The Nakba, the flag and responsibility - opinion

I have experienced first-hand the rage of the Israel Police to the site of the Palestinian flag at demonstrations in which I have participated in Sheikh Jarrah.

PROTESTERS HOLD a giant Palestinian flag in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip. (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
PROTESTERS HOLD a giant Palestinian flag in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

I was arrested for the first time on November 29, 1988. The First Intifada was raging on for about 11 months and the injustices of military occupation were being broadcasted into the living rooms of Israelis and people around the world every evening. 

Israeli soldiers, many of them in the reserves, got to view themselves running after stone-throwing children in the narrow alleyways of refugee camps all over the West Bank and Gaza.

“Break their bones!” were the orders understood by many soldiers, having heard those words from defense minister Yitzhak Rabin. I was in the first year of establishing IPCRI – Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information – a joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy think (and do-) tank that was dedicated to advancing the two-state solution. I had just returned from an international conference in Geneva of nongovernmental organizations under the auspices of the UN Committee for the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. 

It was the single largest gathering of internationals, Palestinians and Israelis dedicated to ending the occupation and in support of the Palestinian right to self-determination. This was also my first time speaking in public in support of the two-state solution. My voice was heard speaking pragmatically and strategically, and several minutes after speaking I was approached by someone named Hisham Mustafa, who was in Geneva scouting out people to meet with Khaled al-Hassan.

I had never heard that name before, but I asked around and was told that he was one of the ideologues of the Fatah movement and was the highest-ranking PLO official who came to the sidelines of this UN meeting to meet with Palestinians from the occupied territories and young Israelis who, after the beginning of the intifada, joined what was then a new and dedicated peace camp within Israel. 

 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz (credit: REUTERS/CORINNA KERN, REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/FILE PHOTO) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz (credit: REUTERS/CORINNA KERN, REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/FILE PHOTO)

I met with Hassan for about an hour in the Hotel InterContinental in Geneva. I was well aware that speaking with Mustafa and meeting with Hassan was against the law in Israel, an unjust law that I was happy to break and, if needed, pay the consequences. 

At the demonstration on November 29, 1988, marking the day the UN decided to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, a small group of people from the newly established Di La’Kibush (Enough Occupation) movement demonstrated in front the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem carrying posters of an Israeli flag together with a Palestinian flag with the slogan: Israel Palestine - Two States for Two Peoples.

We had not been there more than 15 minutes when a police van stopped in front of us – the policeman inside the vehicle counted and pointed to seven of us: get in the van – you are under arrest! The Palestinian flag was illegal and we were being charged with identifying and supporting a terrorist organization. I have never identified or supported a terrorist organization, or for that matter, the use of violence against anyone. But the Palestinian flag, called then and now the PLO flag, drove the establishment crazy.

During the First Intifada, young Palestinians were often pulled out of their homes by Israeli soldiers to remove flags from electricity wires, or to paint over the Palestinian flag painted on the walls of buildings. All of that changed overnight by the end of August 1993 when Israel and the PLO announced that they had reached an agreement on a declaration of principles, which would soon be signed in Washington.

The illegal Palestinian flag was legalized and even became part of official meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. To the best of my knowledge, the legalization of the Palestinian flag has not changed, yet the Israel Police, as we witnessed by their horrific behavior at the funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, practice a policy that showing the Palestinian flag is a crime against the State of Israel and the Jewish people. It is not, and it is in fact the police who are acting criminally against peaceful demonstrators and mourners. 

I have experienced first-hand the rage of the Israel Police to the site of the Palestinian flag at demonstrations in which I have participated in Sheikh Jarrah. We also witnessed this behavior by the police and by right-wing Israelis at some of the Nakba Day ceremonies around Israel conducted by Palestinian citizens of the state along with some Jewish-Israeli citizens. Why do these Israelis and officials of the state feel so threatened by the Palestinian flag? 

Why is it so difficult for Israeli Jews to feel compassion toward the loss and pain that every Palestinian feels (all of the time) but especially on Nakba Memorial Day? Our war, between Israel and Palestine, is not only a territorial identity conflict, it is also a conflict of narratives. The war over narratives seems as existential as physically conquering and holding onto territory. Israel has its own narrative that enables Israelis to feel that whatever they do is justified. For Palestinians it is the same.

One side’s narrative is the reflection of a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains are the other side’s losses. But this is incorrect. In reality, both sides are losing. In the short run of 74 years, the Palestinians have lost the most. But looking forward, if Israel’s perception of itself and the conflict does not change, Israel will be the biggest loser. That is because with the demise of the option of partition and the two-state solution, the binational unequal reality between the River and the Sea is not only not tenable, it is immoral, unjust, undemocratic and a distortion of the values upon which Judaism is supposed to stand. 

Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state is waning because, in reality, Israel has failed to prove that the coexistence between its democracy and its declared superiority of its Jewish population is possible. As long as there was a viable two-state solution option, the possibility of Israel being a Jewish and democratic country existed.

There was the belief that once the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be resolved, Israel’s Palestinian citizens would no longer be viewed as a threat and obstacles to greater equality would be improved. At the same time, ending Israel’s occupation over the Palestinian people and Palestinian land would enable Palestine to exist as the nation-state of the Palestinian people. Israel’s democracy would not be challenged by having to rule over millions of people who have no citizenship and are denied even the most basic human and political rights by Israel’s military occupation.

But this did not happen, and the reality of Israel’s continued occupation continues to lead to more repressive measures against the Palestinian people throughout the land even within the Green Line. The acceptance of the absence of negotiations and having no political horizon for ending the conflict forces the question of Israel’s identity of being Jewish and democratic.

Today, in 2022, Israel is not a democracy and it is not a Jewish state. At least 50% of the people between the River and the Sea controlled by Israel are not Jewish and do not enjoy equality or democracy. At this time, the single largest existential threat to Israel is Israel itself. 

The writer is a political and social entrepreneur, who has dedicated his life to Israel, and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. He is now directing The Holy Land Bond.