Perspectives on ‘48 Palestinians Political history and organizing


As Israelis vote today for the fifth election in three years, in this PalTakes we shed light on the experience of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and how they have exercised and fought for their political agency over the last 75 years under Israel's settler-colonial rule and subjugation.

The Zionist settler colonial movement has been vested in erasing Palestinians' collective national identity. This has included Palestinians who managed to remain after the Nakba (the catastrophe) and survived ethnic cleansing in 1948, and who became citizens within the Israeli state. Commonly referred to as ‘48 Palestinians, or Palestinian citizens of Israel (rather than the infamous label of “Arab-Israelis” by Israel), they have been marginalized internationally from the narrative on the Palestinian liberation struggle, while simultaneously being tokenized by Israel to establish deceptive narratives of "Israeli democracy".


1948-1966: Two decades under Israeli military regime after the Nakba:

o  While the majority of Palestinian society was expelled outside of Historic Palestine becoming refugees abroad or in the West Bank and Gaza, tens of thousands of Palestinians were displaced internally. They were dispossessed of their land and belongings and they have since been systematically prevented from exercising their right of return to their villages and places of origin. They have been defined by the Israeli state as “present absentees”.

o  Rarely discussed, for the 19 years that followed the Nakba, the Israeli regime imposed military ruling on all remaining Palestinian regions, cities and and villages in order to prevent any collective identity and political dissent from emerging, exerting hegemonic control over a the remainder of the Palestinian population that they did not manage to expel.

o  As Ahmad Al Sa’di Analyzes: "As early as 1951, Israeli leaders began realising that these Palestinians might stay longer than expected and thorough discussions on the governance of the Palestinians were conducted...generating a discourse that defined the language, the mindset, and the concepts through which the Palestinians would be conceived and governed...Such premises include the perception of the Palestinians as a demographic threat that demands continual biopolitical management”.

o  The 1952 Citizenship Law was amongst the tactics developed to govern Palestinian status as citizens. Lana Tatour analyzed in this article that citizenship to these Palestinians "did not emerge as an autonomous or neutral institution, or as an institution antagonistic to (Israeli) settler colonialism…it emerged out of domination, facilitating the elimination and dispossession of indigenous peoples (Palestinians).” 

o  The martial regime was enforced by military commanders and deployed through surveillance bodies, balkanization of Palestinian space, curfews, ghettoisation (such as the case of Lydda, recounted in Elias Khoury’s novel) and cutting ‘48 Palestinians from contacts and exchanges with the Arab world or their Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza.

o  Meanwhile expulsion and erasure remained part of the systematic approach of erasure, leading to the Kafr Qasim massacre where 49 Palestinians were killed

o  The colonial narrative constructed by Israel around the history of this event, presenting it as an isolated blunder instead of systematic policy of ethnic cleansing, is very telling of the tactics used against '48 Palestinians in attempt to pacify them and erase their presence. 


1976 Land Day: A landmark political moment of 48 Palestinian unity:

o  In 1976 the Israeli regime announced its plan to “Judaize the Galilee”, posing further imminent threat of land theft and dispossession on the Palestinian community. In response, Palestinians gradually mobilized, organized and declared 30 March as a day of widespread protest and announced a general strike all over historic Palestine. Six '48 Palestinians were killed while mobilizing in the streets against Israel's settler colonialism.

o  Emad Mousa writes: It was [this] day that shattered the illusion of "Arab Israeli citizenship" which followed the lifting of military rule in 1966… As such, it brought the land back to the forefront of the struggle and turned Palestinians from victims to active resistants.


How the Oslo Agreements (1993-95) marginalized ‘48 Palestinians from the Palestinian national project:

o  The Oslo agreements were signed by the PLO in 1993, accepting a “two-state solution” and adopting statehood within the West Bank & Gaza as a national project. ‘48 Palestinians were effectively excluded from the liberation struggle, reinforcing their isolation. This narrative was echoed by the Palestinian leadership and the international community and which refused to take into consideration their grievances, from institutional discrimination to racism and apartheid, as an integral part of the Israeli settler-colonial regime.


Today’s Apartheid from within:

o  With growing consensus to recognize that Israel is imposing an apartheid system on the Palestinians, its manifestations on ‘48 Palestinians is often denied, overlooked or misunderstood. As Yara Hawari explains, the continuous hegemonic control of Israel over its Palestinian Arab citizens has been practiced in a myriad of ways and can’t only be reduced to segregation, or the commonly used term “second-class citizen”.

o  A very telling example of this institutionalized domination is how Israel, like many colonial rulers in the past, instrumentalizes the educational system to subdue and occupy the minds of the Palestinian community.

o  During the Unity Uprising of May 2021, many ‘48 Palestinians massively mobilized in solidarity with Jerusalem and many took to social media to express how citizenship has not erased colonialism.


Political organizing and participating in the institutions of Israel's colonial regime:

o  As the PLO adopted the two-state solution (within West Bank and Gaza) as a political project and historic compromise, ‘48 Palestinians increasingly organized to participate and integrate within Israel's institutions, particularly participating in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) elections.

o  This gave birth to the Hadash: the veteran Arab Palestinian communist party, originally a Jewish-Palestinian alliance. It defines itself as non-Zionist, and advocates for the recognition of Palestinians as a national minority within Israel, and for their socio-economic equality.

o  Additionally, Balad-Tajamu is a party created in 1995 right after the Oslo agreement, advocating for one binational state for all citizens and the end of a Jewish state, accepting the partition into two states. Because of its challenge to the Zionist nature of the State, the party is under systematic attempts to be banned. According to its current leader Sami Abu Shehadeh: “We aren’t naive, we know the obstacles of this racist system. But we’re here to use all tools available to raise our voices, challenge Jewish supremacist policies and mobilize our people, wherever they are, and the international community to advance our just cause.”


Challenges, opportunities and limits of being part of the colonial ruler’s institutions:

o  Al-Shabaka policy lab discusses the challenges and opportunities of the Palestinian parties that emerged as one of few available mechanisms for political organizing. While they did garner a few major moments of success, the parties' participation often further exposed Israel's apartheid regime, and served as proof of the failure over decades to provide a route for Palestinian emancipation from colonial ruling.

o  Such disappointment, frustrations and disengagement remains very high in the 2022 elections.


Boycotting the Israeli Elections:

o  Young voices calling for boycott of Israeli elections are increasing:
”Some decide to vote to improve the living condition under (Israeli) oppression, but boycott is an innate Palestinian revolutionary vision", says Manhal Hayek, an activist, on Facebook (originally in Arabic).

o  In recent years, political organizing took the form of Hirakat (movements) founded by the younger Palestinian generation who believe the traditional parties have failed in representing their aspirations. These movements have tremendous mobilizing effort that was evident during the Unity Intifada in May 2021.

o  Following the protests of May 2021, the Israeli regime unleashed “Law and Order” operation against ‘48 Palestinians as an act of collective revenge. As a result the civil society organized among themselves, along with standby lawyers and funds, to release the Palestinian detainees arrested by the Israeli militarized police.


Expressing the many paradoxes through cultural production: Tragicomedy

o  The novelist Emile Habibi, in his novel The Pessoptimist, powerfully captures the complex experience and contradictions of '48 Palestinians and their collective psyche.

o  As Seraj Assi writes  “it is the paradoxical coexistence of the category of Arab citizenry with the military government political apparatus that ultimately enabled writers like Habibi to create their most fruitful literary productions.”

The Pessoptimist is a “rare testimony to the struggle for self-definition and quest for identity in Arabic literature in Israel. It brings to the fore a set of contending forces of collaboration and resistance, individual treason and communal loyalty, defeat and rebellion, death and regeneration, terror and heroism, crisis and redemption, cowardice and adventure, human and supernatural forces

o  More contemporarily, Elia Suleiman, a Palestinian filmmaker from Nazareth, has embodied this realistic introspection through the absurd. In his movie The Time That Remains, he depicts the everyday trauma of the shattered ‘48 Palestinians:

o  Watch this scene that captures how it looks like to be surveilled within the 1948 borders. 

o  The struggle for Palestinian liberation is a long journey that requires strategy, mobilization, and the recalibration of power and unity. ‘48 Palestinians provide a potent example of Israel's attempt at pacifying and fragmenting the Palestinian community in an attempt to erase their identity and political agency. 


In today's Israeli election, this is particularly striking. The decades-long experiences of political organizing by ‘48 Palestinians provides meaningful knowledge on how to address multiple layers, paradox and challenges of the Israel's malicious apartheid regime. ‘48 Palestinians' continued mobilization efforts as part of the Palestinian liberation aspiration demonstrates the major role they play in shaping the political vision for all Palestinians on both sides of the green line and those in exile.