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The beginning of Israel’s civil rights movement

For decades, Palestinian participation in Israeli politics has been dominated by one major issue—ending the Israeli occupation and creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. For Palestinians in Israel and for those in the occupied territories, the struggle was one and the same, focusing on ending Israel’s occupation and calling for Palestinian self-determination in the occupied territories. Israel’s systematic expropriation of lands from its own Palestinian citizens, its allocation of resources away from Palestinian towns and schools in Israel and its segregation of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel have traditionally been seen by Palestinian citizens of Israel as part of the larger struggle for Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

According to a new poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, most Palestinians in the occupied territories now oppose the two-state solution. At the same time, Palestinians in Israel also seem to be changing the way they speak about their struggle. Ayman Odeh, the current chairman of Israel’s only bi-national party, Hadash, and the leader of the Joint List (a coalition of Palestinian parties, plus Hadash), exemplifies this recent shift for Palestinians in Israel. A new, unfamiliar face in Israeli Politics, Odeh seems to talk less about Israel’s occupation and more about equal civil rights, for every person living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Odeh did not forget about the occupation. He’s quite vocal about it. He does, however, embody a real change in the way Palestinian citizens of Israel think about their struggle in general. In his first speech on the Knesset’s podium, Odeh opens by presenting his vision for 2025: Palestinian towns no longer neglected, Palestinian workers fully and equally integrated into the market and open borders between the state of Israel and the state of Palestine.

But for Odeh, and for many of his voters, the occupation is not the root cause of Palestinians’ disenfranchisement—it is a symptom of a larger problem. Odeh does not talk much about the Palestinian state after those opening remarks in his vision for the best possible future. Instead, he warned the Israeli political establishment of the dangers of its continued systematic segregation of Palestinians in general, both in Israel and in the occupied territories. This, I believe, is indicative of nothing less than a paradigm shift which will radically transform the way we talk about Israel and Palestine.

The shift is rooted in frustrations with the existing Palestinian parties in Israel, and their members’ rhetoric. What did their focus on Palestinian statehood achieve? Based on recent estimates, there are around 400,000 settlers in the West Bank today, excluding East Jerusalem, and around 300,000 in East Jerusalem alone. Benjamin Netanyahu is serving his fourth term as Israel’s prime minister. Negotiations between the PLO and Israel stopped, with no prospect of continuing any time soon. Racist discourse in Israel is stronger than it ever was. Gaza is entering its ninth year under Israel’s blockade—a blockade that serves no practical purpose and, in fact, only fuels Hamas’ control over the Strip. Granted, the Palestinian parties in Israel are certainly not to blame for these, but at the same time, their mantra, “statehood first,” did not bear any fruit.

Palestinians in Israel—and leftist Jewish-Israelis, for that matter—lost all hope in the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Is it even possible? There are too many settlements throughout the West Bank for the creation of a new state that has any kind of territorial continuity. Relocating tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Israeli settlers (many of whom were born in the settlements and never chose to move there), is not only highly impractical, it is immoral. The majority of Israelis are no longer interested in creating a Palestinian state at the cost of dividing Jerusalem or relocating settlers. Besides, Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have traditionally been the most vocal advocates for a Palestinian state in the Knesset, are now asking themselves: What could a Palestinian state do for me, anyway?

Palestinians today, both in Israel and in the occupied territories, realize that they must change their strategies, and that their priorities must shift. Why should the call for Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza be their top priority? If a Palestinian state is established, then what? Would the systemic and social discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian minority be brought to an end? It might, in the long run, but Palestinians everywhere want to be represented, heard and treated as equal citizens before the law, now.

For Palestinians, Israel is not a democracy. Fair elections are not the only condition for democracy. A true democracy protects the human rights of all citizens, applies the rule of law equally, and allocates funds proportionally and fairly. A true democracy actively promotes and celebrates plurality. Israel cannot call itself a democracy and also uproot 70,000 of its own Palestinian Bedouin citizens from their homes, it can not call itself a democracy while sewage runs in the streets of virtually all Palestinian cities and towns, and it certainly can not call itself a true democracy while its democratically elected prime minister warns his constituents of the Arab threat, “coming in droves” to fulfill their legitimate right to vote on elections day.

There are around six million Palestinians and six million Jews living in Israel/Palestine today. In the 21st century, Israel—a Western country, an Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) member, a technological powerhouse, an American ally—cannot afford to continue discriminating against 20 percent of its own citizens systematically, and it certainly can not continue the total disenfranchisement of 4.5 million Palestinians under its control. Palestinians today realize that the two-state solution is no longer holy. We know that the real problem is not the absence of Palestinian self-determination, but the presence of inequality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

For me Ayman Odeh represents those Palestinians in Israel and in the occupied territories who are slowly realizing that the call for self-determination should be secondary. Our call, today, is for civil rights. Odeh represents those that realize the occupation can only be ended after Israel’s systematic segregation and discrimination against all Palestinians ends. Odeh represents those who now realize, perhaps too late, that the Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian National Authority did nothing for Palestinians. Fair negotiations can only take place between equals. Odeh represents those who are slowly beginning to realize that the Palestinian issue is a civil rights issue, those who realize that we must demand full, equal rights, first.

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