Where are the Palestinians in Israel’s protest movement ?

Yoav Haifawi

Mondoweiss  /  March 8, 2023

Reem Hazzan was invited to address an anti-Netanyahu rally in Haifa but refused after organizers censored her speech. Her experience shows why the current protest movement is alienating Palestinians.

The current protests in Israel taking place across the country are pitting the country’s new extreme-right government versus the Israeli-flag-waving supporters of the previous “respectable” right-wing government. One meme circulating about this internal conflict presents good-spirited instructions for participation in “a civil war” as if it was a sporting event and finally adds: “The Arabs [Palestinians] will compete against the winner.”

Palestinians, both those that succeeded in staying in or near their lands after the 1948 Nakba (a quarter of whom are “internally displaced”) and those living under direct military occupation or siege in the West Bank and Gaza, are always “on the receiving end” of Israel’s “Jewish Democracy.” The previous government, under Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid and their “Change Block,” tried to prove its Zionist credentials by being harsher than its predecessors against Palestinians on both sides of the green line: killing more people, intensifying nightly raids on Palestinian towns and villages, raising the number of administrative detentions, waging campaigns of house demolition and ethnic cleansing. Now, the new Netanyahu government is in a hurry to prove that it can be even more oppressive and brutal on all fronts.

Based on these painful experiences, few Palestinians feel a need to join the current Zionist opposition’s campaign to save Israel’s “democracy.” 

At the heart of the protest campaign is the defense of the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court. Palestinians know this court mostly for its role in giving formal legitimacy to all the crimes against them over the last 75 years. Under the previous government, this court approved the most drastic government plan for ethnic cleansing in Masafer Yatta, in the southern West Bank. And, just this month, this court issued another decree trying to press the government to complete the ethnic cleansing of Khan al-Ahmar, to the east of Jerusalem, at the request of a militant Jewish settlers’ association.

Last week the One Democratic State Campaign published a declaration in Mondoweiss, calling on Palestinian and their Jewish supporters not to join the Zionist protest movement aimed at preserving the misleading “respectability” of “Jewish democracy.” Today I want to look in more detail into the efforts of those Palestinians and leftist Jews who are trying to influence the movement from within.

On the one hand, the leaders of the protest clearly don’t want any meaningful Palestinian participation. While speaking about “democracy,” they avoid mentioning in any way the systematic oppression and discrimination against Palestinians wherever they are. The only time that some of the protest leaders suddenly turn their sights on Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, also known as ’48 Palestinians, is to accuse them of not participating in their protest and to revive the hate campaign against the leaders of the Palestinian parties in the Knesset, who they blame for the failure of the previous government.

Over the last Israeli election campaigns, many well-funded NGOs were working to convince ’48 Palestinians to take part in the elections, claiming it is not important who you vote for, but it is critical to take part. Now, some of the same forces are working to compel a similar “Israelization” of the Palestinian masses by calling for their participation in the protest movement. However, with the protest movement’s current slogans, this is a tough task. 

We witnessed here, in Haifa, the unfortunate case of one of the main Palestinian activists trying to mobilize such participation. He found himself distributing a video message from the Israeli singer Aya Korem, calling for the defense of Israel’s courts. It was a profound embarrassment, as in the video, Korem explains that it is only the international respectability of Israel’s courts that allows soldiers that commit war crimes, like the killing of journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh, to avoid being indicted in the international criminal court. 

Similarly, General Benny Gantz, one of the leaders of the opposition, whose election campaign was based on his “achievement” of killing thousands of Palestinians in Gaza in 2014, explained it in a speech to the weekly protest in Haifa on February 25, 2023: “For decades, I guarded you. And while I guarded you, the court guarded me.”

The organizers of the local protest in Haifa, a group called “the people’s protest,” are proud of their “inclusive approach” of being the only part of the protest movement to have invited an Palestinian speaker to their main Saturday night demonstration every week. But on February 18, the designated Palestinian speaker, Reem Hazzan, didn’t show up. It was soon shared on social media and later published in Haaretz that the organizers were not happy with the contents of the speech that she intended to deliver.

Ms. Hazzan agreed to my request to give an interview for Mondoweiss to explain what happened. She also gave me the text of her intended speech and a letter she wrote to fellow activists immediately after being censored.

Before bringing in Ms. Hazzan’s words, I owe the readers some background. First, in the invitation to the February 18 demonstration, Reem’s family name was spelled incorrectly. This is an almost inevitable episode whenever a Palestinian is “included” in the Israeli sphere. Ms. Hazzan was described in the invitation as a “political activist and a feminist.” This is certainly true. In addition, she is the secretary of the Haifa branch and of the Haifa District Committee of the Communist Party of Israel (CPI). 

In some Western countries being “a communist” might sound like being on the extreme left. However, in local Palestinian politics, the communist party is regarded as the most moderate political force (excluding some opportunistic political formations with no principles at all), and it keeps Palestinian-Jewish partnership at the heart of its ideology and practice, even when the political reality doesn’t show much feasibility to this approach. In the current protest movement, the CPI has engaged through wider coalitions of (mostly Jewish) democratic activists. In Haifa the main such formation is “The Block Against the Occupation,” which forms a distinct group within the protest, raising slogans against the 1967 occupation and for “democracy and equality for everyone.”

Hazzan told me how, as the February 18 demonstration approached, she received many telephone calls from the organizers, requesting that she submit the written text of her intended speech in advance. She felt that they were very anxious about what she might say, but they claimed it was a common procedural process, as they wanted to make sure, for example, that the speech was not too long. She assured them that her text editor had a word count function and that she could promise to limit herself to the allowed 350 words. They said that all speakers were submitting their speeches in advance, but she checked and found this was not exactly true.

On Saturday, she submitted the almost-finished text. Even though the organizers initially said that asking her to share her text was only a “technicality,” they soon returned to her with complaints about the content. They said it was “sad” and “pessimistic” and didn’t do enough to mobilize the Palestinian public to participate in the demonstrations. In fact, she had thought deeply about what could be done to convince the Palestinian public, and her text was meant to share her conclusions with the protesters. 

In the speech, she explained:

“There is a direct connection between Israel’s rejection of peace, the deepening of the occupation, dismantling the welfare state and harming workers, and the destruction of democracy and the rise of fascism. The Arab [Palestinian] public and the lower classes will feel partners in the protest when this protest will act not only to stop the moves against the liberal foundations of the Israeli regime, to maintain “business as usual”. We will feel partners, and will be partners in the struggle, when the goal will be to change the policies of racism and discrimination and establish a new social contract based on the pursuit of peace and equality. When the fight for democracy will aim for real democracy: not democracy only for the Jews, but democracy for everyone.”

And finally, she tried to finish with an optimistic tone: “You need us with you. We all need each other. This is the meaning of solidarity. Only together will we win. Haifa will lead the change – the power is in our hands!”

These pretty basic exhortations for peace and equality were, apparently, beyond what “the Arab [Palestinian] speaker” is allowed to pronounce in Haifa’s “most inclusive” demonstration for “democracy.” Hazzan told me she tried to edit her speech and add some more positivity and optimism to it, but by then, the organizers had made their priorities clear. She was told to submit an amended text, or she would not be allowed to speak. In the face of this ultimatum, she felt that the whole process was wrong. The organizers were speaking to her, a representative of the Palestinian public, from a position of power. They duplicated inside the protest movement the same undemocratic attitudes that characterize the Israeli state. She consulted her comrades and decided not to submit any new text. That night there was no Palestinian speaker in the Haifa demonstration.

In an open letter to democratic activists, issued the same night, Hazzan explained her position:

“We have a responsibility to stimulate the discussion about what is a democratic struggle and how to build partnership in struggle. The left and the Arab [Palestinian] public shouldn’t allow others to use them as a tool. We have the responsibility to explain and shout that there is no democracy without equality, no democracy with occupation, and no democracy without the participation of the Palestinian Arab public. My speech might be correct in the eyes of some and inappropriate in the eyes of others. In any case, censoring political opinions is preserving fascism, not fighting against it. It is difficult to be a partner in such a system designed to preserve the balance of power. We must think together about a real alternative to the struggle for democracy and the end of the occupation.”

As I was writing this report on Saturday, March 4, I found out that the “Arab [Palestinian] speaker” in the Haifa demonstration that night was a reserve lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army. I’m pretty sure this time, the organizers weren’t as nervous anticipating what he might say.

Yoav Haifawi is an anti-Zionist activist