general Palestinian public and elite class, quickly making our party one of the three central Palestinian parties in Israel.
Over time, the party’s demand for “a state for all its citizens,” which presented an alternative to the Jewish State within Palestinian society, became the prevailing discourse.
As a result, the party and its leaders suffered. Its President, Azmi Bishara, a member of the Knesset at the time and a renowned intellectual, was subjected to a campaign of incitement that included repeated attempts to remove him from the Knesset, and trials against him for denying the right of Jews to a state, as well as for building connections with the Arab world.
There were a few courageous and principled Israeli academics and intellectuals who defended the party, and saw it as the only real democratic party in Israel, as it called for a state of all its citizens, Arabs and Jews, and for justice for the Palestinian people, as stipulated by international laws and resolutions. In fact, over the course of two decades, the party won hundreds of Jewish votes in the electoral battles for the Knesset.
In response to the Second Intifada and, in the face of a growing national movement of Palestinians inside Israel with Tajamoa party at the helm, Israel escalated its hostility, racism and settlement expansion against Palestinian citizens of Israel. The differences between the ways in which Israel treated us and the way it was treating our brothers and sisters under military occupation in land occupied in 1967 became blurred. Israel developed formal policies, using legal and administrative tools to counter the possibility of achieving equality between Palestinians and Jews. It became even more clear that all Palestinians were living under one oppressive regime. Many inside and outside the Tajamoa party began to realise that the discourse of citizenship and equality had reached a dead end, and it was time to begin new initiatives with our Palestinian brothers and sisters outside the Green Line and in the Diaspora. This culminated in a return to the discourse of colonialism, and the struggle to dismantle the apartheid regime through the unification of the Palestinian people via a shared vision of national liberation and comprehensive democracy.
It must be said that the discourse of equality and full citizenship within the State of Israel and the challenge it presented to Zionism was not a failure, as it brought to light the structural contradiction between Zionism and equality in an unprecedented way, and this contributed to highlighting the just cause of the Palestinians in Israel, as well as Palestinians everywhere. To some extent, this was our main objective. We were determined not to succumb to the asymmetric balance of power and pressures that pushed the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization into signing the defeatist Oslo agreement: by using the citizenship that was imposed on us—with full awareness of the contradictions inherent in this approach— as a tool to fight the Zionist apartheid regime and expose its structural racism from within. The Tajamoa party filled an important political vacuum after Oslo,
producing a modern political vision based on universal values such as democracy and social justice, individual and collective rights, imbued by thousands of activists, a large part of who have become leaders at the national and local levels. It also contributed to the shift of the debate towards democratic citizenship in all of historic Palestine, within one single political entity.
Many in the West do not know that the One Democratic State solution is not a new proposition or a deviation from the Palestinian people’s national liberation, nor is it a movement against the Jews. Historical documents indicate that in 1919, Palestinian Islamic and Christian institutions rejected the Zionist project and called on the British Mandate authority to declare the independence of Palestine as a democratic state for all its people. In the late twenties, a small Jewish group called Brit Shalom—made up of a number of prominent Jewish intellectuals, including the President of the Hebrew University, Judah Magnes—called for a bi-national state, and rejected the idea of the Jewish State. In addition, the modern Palestinian national movement, represented by the PLO, officially adopted this solution in the late sixties, before retracting it in favour of the two-state solution.
From the citizenship discourse to colonialism and apartheid
A new Israel was emerging; one that is more polarized and aggressive, blatant in its attack on free speech, equality and equal citizenship, unapologetic about its inability to reform itself from within, more Jewish and less democratic. The latest manifestation of this shift was the Nation State Law in 2018, which limited the right to self-determination only to the Jewish people, and deleted the word “equality”. It also shut the door to the possibility of stopping the settlements, withdrawing from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian State. As for the right of return, laws prohibiting family unification were enacted to end, once and for all, the issue of return.
Against the backdrop of these fascist Israeli developments, and the impotence and erosion of Palestinian leadership over two decades, the Palestinian arena witnessed the growth of a multitude of diverse grassroots movements that advocate for alternative solutions centred on the unity of the Palestinian people, their land, their cause and their destiny. These movements and initiatives have not yet been transformed into being organized and united around one agreed-upon vision, due to objective and subjective obstacles. Amongst them is the One State movement that calls for a single secular democratic state which has attracted a growing number of activists, including distinguished Jewish academics. The One State movement has produced a great deal of important literature exploring its vision, its founding principles and logic, and addressing the theoretical obstacles and challenges that stand in its way.
However, despite the expansion of the debate into larger circles, we have not yet managed to critically impact public opinion. There are objective factors behind this failure. The first is Israel’s rejection of any initiative that recognizes the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. There is also the failure of the Palestinian factions and political parties to adopt this option: even though they agree with the principle, they argue that the two-state solution enjoys international legitimacy. Of course, there are also subjective reasons why the One State movement has not reached its watershed moment which relate to the inability of the movement to campaign and organize effectively. The majority of initiatives are issued by Palestinians in the diaspora, particularly in the United States and Europe.
Although this is cause for celebration, it also highlights that, in Palestine, because of the continuing state of discord between Fatah and Hamas and the erosion of the PLO, there is a decline in critical and creative thinking which hinders the growth of these initiatives. Until recently, many Palestinians in Palestine were not aware of the One State movement, especially among the new generation of academics. However, we are seeing a growing number of them fleeing from these stagnant factions and coming into a movement that returns the conflict to its roots and reframes it as an anti-colonial struggle and not a border dispute between two states.
In light of this growth in the support of the One Democratic State discussion over the past few years, there was a clear need to frame this intellectual discussion in a way that builds on the achievements of past initiatives and avoids their shortcomings. So, the first two meetings we held early in 2018 attracted large numbers of Palestinian intellectuals and activists, on both sides of the green line, as well as progressive Jewish activists and intellectuals. These two meetings, held in Haifa and in Britain, resulted in the drafting of a document of principles. This was followed by Zoom meetings with prominent activists and intellectuals in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Diaspora. We called the initiative, the ‘One Democratic State Campaign’.
Why a campaign and not a movement? We wanted to distinguish ourselves from previous initiatives that defined themselves as ‘movements’, some even naming themselves ‘popular movements’. We believe that building a movement is still ambitious work that does not match our current limited resources. We were also motivated by the idea that we wanted to be a campaign that can include all the movements and the individuals who have worked towards the one state solution in the past. Part of this has been achieved so far and, despite all the difficulties, we see an open horizon for further progress. The changing reality in Palestine demands a new emancipatory vision that can return our people’s confidence in the struggle and reignite their hopes within a unified resistance.
The Palestinian Intifada: The restoration of awareness
After Israel killed any chance of a two-state solution, entrenched its settlement projects, intensified its ethnic cleansing, fortified its apartheid wall, deepened Palestinian fragmentation and established a Palestinian Authority that acts as an agent of the occupation, it thought it had succeeded in resolving the conflict. But the “Hope and Dignity” Intifada in the month of May 2021, also referred to as the “Sword of Jerusalem”, demolished Israel’s illusion that the question of Palestine could be liquidated and that Palestinian Resistance was dead.
The third Intifada, which was launched from the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, that was amplified by the Palestinian people inside Israel, in the West Bank and in the Gaza strip and supported by all Palestinian factions, had a profound impact. While nothing appeared to have changed on the ground, its profound effect was that it generated awareness of the oneness of the Palestinian people and their determination. A younger and politically aware generation in Palestine was the spark. They were joined by an army of young Palestinian keyboard warriors, born and raised in exile, who played an important role in supporting and expanding popular resistance. They came up with innovative hashtags, the most prominent of which was #from_the_river_to_the_sea, demonstrating the tendency of the younger generation—born under the Oslo years in the pit of despair, under the rule of a Palestinian leadership that is divided and unable to confront Israel’s crimes—to call for the elimination of the Oslo paradigm and the myth of state-building under the yoke of colonialism.
The diversity of the current popular movements, and the accumulation of critical Palestinian intellectual discussions, is an expression of defiance of both the deepening colonial reality and the subservient and incompetent Palestinian Authority. The past two decades reflect the growing undercurrents of new awareness, waiting for the moment to rise to the surface in every corner of Palestine, where our people are hungry for freedom and for an end to oppression and humiliation. Even my small village joined the Unity uprising, and I was heartened to engage with, and stand by hundreds of young people in their massive nightly demonstrations.
The Unity Intifada confirmed the urgency of the vision of the One Secular Democratic State Campaign. This is what we need. A Palestinian framework, armed with a liberating, democratic and humane vision that progressive Jews can participate in as allies in the struggle; a framework that mobilizes the Palestinian people and formulates a popular, civil resistance strategy in all of Palestine. The one secular democratic state is not an option we want to put on a negotiation table, it is already the only option. Israel made sure of that through its official policies that control all of historic Palestine through an apartheid system of oppression and discrimination. Israel, today, is even more polarized, more right-wing, more extreme, and is leaning toward fascism. However, an aggressive colonial and apartheid regime can not sustain or continue to live by the sword amidst millions of native inhabitants determined to go on struggling and in the middle of hundreds of millions in the Arab countries who view Palestine and Jerusalem as part of their geography, culture and history.
Our struggle for a one secular democratic state is long, and it requires long-term thinking, great wisdom and high skill in communication and organization, so we can find the right answers to all the challenges and all the big questions that present themselves. Yet, it is the only way that is in line with history and with the logic of justice and human dignity, and sustainable peace.