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The Great Palestinian Awakening: How We Refound Our Peoplehood, and Our Power

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A Palestinian flag by the fence of Israel's Ofer prison near Ramallah in the West Bank, during a protest by Palestinians demanding the release of detainee Khaleda Jarrar to attend her daughter's funeral
A Palestinian flag by Israel's Ofer prison near Ramallah in the West Bank, during a protest by Palestinians demanding the release of detainee Khaleda Jarrar to attend her daughter's funeralCredit: ABBAS MOMANI - AFP

"It’s complicated."

That’s how reporters, analysts and pundits often describe the unrest in Palestine and Israel. Their language grants their readers license to dismiss the so-called "conflict." "It’s complicated," they can say.

But for Palestinians, it’s not so complex. It’s an occupation. A racist occupation that – according to international law, Human Rights Watch and leading Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem – constitutes apartheid. Even a quarter of U.S. Jews now agree with that classification.

If there is any complexity, it is framed in the simplest of visual reference points: colors. The colors of the identity card we each carry, and which define our lives, and how constricted they are.

Israel has yet to officially define its physical borders, but since 1967, the state has formally divided the Palestinian people geographically, issuing a discriminatory system of ID cards in color-coded plastic cases.  

The green identity cards of Palestinians who cross into Israel daily for work, collected at a checkpoint near Bethlehem where Israel vaccinated them against COVID-19Credit: Emil Salman

But the color of our ID card doesn’t only identify where we live. It also has the power to control every aspect of our lives, even the most intimate ones: where we can travel and thus with whom we can meet, where we may access medical care, worship, attend university, and apply for work, with whom we can fall in love and start a family.

The ID card system is not an identification tool for Palestinians, but rather for the occupying power. It is a tool to monitor and control every aspect of Palestinian life. And it is a system to weaken and fragment our common identity as Palestinians: We are divided by our lived experiences, our varying quality of life and the limited freedoms we may enjoy.

The occupation security forces and civil administration can identify the relative status of anyone they encounter by a glance at their ID.

There are five colors: dark blue for Jewish-Israeli citizens; light blue for Palestinian citizens of Israel; greenish-blue for Arab residents of East Jerusalem; green for Palestinians residing in the West Bank; and dark green for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip

Israeli soldiers check the identity cards of Palestinian men in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City in JerusalemCredit: AP

There are also more familiar divides: Between Palestinians living in the East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. Each lives under differing authorities. East Jerusalemites live under the authority of Israel, a state to which they were annexed by force and where they have no representation. Gazans are governed by Hamas. But their lives are more thoroughly defined by the devastating blockade imposed by Israel.

West Bankers are further divided geographically into Areas A, B and C, some of which are nominally ruled by a de-facto dictatorship in the Palestinian Authority, though in reality Israel’s military control is pre-eminent, operating through a differing matrix of policies and practices in each area.

Palestinian communities in the West Bank are divided from one another by the expansion of illegal settlements; a divided road system (one for settlers and one for Palestinians) and both permanent and unpredictable mobile Israeli checkpoints.

Add the Palestinians living in Israel. These are Palestinians living still within the part of historic Palestine that became the State of Israel in 1948. Although considered Israeli citizens, the 2018 Jewish Nation State Law officially downgraded these Palestinians, their language and their national identity, an act of symbolic violence making them into second-class citizens.

From its establishment, Israel has passed law after law expressing Israel’s exclusively Jewish identity. In 1950, the Law of Return was passed, which grants automatic citizenship for any Jew emigrating to Israel. While there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in the diaspora, most, because of discriminatory laws, cannot return to their homes in what is now the State of Israel or in occupied Palestinian territory.

Personal photographs belonging to Saleh Abu Diab, a Palestinian resident of Sheikh Jarrah who faces possible eviction after an Israeli court accepted Jewish settler land claimsCredit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

And Israel has ensured they lost their rights to the substantial property and assets they left behind, passing the Israeli Absentee Property Law in 1950, to serve as the legal basis for transferring property into state ownership and regulating who can benefit from these properties.

Then there are the Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem, but are technically stateless. Most have retained residency status rather than citizenship. They cannot vote in the Israeli national elections that decide their fate.

In spite of the decades-long effort to divide Palestinians, which many assumed would weaken our collective Palestinian identity, and attempts to 'disappear' Palestinian history in favor of an exclusively Jewish narrative, over the last few months a newly unified Palestinian identity is asserting itself.

Triggered by the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, the repressive and brutal behavior of Israel’s police forces in the Damascus Gate plaza and the Al Aqsa Mosque, and Israel’s relentless airstrikes on Gaza, young Palestinians decided that enough was enough.

Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza take part in show of force against Israel after the end of the recent conflictCredit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

Not Israel, nor the Palestinian Authority, nor Hamas offer rights for, or justice to, Palestinians; this is the core common issue bringing ordinary Palestinians together.

We were born and raised in Jerusalem. For many years, we felt isolated, and subject to a general sense of depression. We were targeted by Israel’s occupation but we had no real leadership. We didn’t trust the Palestinian Authority to fight for our rights: a corrupt failure of governance, it has exercised no meaningful role in Jerusalem since it was established.

Palestinian protesters rally in Ramallah to denounce the Palestinian Authority in the aftermath of the death of activist Nizar Banat while in the custody of PA security forcesCredit: ABBAS MOMANI - AFP

Now we feel different. We suddenly feel empowered. We feel our responsibility to protect the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, and throughout historic Palestine, together with its unique Muslim, Christian and Jewish heritage.

We felt, palpably, the strength of solidarity when Palestinians in Israel, throughout the West Bank and in occupied East Jerusalem responded to a call for a general strike. We shouted our demands for unity, we held the Palestinian flag.

We rediscovered our worth as a people, and our power. Four million strong in Israel, we contribute to the state’s economy both as consumers and employees. We make up a large portion of the medical sector, the construction industry, the tourism service and much more.

Palestinians rally during a general strike in the West Bank city of Ramallah, during the second week of the conflict between Israel and GazaCredit: Nasser Nasser,AP

It was a corrective long in the making. For years, the Palestinian experience was atomized, as was our opposition to the occupation, often prescribed by the color of our IDs.

Now, we as Palestinians are rediscovering our common aspirations, our common goal of freedom, rejecting the artificial borders imposed and sustained by force and discrimination. We will be faced with critical questions and positions that we need to navigate together: finding common ground between political cultures, from Islamists to secularists.

But we've learnt a critical lesson from the recent harsh events. There is no chance of change or liberation relying on the regimes and their apparatchiks that are invested in oppressing us, the change has to come from within us.

A Palestinian girl sits next to a mural reading "I will not remain a refugee" at al-Fari'ah refugee camp, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank last monthCredit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS

George Zeidan is co-founder of Right to Movement Palestine, an initiative to illustrate the reality of Palestinian life through sports. A Fulbright awardee with a master's degree from the Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, he is a program manager for an international humanitarian organization. He grew up in Jerusalem’s Old City. Twitter: @gjzeidan

Miran Khwais is a PhD Candidate in Transportation Engineering at Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, from where she was awarded both her BSc and MSc

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