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The question was raised in late November 2016, by the eminent Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, cynical as ever. In an article about the demonisation of the Arab citizens of Israel, Levy wrote: ‘It’s fun to be an Arab in Israel, because you can’t even define your identity as you would wish. You’re an “Israeli Arab,” and there’s no argument about it. Palestinian? That’s only if you live in the occupied territories. Even if he’s your first cousin, he’s not the same.’
In these sentences, Levy reflects on a long-standing question. How to call the Arab people living in Israel? Should we call them ‘Israeli Arabs’ or ‘Palestinians’?
This question is not as innocent as it seems at first glance. The term of choice generally reflects one’s position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And both sides accuse the users of the other term of ‘having an agenda’.
The Israeli government, for example, prefers the term ‘Israeli Arabs’. And not only does the state of Israel prefer it: it actively discourages the use of the word ‘Palestinians’ to describe those who live within the borders of Israel.
There’s an ideological reason for this preference. The use of the term ‘Palestinians’ could, according to Israel’s government, undermine its sovereignty. After all, could these Arabs be loyal Israeli citizens when their very name suggest they belong to another nation? Moreover: where does that other nation begin and, more importantly, where does it end? Does it only contain the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – or is there some legitimacy to the claim that the nation of Israel also belongs to the Palestinians?
Internationally, the country of Israel within the Green Line, a line of demarcation set out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements, is an accepted entity. Just as legitimate is the concept of Palestine, which consists of the Israeli occupied West Bank and Gaza, and whose inhabitants are – at least internationally – called Palestinians. In 1948, Israel was created by a mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and villages, known as al-Nakba. These Palestinians and their offspring possess a right of return, which is recognized by the United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 194. Israel, however, won’t let them come back.
A relatively small group of people, predominantly leftists from Israel or abroad, denies Israel’s existence altogether and sometimes uses the name ‘Israel’, in between quotation marks. In their eyes, all the land – from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea – should be called Palestine. The term ‘Israeli Arabs’ is meant to counter this kind of claims, and therefore reflects important Israeli policy goals.
People who use the term ‘Palestinians’ for Arab citizens who live inside Israel stress that the Palestinians as such are one people. Whether they live in Israel or Palestine, whether they were expulsed to Lebanon, Jordan or Syria, or whether they live in the large diaspora communities of Mexico and Chile, together they form one people: the Palestinians. Most people who use this term don’t deny Israel’s existence, but they think the term is more accurate. As Levy wrote: why would one man be an ‘Israeli Arab’ and his cousin be a ‘Palestinian’, just because they live a couple of kilometers apart, only on different sides of the Green Line? To distinguish these two groups, the alternative term ‘Israeli Palestinians’ – as opposed to ‘West Bank Palestinians’ – is being used as well.
Probably the best way to settle the discussion would be to ask the much debated people themselves: how would you like to be called?
Despite Israeli claims to the contrary, most surveys show that the Arab citizens of Israel prefer the term ‘Palestinian’. The British-Jewish writer and researcher Dov Waxman, for example, noted in a 2012 article for The Middle East Journal that ‘identifying the Arab minority as Palestinian has now become common practice in academic literature’, because ‘most Israeli citizens of Arab origin increasingly identify themselves as Palestinian, and most Arab NGOs and political parties in Israel use the label “Palestinian” to describe the identity of the Arab minority’.
The preferred term among the group itself has a historical dimension as well, observes Rebecca Torstrick, an associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University South Bend, in her 2000 book The Limits of Coexistence. Identity Politics in Israel. After 1948, when the state of Israel was established, they were ‘distanced from the center of power’, Torstrick writes, ‘because the Israeli state was a Jewish state and Israeli national identity incorporated Jewish symbols and referents’. In official and popular culture, they ‘ceased being Palestinians and were re-created as Israeli Arabs or Arab citizens of Israel’.
Expressing one’s Palestinian identity, by displaying the flag, singing nationalist songs or reciting nationalist poetry, was illegal in Israel until the Oslo Accords of 1993. And not so much has changed, considering a recent remark by the Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, from the nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, who compared the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish to Adolf Hitler. Darwish was born in the village of Al-Birwa, in the north of present-day Israel, a territory that used to be Palestine.
According to Rebecca Torstrick, self-identification as Palestinians has increased since 1967 and is now ‘their preferred descriptor’. Only under the influence of the First Intifada (1987-1993), she writes, ‘many Israeli Palestinians felt secure enough to begin to refer to themselves publicly this way’. The Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour reached the same conclusion in a September 2016 article in Haaretz, aptly titled ‘Don’t Call Us “Israeli Arabs”: Palestinians in Israel Speak Out’.
Bashir Bashir, a political theorist at the Open University of Israel, calls the topic of this article ‘an Israeli question’. The history of the Arabs living in Israel is very clear, says Bashir: these are Palestinians who remained in their homeland after the al-Nakba, and therefore these can only be called Palestinians. ‘Israel has a long history of trying to dictate the vocabulary. The term ‘Israeli Arabs’ constitutes a denial of Palestinian identity. It’s very obvious that the Arab community in Israel is part of the Palestinian people. It’s a national thing,’ he says. At universities across Israel, Bashir argues, the term ‘Palestinians’ is already the most common.
The Nazareth-born journalist Marwan Athamneh says he prefers to be called ‘Palestinian Israeli’, as a short-cut for ‘Palestinian citizen of Israel’. While this solution reflects the fact that he holds an Israeli passport, it also acknowledges his Palestinian roots, Athamneh says: ‘The country where my family lived before 1948 used to be called Palestine.’ To invigorate his answer, Athamneh cites the last eight lines of the famous Darwish poem titled ‘We have on this earth what makes life worth living‘:
we have on this earth what makes life worth living
on this earth, the lady of earth
the mother of all beginnings
the mother of all endings
she was called Palestine
she came to be called Palestine
o lady, because you are my lady
I am worthy of life