I Am a Palestinian Woman in Israel. You Don't Get to Define My Labels

The mere fact that we live within Israel’s borders does not make us less Palestinian. We suffer from the same bitterly oppressive policies, even if our suffering is of a different nature and takes a different form

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A protest in northern Israel for the rights of Palestinian refugees, in April 2018.
A protest in northern Israel for the rights of Palestinian refugees, in April 2018.Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Maha Ighbaria
Maha Ighbaria

About a month ago I applied to attend a seminar for Israeli and Palestinian women to be held this summer in Germany. Two weeks later, I received an email from the organizers informing me that my application was rejected.

The reason, they explained, was that I called myself a Palestinian Israeli. The Israeli designation, I was told, was reserved solely for Jewish women and the Palestinian designation was solely for Palestinian women from the West Bank or East Jerusalem. So where do I fit in?

In the rejection letter, the organizers acknowledged the complexity of my identity as a Palestinian woman in Israel and were most apologetic about my having to pay the price for this complexity. But they were also insistent that the structure of the seminar had already been set and could not be changed at this stage. “We hope will we have other opportunities to meet in the political field,” they added.

Despite the organizers’ declared intentions to create “a special project that provides for political dialogue and an important and fascinating encounter” in a bucolic German setting, they embrace the divisions and categorizations that the occupation and the Nakba have imposed on the Palestinian people.

The organizers of this event take pride in producing a political dialogue among women, but meanwhile copy the colonialist distinction between the Palestinians who remained within the ’48 borders and the Palestinians who became refugees in the wake of the war, a distinction that ignores a vital element of the conflict – the Palestinians who live in Israel.

This colonialist approach works energetically and systematically to shape the identity of Palestinian Israelis, denying their basic right to define their identity for themselves. This shaping of Palestinian identity has continued unabated, starting with the 1948 Nakba, through the military administration, the occupation that began in 1967 and up through the present day.

The occupier’s artificial division of the Palestinian people into two separate communities, the “Israeli Arabs” and “Palestinians” deliberately introduced a profound identity crisis among the Palestinians in Israel.

This is not the first time that I, a Palestinian Israeli, have fallen between the categories: Not Israeli enough on the one hand, as a Palestinian, and not Palestinian enough on the other, as an Israeli.

The seminar organizers’ decision to reject my application has a dual meaning: It denies my identity as a Palestinian (not allowing me to be grouped with the Palestinian participants) and also denies my identity as an Israeli citizen. Despite (perhaps just because of) this built-in complication, I wanted to participate in the seminar.

It’s common these days to talk about identity as a fluid, dynamic and frequently shifting category. But this potential dynamism is reduced to virtually nothing amid the reality of the occupation. It’s easy for me to define myself as a Palestinian, but the circumstances into which I was born and in which I live and in which I am shaped have created another element of identity for me.

Formally, whether I like it or not, I am also Israeli. This duality, which colonialism sought to create, is unsettling and forces me again and again to grapple with this identity crisis, which is so hard to explain to anyone not living with it and experiencing it themselves.

Palestinian Israelis are an inseparable part of the Palestinian people – in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and everywhere else. Ignoring the national minority that lives here will only come back on Israel like a boomerang.

The close reciprocal relations between them and their Palestinian brethren are not a threat to Israel. On the contrary: Their image as a bridge is not mere cliché. The Palestinians are here to stay – in Umm al-Fahm, Nazareth, Haifa, Rahat, the unrecognized villages, the mixed cities and even in places like Afula and Kfar Vradim.

The time has come to recognize Palestinian Israelis as an integral part of resolving the Palestinian demand. A part that belongs to the same people, the same language and culture and the same struggle. The mere fact that we live within Israel’s borders does not make us less Palestinian. We suffer from the same bitterly oppressive policies, even if our suffering is of a different nature and takes a different form.

The time has come to acknowledge that there can be no resolution to the conflict without the involvement of all its historical participants – all the Palestinians. There can be disagreements over the details of the various proposals, but when a group sees itself as a primary component of the situation, there is a political as well as moral obligation that this be recognized.

Such recognition should exist at events like the German seminar, as well as in all other international projects related to the conflict. For if groups or organizations that seek to bring about peace and create connections between the two sides see no place for Palestinians and women like me to serve as a vital bridge to peace, why should the occupying power, which forcefully seeks to keep the conflict intact, see us as such, or see us at all?

The writer is a legal intern and feminist and political activist.

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