'Palestine is the final struggle against colonialism'
Jamal Zahalka is the leader of the National Democratic Assembly - also known by its Hebrew acronym, Balad - and a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
He has recently clashed with Jewish parliamentarians over attempts to formally turn Israel into a "Jewish State", and other laws he considers to be discriminatory of Arabs and Muslims. He spoke to al-Araby al-Jadeed's Anas Azrak.
Al-Araby al-Jadeed: What do you think about the Jewish State bill? How will it affect Arabs as a minority in Israel?
Jamal Zahalka: This law is part of a series of racist and radical laws. Every week there is a new law concerning land and housing. These laws are for racial segregation. And now, there is the Jewish State bill that aims to counter the autonomy of the Arab citizens of Israel, which Israelis believe could turn Israel into a bi-national state.
This goes against the national state idea raised by Azmi Bishara, the general director of the Doha-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies [and co-founder of Balad]. The idea found a receptive audience in the West. However, Israel found that it posed an existential threat.
In 2007, when Bishara was exiled, the director of Shin Bet [Israel's internal security agency] said that the national state project posed a strategic threat against Israel as a Jewish state. Despite his exile, Bishara's idea still disturbed the Israelis.
The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was clear. He said that the Jewish State bill counters the national state project and the nationalist demands of the Arab citizens of Israel. He addressed all opposition blocs, such as the Labour and Meretz parties, as well as the Israel Communist Party. The only political party to reject the bill was the National Democratic Alliance.
There are political reasons behind the timing of Netanyahu's bill. The reason is that 95 percent of Jews support the idea of a Jewish state, while democracies in the world are national states for all of their citizens.
Israel is a Jewish state by its definition, as mentioned in its declaration of independence, and now Netanyahu put forward a bill to enshrine that in law.
Some say that there is nothing new about it, and that it does not pose any threat, but I disagree, because the threat is in the spirit of the law, not its text. This bill would generate more racial laws and nullify any other law that contradicts it.
What is the legal framework of this bill?
JZ: Many Israelis believe that the bill will hurt Israel on the international scene, and affect the rights of the Arab citizens of Israel. The text does not, for example, contain the word "equality" used by Ben Gurion in the declaration of independence in 1948. Now they talk about individual rights, not equality.
The former president, Shimon Peres, strongly opposed the bill. So too did Tsipi Livni, the Meretz party and Arab parties, as well as the US and European countries. This is why Netanyahu wants to propose a new and less intense bill.
But you said that 95 percent of Israeli Jews support this bill?
JZ: They support the idea of a Jewish state. The debate is not about the principle. Netanyahu justified it by saying that Israel was too democratic, while the principle of a Jewish state is not solid enough. Israel generally tends to be extreme, for the simple reason that Israelis do not pay the price for their extremism.
How old is your battle with Netanyahu? You told him: "We were here before you, and we will be here after you."
JZ: This debate started about a year ago. During a Knesset session, a member kept interrupting me, yelling: "This is our country, not yours." I replied: "We were here before you and we will be here after you."
This angered Netanyahu, and for the first time in the history of the Knesset, he asked for permission to reply as prime minister. To my statement he replied: "I say the first part is not true, and the second part will not be true".
Members applauded him for the first time in the history of the Knesset, as applause is banned there. I asked for permission to speak and said: "The Zionist project is a short period in the history of Palestine, it had a beginning and it will have an end. We were here before it and will be here after it."
There was another argument a few days ago with the deputy speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, who made you step down from the podium.
JZ: The deputy speaker of the Knesset is racist and right-wing. He chaired the session where I talked about the law and quoted Hannah Arendt, a German-American political theorist who evaded the Nazis.
She wrote an article commenting on the resolution of the World Zionist Congress held in Baltimore, where the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was announced. In her article, she wondered about what they suggest Palestinians do after this project: Emigrate? Or accept being second-class citizens?
The chairman of the session then said that Arendt did not say Palestine, so I replied saying that Hannah Arendt is an informed person and not a fascist like him him. He is an extremist who calls for Palestinian people in Gaza to be killed. Then he told me to step down the podium, and when I refused, he called security to force me to step down.
|If you don't like it, go back to where you came from, go back to Russia.
- Jamal Zahalka to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman
You called the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a coward.
JZ: I know him from university. Lieberman had recently arrived from Russia and could not speak Hebrew, save for some swear words.
He used to swear before a confrontation and be the first to run away.
When he said that there was no room for Arabs in the Knesset, and that they were a fifth column and Hamas agents, I told him: "If you don't like it, go back to where you came from, go back to Russia."
The deputy minister of defence, Danny Danon, recently said Israel would deal with Arab members of the Knesset after it had finished with Hamas in Gaza.
JZ: Danon is a member of the Likud Party and specialises in incitement against us, and he has even gone to court several times attempting to strip Bishara of his citizenship, and bring Hanin Zoabi to trial.
But we are not affected, we are actually happy that our statements agitate and anger people like him.
What else bothers them about you?
JZ: Everything that challenges the Zionist project and represents honour, dignity and self-respect, which condemns their project. If we did not anger them then our work would have no meaning. If our statements anger racists, that means we are on the right path.
How will you face the special Knesset bill designed to lower the number of Arab members?
JZ: The Knesset approved the electoral threshold bill months ago to counter Arab representation and entrench a right-wing majority. We are making concerted efforts to unite the Arab lists and we will come back stronger.
Currently we are 11 Arab members of the Knesset and we belong to the National Democratic Assembly, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality and the United Arab List.
I believe if we united these three lists we could get 15 seats. We vote together on 90 percent of issues as we agree on many things. However, we are different. There are Islamist, leftist and nationalist currents, like in any Arab society.
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Why were you arrested in the 10th grade [Year 12] at school?
JZ: My generation and I were influenced by the Palestinian revolution after the Nakba and we looked for ways to contribute to the Palestinian revolution.
In the 10th grade and as part of our effort to help, we sent threatening letters to the agents who worked with the occupation, and we called our group the White Gang.
Further, they [Israel] ordered that our school celebrate Israel's independence day, so we burnt the Israeli flag. In the 12th grade, I was arrested on the charge of belonging to an enemy movement, which was Fatah, and I was imprisoned for two years, and I sat my high school exams in prison.
Of course, prison conditions are well known, I was in a room with 35 screaming prisoners and I had to study, so I used to take advantage of the fact that my bed was next to the window, so I used to use the light that came from the prison yard to study while everyone slept.
When did you meet Azmi Bishara?
JZ: Azmi Bishara transferred from the university of Haifa to the university of Jerusalem while I was in my second year, which is when I met him and joined the Communist Party.
I'm reminded of the saying: "If you are not a communist at 20 then you have no heart. If you are still a communist at 40, then you have no brain."
We left the party in 1989 after discussions about democracy and nationalism. The Communist party had a chauvinistic aspect to it, and a hidden hatred for Arab nationalism. We established the Equality Charter Initiative, and we searched for a new outlet for political activism until the National Democratic Assembly was established in 1995.
How did the National Democratic Assembly start?
JZ: I did not play a major role in 1995 as I was busy writing my PhD thesis. However, Bishara organised and united the nationalist movement and outlined the party's intellectual principles.
I did not stop my political activism; in university I was the secretary for the Arab student union and I was arrested dozens of time in protests. I think the intellectual roots of the Assembly lay in the heated debates between the Abnaa el-Balad movement, which is a radical nationalist Palestinian movement similar to the Popular Front [PFLP], and the communist movement.
The Assembly is the result of the discussions, arguments and agreements between these two currents, but with a programme that overcomes the past and unites everyone.
What about the repeated raids on al-Aqsa Mosque that are taking place nowadays?
JZ: There is a political backdrop and most importantly a religious backdrop, because there is an absolute ban by the highest Jewish rabbis against entering the courtyard of al-Aqsa, except for a select few, as they believe that the most holy site in Judaism is located somewhere in the courtyard.
However they do not know its location and await the messiah. The more junior rabbis are the ones giving personal edicts [allowing people to enter] while the chief rabbi has called them "fourth rate rabbis". They have increased in number in recent years and have become more politically influential.
On the other hand, there are excavations under al-Aqsa Mosque and violations of treaties, as Moshe Dayan promised in 1967, that there would be no changes to al-Aqsa, in addition to the Wadi Araba treaty and the Oslo Accords stating that no changes were to be made to al-Aqsa.
In reality, they want to change the facts on the ground. So do we. We want an end to occupation, and as a first step, I call upon Fatah and Hamas to allow unity on the ground in Jerusalem. Members in Jerusalem in addition to other factions want unity, however their leaderships do not allow them.
Do you think that there has been less support for the Palestinian cause due to the Arab Spring?
JZ: I do not think so. Ultimately the Palestinian cause has a special status around the world because it is the final struggle against colonialism and it enjoys moral superiority.
Do you visit Palestinian prisoners?
JZ: I meet them. Ahmad Saadat, Marwan Barghouti, Karim Younis and others. Saadat is steadfast and doesn't talk about himself or his illness at all. He only talks about the people.
Barghouti obtained his doctorate and teaches young people in prison. His political stance is clear and it is to keep active the Palestinian struggle against occupation, particularly in Jerusalem. He is also one of the biggest advocates of Palestinian national unity. I think that Barghouti is thinking about nominating himself for the Palestinian presidency if [the elections] happen.
A racist law each week?
JZ: I said that jokingly. But there are many.
There is a bill that would allow Knesset members to vote out one of their number after an election. This will be used against people for deviating political views, particularly for supporting the resistance.
It is no secret that the target is Haneen Zoabi who answered the question: "Do you consider the kidnappers of the Israeli settlers to be terrorists?" with "no".
This does not exist in any of the world's parliaments. In US law, an elected person is removed only in cases of high treason and after being convicted.
The most dangerous laws we faced in recent years are related to land and residence. There is a law that allows "admissions committees" in small communities to reject those who apply to live there. There are also laws for individual settlers in Negev, where any settler is entitled to build a village and control hundreds of acres.
Is the left more dangerous than the right?
JZ: I don't see dramatic changes happening in Israel with respect to religion and the state. There is no difference between the positions of Jewish fundamentalism and secular fundamentalism when it comes to these issues.
On the contrary, the Israeli left is more dangerous than the right and most of the massacres and wars were under the Labor government, from the massacre of Kafr Qasim to the Land Day massacre and beyond.
This is an edited translation of the original Arabic.
* Azmi Bishara is a former Palestinian member of the Knesset and is also an executive of Fadaat media, the owner of al-Araby al-Jadeed.