Monday, April 16, 2007

What the persecution of Azmi Bishara means for Palestine

By Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 16 April 2007

The Israeli state and the Zionist movement have begun
their latest assault in their century-long struggle to rid
Palestine of its indigenous people and transform their
country into a Jewish supremacist enclave: the persecution
of Azmi Bishara, one of the most important Palestinian
national leaders and thinkers working today. This case has
enormous significance for the Palestinian solidarity

Bishara is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, one of more
than one million who live inside the Jewish state, who are
survivors or their descendants of the Zionist ethnic
cleansing that forced most Palestinians to leave in
1947-48. Elected to the Knesset in 1996, Bishara is a
founder of the National Democratic Assembly, a party which
calls for Israel to be transformed from a sectarian
ethnocracy into a democratic state of all its citizens.

On Sunday, Bishara appeared on Al-Jazeera, after weeks of
press speculation that he had gone into exile and would
resign from the Knesset. He revealed that in fact he is
the target of a very high level probe by Israeli state
security services who apparently plan to bring serious
"security" related charges against him. Censorship on this
matter is so tight in "democratic" Israel that until a few
days ago Israeli newspapers were prohibited from even
mentioning the existence of the probe. They are still
forbidden from reporting anything about the substance of
the investigation, and Ha'aretz admitted that due to
official censorship it could not even reprint much of what
Bishara said to millions of viewers on television.

Bishara himself was vague about the allegations. If he
even knows all the details, he could place himself in
greater jeopardy by talking about them. He said he is
still thinking about his options, including when to return
to Israel. While he questioned the value of spending years
proving his innocence of things he does not consider
illegal, such as maintaining broad contacts with the Arab
world of which he feels a part, he poignantly reflected
that ultimately he faced a choice between prison, exile or
martyrdom. These indeed are the only choices Israel has
ever placed before Palestinians who refuse to submit to
the racist rule of Zionism.

What he was clear about was that he is the target of a
campaign, coordinated at the highest levels of the Israeli
state to destroy him and his movement politically. He is
undoubtedly right about this and there is long precedent.
In 2001, Israel's attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein
charged Bishara with "endangering the state" because of
comments he made during a visit to Syria, and the Knesset
voted for the first time in its history to lift the
immunity of one of its members so Bishara could be
prosecuted. In 2003, the Israeli Central Elections
Committee attempted to disqualify Bishara and his party
from standing in national elections, on the grounds that
the party did not adhere to the dogma that Israel must
remain a "Jewish state." Under Israeli law all parties are
required to espouse the dogma that Israel must always
grant special and better rights to Jews, meaning truly
democratic parties are always flirting with illegality.
That decision was eventually overturned by the courts.
(Though it should be noted that the ban was supported by
former attorney general Rubinstein, who is now a Supreme
Court judge!). Such persecution against Palestinians in
Israel has been the norm since the state was founded.
Until 1966, they lived under "military government," a form
of internal military occupation similar to that
experienced by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza
today. Laws, practices and policies that continue to deny
their fundamental human rights are well described in
Jonathan Cook's recent book Blood and Religion: Unmasking
the Jewish and Democratic State. In recent years opinion
polls show that a majority of Israeli Jews consistently
support government efforts to force Palestinians citizens
out of the country. (In recent weeks, former Israeli prime
minister and current Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu
declared that it would be best if Bishara never returned).

Bishara sees Israel's latest gambit as signalling a change
in the "rules of the game." If he, an elected official, a
well-known public figure can face such tactics, what will
the rest of the community face? Indeed, the recent
publication by leading Palestinians in Israel of a report
calling for mild reforms to the Israeli state prompted
Israel's secret police, the Shin Bet (which operates
torture and death squads in the occupied territories) to
warn that it would "disrupt the activities of any groups
that seek to change the Jewish or democratic character of
Israel, even if they use democratic means" ("Arab leaders
air public relations campaign against Shin Bet," Ha'aretz,
6 April 2007). (There is precedent for such disruption not
only against Palestinians, but even against Israel's
Mizrahi Jews whose attempts to organize against Ashkenazi
discrimination were destroyed by the Shin Bet -- see
Joseph Massad's book The Persistence of the Palestinian

Palestinian solidarity activists must understand and act
on the signal Israel is sending by persecuting Bishara.
For years, the mainstream Palestinian movement and its
allies have buried their heads in the slogan "end the
occupation." If it ever was, this vision is no longer
broad enough. We must recognize that Israel's war against
Palestinians does not discriminate among Palestinians,
sparing some and condemning others. It does however take
different forms, depending on where Palestinians are.
Those in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip live
under an extreme form of military tyranny now often called
"apartheid," though it is increasingly apparent that it is
something even worse. Palestinians inside Israel's 1948
borders live under a system of laws, policies and
practices that exclude them politically and oppress them
economically and socially. Millions of Palestinians
outside the country are victimized by racist laws that
forbid their return for the sole reason that they are not

In practice this means that the Palestinian solidarity
movement needs to fashion a new message that breaks with
the failed fantasy of hermetic separation in nationalist
states. It means we have to focus on fighting Israeli
racism and colonialism in all its forms against those
under occupation, against those inside, and against those
in exile. We need to educate ourselves about what is
happening all over Palestine, not just in the West Bank
and Gaza Strip. We need to stand and act in solidarity
with Azmi Bishara and all Palestinians inside the 1948
lines who have for too long been marginalized and
abandoned by mainstream Palestinian politics. Support for
the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment
and sanctions is particularly urgent (see In practice we need to start
building a vision of life after Israeli apartheid, an
inclusive life in which Israelis and Palestinians can live
in equality sharing the whole country. If Sinn Fein's
Gerry Adams and hardline Northern Ireland Unionist leader
Ian Paisley can sit down to form a government together, as
they are, and if Nelson Mandela and apartheid's National
Party could do the same, nothing is beyond the realm of
possibility in Palestine if we imagine it and work for it.

Azmi Bishara is the only Palestinian leader of
international stature expressing a vision and strategy
that is relevant to all Palestinians and can effectively
challenge Zionism. That is why he is in fear for his life,
safety and future while the quisling "president" Mahmoud
Abbas in Ramallah receives money and weapons from the
United States and tea and cakes from Ehud Olmert.

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