Israeli-Arab movement seeks to continue ‘national struggle’ outside Knesset

A source familiar with the movement told the Post that this is a common occurrence in political parties, where a group of people split off.

Wide view of the Knesset (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Wide view of the Knesset
A new Israeli-Arab political movement, which calls itself The National Movement in the Palestinian Interior, has broken off from the Balad party for strategic and ideological reasons.
According to a report on the movement by MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute), it is also known as Kifah (“Struggle”) and held its founding conference on November 1.
Walid Shehade, the head of the movement and a psychologist by profession who has lived abroad for many years, returning in 2001, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Sunday that his group will not run for the Knesset because “more can be achieved as a non-political movement.”
Shehade said he is the “temporary head” until branches of the movement are established and a vote is held for leadership positions.
“What have Arabs gained after participating in the Knesset?” Shehade said that the movement is a pan-Arab nationalist movement, which seeks unity and strength from the entire Arab nation in its “national struggle.”
Arabs inside of Israel “need to educate the next generation to keep our national identity” – that they are a connected and “inseparable part of the Arab nation.”
However, laments Shehade, “We became disconnected from them [Arabs] many years ago.”
The movement “was formed by a group that broke off from the Balad party of former Knesset member Azmi Bishara over the Syria crisis and Balad’s support of the Syrian rebels,” said the MEMRI report.
Bishara fled Israel after being accused of espionage and resides in Qatar.
Kifah’s founding declaration states, according to the report: “There is currently a direct threat to the national identity of the ‘interior’ [Israeli Arabs] – an attempt to actualize sectarian and tribal affiliations that is supported by the occupation state and its institutions...
This [society] will be led by tribal, sectarian, or political leaders who maintain a truce with, and walk with the [Israeli] regime – leaders who are committed to the rules of the game that the Hebrew state has set for the Palestinians of the ‘interior’... and for whom it has set in advance apparatuses of action, such as the Israeli parliament.”
Regarding negotiations with Israel, Shehade said that the Palestinians have gained nothing from negotiating with Israel and “will get nothing” since there is “no one to talk to on the Israeli side.”
Asked about why the movement he heads would not be entering the Knesset, Shehade responded, “Knesset members worry about their position instead of the needs of the public that they are supposed to represent.”
“The Knesset is not the place where we can achieve our goals, and that is proven, and now it is worse than before,” he said, claiming that “the extreme right dominates the Knesset” and that this trend will grow in the future.
“The Knesset today is a personal competition.”
Shehade said that he personally does not come from the Balad party, though others in the nascent movement do.
“Balad departed from its way,” and “is now within the sphere of Turkey and Qatar,” but “we are not.” The movement leader rejected outright any support for Islamists, but instead for an Arab nationalist position, which is not based on religion, but on a particular objective and idea.
The Kifah movement does not support the Syrian opposition nor foreign powers that are meddling in the country, he said, but “political reform.”
Whether President Bashar Assad stays in power is not of concern, but what matters is the interests of the Syrian people, he said.
“War is no way to fix a country, but to destroy one – that is what is happening, and Israel supports that.”
Asked what kind of measures would be used in the “struggle” against Israel, the party leader said it would be waged by legal means.
“We will be creative to defend our rights,” he said, not ruling out cooperation with existing Arab political parties and movements.
It could include protests and participation from Arab Christians, Druse, and even Jews “if they agree with our goals.”
He specifically notes the movement’s interest in the Beduin issue in the Negev and problems that Arabs have in mixed cities.
Asked if it could mean a boycott on Israeli products, he responded that this is not possible since they are living in Israel, but he said, “We will try to bring all international power to help our struggle.”
“I don’t see a solution between the Zionists and Palestinians,” said Shehade, qualifying himself by adding that by “Zionist” he “does not mean Jew.”
Asked if there is any chance the movement could be persuaded to participate in elections to the Knesset, Shehade declared, “Never.” He insists that many non-parliamentary movements in Israel maintain lots of influence.
Asked about how his group views the Islamic Movement in Israel, Shehade responded that they differ in their view of the conflict, which it does not see as religious, but national and political.
Another leader from the Kifah movement, Aiman Hajj Yahya, who was once affiliated with the Balad party, told the Post that there is “no way back to Balad.”
A political party in the Knesset has to spend half its budget on elections, instead, he said, the money would be used to finance the “national struggle.”
In any case, he argued that already only 40-50 percent of Arabs participate in elections for the Knesset, so there is a group of people who may be sympathetic to their point of view.
Yahya admitted as well that part of the conflict in Balad is about differences over supporting Assad or the rebels.
“Syria is part of the Arab nation,” and “Syria needs to be kept strong and united.”
In Arab media interviews, MEMRI reports Yahya as saying, “The [movement’s] vision is the return of the refugees and the liberation of our homeland from the occupation.”
And is “inclined towards the culture of resistance, and we oppose the Arab regimes that collaborate [with Israel and the West].”
“There are principles of the Palestinian cause that bring us closer [to some Palestinian factions] and distance us [from others].
There is a right, a duty, and a culture of resistance, and this right and duty are sacred,” he said.
“We cannot be close to those who harm the right of resistance and the Palestinian principles.”
Another movement activist, Mounir Mansour, was quoted as saying, “Kifah is a group of fighters who are mostly released prisoners from diverse political streams.”
A source familiar with the movement told the Post that this is a common occurrence in political parties, where a group of people split off.
The source downplayed the importance of the movement, however, saying it has few supporters and only around 100 people turned out for its opening meeting.
Amal Jamal, head of the International MA Program in Political Science and Political Communication at Tel Aviv University, told the Post that it is hard to tell at this stage if the movement will be a significant player in Israeli-Arab politics.
“The break-away from Balad is not serious when it comes to numbers, but it indicates the troubled waters on which Balad is standing,” said Jamal, who is also head of the NGO I’lam – Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel.
“There is a lot of resentment in the party,” he said.
“Many people are concerned” and think that if it joins with the Islamic Movement in the next elections, “it will lead many to shy away from the party and lead to two camps – one secular and one religious.”
“Such a political map will lead to Balad losing its identity as a secular national movement, without future prospects,” asserted Jamal, adding that joining with Hadash could be a problem as well since Hadash supporters tend not to be fond of MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad).