“It is a strategic decision to remain citizens in our homeland”

Ayman Odeh is member of Knesset, leader of the Jewish-Arabic Radical Left Coalition Hadash and coordinator of the Joint List. With 13 seats, the coalition made up of the communist, Palestinian-nationalist and Muslim parties became the third political force in Israel. Civil rights, social justice and the struggle against the occupation are at the heart of his political work.

Many thanks to my friend and comrade Tariq Habbashi (Israel office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation) for making this interview happen.
Maxime Benatouil: Mr. Odeh, on top of your functions as civil rights lawyer and leader of the Hadash party (Jewish-Arabic radical left coalition), you have become member of Knesset and head of the Joint List – an electoral platform gathering Hadash, the United Arab List, Balad (the National Democratic Alliance) and Ta’al (Arab Movement for Renewal). How was the Joint List born, and what were the difficulties that prevented it to be established sooner?
Ayman Odeh: The establishment of Joint List can be explained by several reasons. Of course, the discrimination against and the oppression of the Arab community in Israel played a huge role in the building of the coalition. Incitement and racism against the Arab population have dramatically increased over the past years. But the decision made by Avigdor Lieberman to rise the threshold to access the Parliament was the trigger that ultimately brought the Arab parties together. It was a matter of survival. But it could have taken another form. At first, a proposal was on the table to create two parties. But the will of the people to see us run as one single platform encouraged us to overcome our differences and to stand united at the previous general elections.
The Joint List managed to become the third political force, with 13 MKs. How would you assess this impressive result?
AO: We now are a political force that no one can ignore. But still, we could exert even more influence if the right-wing / left-wing cleavage was stronger. Without any doubt, if we look at Israel’s political history, the best period for the Arab parties was when Yitzhak Rabin was elected as Prime Minister to engage in a peace process with the Palestinians. The general political climate was much better for us to weight on the country’s politics than it is now.
The unexpected high result of Benyamin Netanyahu, whose party Likud won 30 sits, puts our own success at a disadvantage. But still, we gained in visibility, both nationally and internationally. Now, people know about us and our political agenda. Palestinian citizens of Israel are now expecting that we will do better at the next elections, so that we can improve even more their condition.
How is the Joint List doing “from within”? On a daily basis, isn’t it complicated to work between partners with such different political cultures?
AO: We have made a strategic decision not to let the different ideological attitudes take over the common programme upon which each of the Joint List’s components agreed. I’d say that we vote unanimously on roughly 90% of the issues we are confronted with. It is true, though, that, as far as several crucial societal issues such as women and LGBT rights are concerned, freedom is given to the member parties to vote according to their values and principles. It is not always easy, and we cannot always avoid debates among ourselves. In this part of the world, people can be killed because of their ethnicity or conditions – I’m thinking of one’s sexual orientation. But despite all that, we have succeeded in building the Joint List and, even more importantly, in consolidating it.
In the Palestinian diaspora, some are looking critically at the Joint List, at the very idea of taking part in Israeli politics. What would you say to them?
AO: We are citizens here. It is a strategic decision to remain citizens in our homeland. The struggle for full citizenship falls within this context, and aims at improving the daily life of the people, the working class. We cannot let them down. After the Naqba, no one can blame us for staying in our homeland, for wanting to live here in dignity. And the core of our strategy goes as follows: we want the two-state solution! And at the same time we, Palestinians of Israel, will remain in our homeland.
We won’t be granted full citizenship overnight. It will be a long struggle, made up of many small victories towards this goal. Step by step, we will get there. Just so we are clear, we don’t see the Israeli citizenship as a substitute to our Palestinian-Arab identity. It is as Palestinian Arabs that we fight for equality with the Jewish majority of Israel. In short, the national rights alongside the civil rights.  Our struggle for full citizenship will enable us to concretely help our brothers and sisters in the West Bank and in the Gaza strip. This is our added value, as the Joint List. Because by doing so, we are helping the resistance against the occupation of Palestine and at the same time contributing in shaping the Israeli public opinion towards a fair solution for the region. Without struggling against occupation within the state of the perpetrators itself, nothing will change.
Look at the Algerian resistance against the French colonial power. Of course, the Algerian people is the main actor of its own liberation. But the growing political pressure against France’s dirty war within France itself also played an important role in the struggle for the independence of the Algerian people. Jean-Paul Sartre summed up the situation very well, and this quote could be applied to our situation here: “Colonialism is our shame, it mocks our laws or caricatures them; it infects us with its racism […]. Our role is to help it die. The only thing that we can and should try to do – but it is today the most important thing – is to fight to set free both Algerians and French from colonial tyranny.” The Joint List is here to contribute in setting Israelis free from colonial tyranny. Palestinians of Israel makes up 20% of the population, and that’s how we can help the overall Palestinian struggle for national emancipation. But this power can only produce its effects if we hold on to our citizenship and further improve our presence in the Knesset.
Your first action as MK was to initiate a peaceful march against the demolition of so-called unrecognized Bedouin villages, from the Negev/Naqab desert to the Knesset. Why do Israeli authorities persist in not recognizing Bedouin villages?
AO: Zionism’s cornerstone can be expressed in one simple sentence: “grab as many pieces of land as you can, with as less Arabs as possible in them”. This is exactly what it is about when Israeli authorities refuse to grant the Bedouins permission to live in dignity in their villages and try to put them in newly built cities. Once again, the struggle for civic equality won’t happen overnight. We want to reach our goal step by step, by gradually convincing the Jewish-Israeli community. It is not a dream. Back to Yitzhak Rabin era, Israeli authorities recognized all the Northern Bedouin villages. It appeared very natural to the public opinion, and people were even wondering why this hadn’t been done before.
Recognizing the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev would benefit to all citizens of Israel, Jews and Arabs alike. It is not a minor problem. Let’s not forget that, if the Arab citizens of these villages represent 30% of the inhabitants of the Negev, their grievances are constantly being silenced. So that’s why we decided that, if the Knesset won’t take the matter into its hands, then we should physically go there – and make us heard.
This summer, 18-month-old Palestinian boy Ali Dawabsheh burned to death after settlers set fire to his family house in Duma village, south of Nablus city, in the occupied West Bank. Benyamin Netanyahu spoke for the very first time of Jewish terrorism, and proposed to extend anti-terror laws originally designed for Palestinians to Israeli Jews. What would you have done instead?
AO: I strictly oppose these laws, for Arabs and Jews alike. Once people are arrested on basis of counter-terrorism, they disappear from the judicial system for as long as Israeli authorities see it fit. The criminals who killed Ali Dawabsheh and his family must be taken to court, judged and punished in compliance with the rule of law. The Israeli government has all the tools to ensure such a procedure, but it is not doing it. Anyway, even if these murderers were judged fairly, it wouldn’t prevent future attacks to occur. The only way is to put an end to the occupation, and to stop opposing the birth of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel within the 1967 borders.
Israeli officials keep stating that what happened in Duma can be attributed to a couple of lunatics, that it isn’t a systemic problem. Act of madness of a few bad apples, or direct consequences of institutionalized racism and occupation?
AO: The legitimacy of all these racist attacks is to be found in the Israeli government itself, and beyond that, in the Zionist ideology. Jewish-Israelis, and especially those living in the settlements, are being brainwashed into anti-Arab racism and the legitimacy of the colonization of Palestinian lands. The response to this growing racism initiated from above is, once again, to put an end to the occupation.