During the past week, Israeli incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and raids on the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood Sheikh Jarrah continued, while a brutal Israeli military offensive on the blockaded Gaza Strip has left many Palestinians dead.
But an extraordinary phenomenon has also taken root inside Israel, where thousands of Palestinian citizens in towns, villages and so-called “mixed” cities have taken to the streets to assert their identity while living in a self-defined Jewish state.
“What is remarkable is that within ’48 [modern-day Israel, with reference to the 1948 declaration of the state], Palestinians who have long been ignored or deemed as ‘Israeli Arabs’ are once again restating powerfully that they are Palestinians,” said Layla Hallaq, a Palestinian activist based in Haifa.
“Their protests are not only of solidarity, but one of a shared cause and mutual pain experienced by every Palestinian.”
Making up about a fifth of Israel’s population, Palestinian citizens of Israel number approximately 1.6 million people today.
Unlike the majority of Palestinians, who were ethnically cleansed by Zionist paramilitaries before and during the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, these Palestinians are descendants of those who managed to remain in their towns and villages or were internally displaced.
They are sometimes referred to as “1948 Palestinians” in reference to their location within territory that was forcibly taken over to establish the Israeli state. The territory is also described as being “within the Green Line”, in reference to the line demarcating Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories under its control.
Despite holding Israeli citizenship, rights groups have documented several dozen Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of state across a wide spectrum of issues, including education, housing, political participation and due process. They are treated as second- and third-class citizens.
During the past week, Palestinian protests have taken place in towns and cities across Israel, from the Naqab (Negev) desert in the south, to Ramla, Yafa and Lydd (Lod in Hebrew) in the centre of the country, to the “Triangle” region and to Haifa and Nazareth in the north.
The demonstrators rallied in solidarity with Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, who are facing imminent displacement, and against the Israeli storming of the Al-Aqsa compound, which left hundreds of Palestinians wounded.
It is not the first time Palestinian citizens of Israel have protested against Israeli policies.
In 1976, six Palestinians were shot and killed for protesting Israeli mass land expropriation – an event that came to be known as Land Day and is commemorated annually on March 30. In October 2000, 13 Palestinians were shot dead as they joined in the Second Intifada, triggered by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa compound.
Still, Israel historically has pursued a policy of fragmentation of the Palestinian population under its control, both inside the country and in the occupied Palestinian territories, making sustained shows of solidarity between Palestinians in various parts of historic Palestine all the more difficult.
But experts have said the continuing protests inside Israel show how connected Palestinians really are.
“The recent events highlight not only the unity of the system of colonial oppression, but also the unity of Palestinian struggle,” Nimer Sultany, a reader of public law at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told Al Jazeera.
“Like in previous rounds of protests, such as in October 2000, Palestinian protesters in 1948 areas showed in practice the necessity and practicality of an anti-colonial struggle.”
Sultany said Israel’s policy of maintaining a Jewish majority within the Green Line is no different from its demographic engineering in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, where it works to dispossess Palestinians from their lands and impose a Jewish presence instead.
“The colonial objective of maintaining ‘Jewish demographic control’ or ‘Jewish sovereignty’ and Judaising Palestine is the same in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as much as in the Naqab (Negev), al-Jalil (Galilee), the ‘mixed cities’, and the Triangle,” he said.
One example is the city of Lydd, a city about 25km from Tel Aviv, which has now become a flashpoint of protests. The city, once populated by 19,000 Palestinians before Israel was established, was ethnically cleansed of most of its residents in July 1948. More than 200 were killed in the massacre, which former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took part in.
Lydd today has a population of 77,000 people, 30 percent of whom are Palestinians. For years, Palestinian residents have complained of institutional racism, which fuels marginalisation and poverty. Hardline Jewish settlers also have been moving in from the occupied West Bank since 2004, fuelling tensions.On May 10, as tensions escalated in East Jerusalem over Israel’s planned forced expulsions of Palestinian families and attacks on Al-Aqsa, a Palestinian flag was affixed to a lamp-post in place of an Israeli one in Lydd. That same night, a Palestinian resident named Moussa Hassouna was shot dead by a Jewish settler. Settlers attacked his funeral the following day.
The violent confrontations continued, with hardline Jewish settlers being bussed in from the occupied West Bank.
Mayor Yair Revivo, who has been accused of inciting against Palestinians and is close to Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last week said he had lost control of the city. On May 11, Revivo met Netanyahu, who then announced a state of emergency in Lydd – the first since 1966. At least 16 units of Israeli border police also were deployed.
“The Jewish state will not tolerate pogroms against our citizens,” Netanyahu said in a televised address on Saturday night. “We will not allow our Jewish citizens to be lynched … At the same time, we will not allow Jews to take the law into their own hands and attack innocent Arabs.”
But while Israeli police said a suspect in Hassouna’s murder has been arrested, Israeli Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana called for the shooter’s release.
“The arrest of the shooter in Lod and his friends, who apparently acted in self-defence, is terrible,” Ohana said. “Law-abiding citizens carrying weapons are a force multiplier for the authorities for the immediate neutralisation of threat and danger.
Fadi Abu Kishek, Hassouna’s neighbour in Lydd, told Al Jazeera that settlers are coming from outside the city and “burning Palestinian cars, attacking the mosque, vandalising our cemetery, and marching in areas where Palestinians live”.
The mobs are made up of far-right fascist groups such as Lehava, the Hilltop Youth, and football ultras La Familia and Beitar Yerushalayim, and sometimes other Israeli residents from the cities join in, Abu Kishek said.
“The settlers incite and attack, the Palestinians respond by defending themselves, [and] the police arrive on the scene and start throwing sound bombs and arresting Palestinians,” he said. “This is the reality we are dealing with.”