An interview with Jamal Zahalka
Jamal Zahalka is a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. He is one of 11 Arab members of the Knesset, which has 120 members. He was in Ottawa as part of Israeli Apartheid Week and was the keynote speaker at Carleton University, where he spoke on March 5, 2010.
Can you talk a bit about the party you head in Israel and its goals?
I was first elected as a member of the Knesset in 2003 and re-elected in 2006. I represent the Balad (National Democratic Assembly) party. We are struggling for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and for justice for the Palestinian people. Our sources are from the left traditions and from the democratic traditions and nationalism. We challenge the character of Israel as a Jewish state and demand that Israel be a state for all its citizens. We challenge Zionism within democracy.
Do you consider Israel a democratic state?
What is Israel? In the framework of Israel for the Jewish people, you have a democratic process; there are elections, people vote, there’s relative freedom of speech. But this is misleading, as it was built by expelling Palestinians from their homeland. Only after the forceful creation of a demographic majority of Jewish citizens did Israel begin adopting a democratic process.
But this regime governs people other than Jewish people. Palestinians are segregated because of Israeli politics and policy. Refugees are denied their right of return, Gaza is under siege, and Jerusalem is separated from the West Bank. This segregation is unprecedented in the world.
I think we should take the Israeli regime as a whole—its ethnocracy, racial colonialism, Apartheid. You cannot say it is a democratic regime. Although there is a democratic process, it is a process without democratic values.
How does your party reconcile sitting in the Knesset?
We decided to participate in the political process for two reasons: to serve our community and to express our political views. Of course there are contradictions in our reality; we are living in a state that is built on the destruction of our people.
We demand not only formal citizenship, but full citizenship, which means the state should be changed to one without Zionism and one for all citizens. We demand cultural autonomy for our people. These are the main demands of our party.
You said you wanted Israel to become a state for all its citizens, which would contradict Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state. How do you envision that happening?
I don’t know what will happen, but you cannot establish a real democracy if the state is not for all its citizens. And even if there’s a political settlement, even if Israel withdraws from the West Bank and there’s a Palestinian state, the problem is the nature of the state of Israel. It is a Jewish state that belongs to one group of citizens. The basis of democracy, first of all, is that citizens are equal and the state belongs to all of them. I think human rights and indigenous peoples’ rights are superior to the goals of a particular group. The Israelis don’t have the right to oppress Palestinians. Men and women, regardless of their race or religion, should have the same rights.
The situation of the Palestinians is often compared to what took place in South Africa under the apartheid system, and you have used the word "apartheid" to describe the two.
Whatever the description and whatever the name we give to the Israeli regime, it’s from the same family of apartheid in South Africa. There is a democratic regime for Jewish people. Then there’s a regime for Palestinians based on racial discrimination. You can give it any name you want. Some people prefer calling it racial colonialism; others call it ethnocracy. Whatever name given it, it’s based on a Zionist ideology. There’s a chance, opportunity, space, and horizon for people to live in democracy, freedom, and peace, but only if Zionist hegemony ceases. Then there will be an opportunity for people to live together like in South Africa where apartheid ended. We should adapt the principle that racism should be defeated not compromised with.
In Ontario, MPPs voted unanimously on a motion to denounce Israeli Apartheid Week.
Israel and its advocates want to silence supporters of Palestine. They want the occupation to continue; they want the colonialism, oppression, settlements, and the siege of Gaza to continue. Israeli Apartheid Week breaks this conspiracy of silence. If politicians in the West and in Israel are angry about Israeli Apartheid Week, then students areon the right track, because the goal is to fight the silence and break the conspiracy of silence. I think this is an ethical, moral, and political responsibility of any decent man or woman.
What do you think of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign?
In principle we should understand that Israel is not ready for any settlements with Palestinians and it cannot produce a genial approach towards peace. There is an urgent need for international pressure against Israel to force Israel to end occupation and change its policies. So that why I think any kind of pressure from Israel is good. These are my thoughts in general without entering on how it should be done. How this is done will come down to tactics but in principle international pressure is needed. It’s an urgent need because Israeli establishments are raised all the time. So they cannot do what they want without paying the price for their crimes in Gaza and what’s going on in the West Bank. Governments and international community, human rights organization, people in the world should pressure Israel to stop the crimes implemented against Palestinians.
BDS is a good initiative but I think other things should be done as well. Governments should boycott the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, because he called for the Arab members of the Knesset to be killed and yet still was received in Italy, France, Germany, and England. We need to show that the Israeli government cannot do what it wants without any reaction. BDS has many levels and I hope this campaign will succeed in putting real pressure on Israel.
Last summer, more than 45 households of Palestinians in East Jerusalem were evicted, and many reports discussed the “Judaization” of Jerusalem. Do you believe this phenomenon is specific to Jerusalem or is there a general attempt by the Israeli government to continue transferring Palestinians?
After the possession of Jerusalem after 1967, the Israeli authorities were worried about so called demographic balance and there was a criterion that they decided upon it. The Palestinian percentage in Jerusalem should not exceed 28%. Now the percentage of Palestinian is 33-35. Israel has gotten nervous. Ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem has become a common occurrence, done through many means. They do it by taking identity cards from people, by manipulating laws, by house demolitions, by evicting people and by not allowing people to build their houses. It’s also done by building the fence and the wall around the city and by building settlements in East Jerusalem to make it harder for Palestinians to develop their community. The Judiaztion of east Jerusalem is the main goal of Israeli government.
I think the government is preparing for a settlement according to Clinton’s principle, that is, what’s Jewish-dominated will go to Israel and what is Arabic-dominated will go to Palestine. They want to make facts on the ground that when it comes to negotiation, it will say that this area is part of Israel. That’s why every time they are trying to evacuate people to build new settlements, to change the facts on the ground. I think this is a crucial issue because in any case, whatever the solution may be when negotiation time comes, Jerusalem will be part of Israel. This is a way of negating the two-state solution, because I don’t think Palestinians would agree to any settlement without East Jerusalem. Palestine without East Jerusalem is like a body without spirit.
Can you talk about your confrontation with Dan Margalit on Israeli television?
Actually, I had an interview on Israeli television program with Dan Margalit who considers himself and many people consider him as the most important Israeli journalist. The interview was very tough; he asked questions and I replied to him. But when I spoke about killing citizens in Gaza, about the killing of children in Gaza, and accusing Israeli Defence minister Ehud Barak of responsibility of this killing and saying that he listens to classical music from one side and kills Palestinian children from the other side, he lost control and said to me that this is an arrogance. And actually it wasn’t a personal question; it was defending the memory of children who were killed, defending the victims. I asked him several times to stop and he didn’t agree.
He continued to attack me and I said that he’s a servant of the government. It came to a point where he said to me, you are arrogant and go away from here. I told him this is Sheikh Mo’enes, which is the name of the village, which on its destruction the studio stands. Then he became crazy because they want to hide the name. They don’t want people to know that there was a Palestinian village in this place. They want us to forget that. But when he said to me to go away, I said that I am from the indigenous people and this is my land; I am not colonist here. The origin of the confrontation was that he acts like a master and I am his servant because I am Palestinian. And I refuse to play these power relations. That’s what happened with him. There was a big scandal about it. By the way many Israeli intellectuals and journalists attacked him for being unprofessional in the way he dealt with me. He should have restrained himself and ask questions, not judge what I am saying.
You were harassed in the Canadian airport in Ottawa upon your entrance. What are your comments about that?
I would say that there’s a something crazy going on in all airports over the world, including Canada. When they see an Arab, even an Arab politician, he’s stereotyped immediately and faces bad treatment. I think what happened is part of this atmosphere of Islamphobia, campaign against Arabs and Muslims. I would say that they exaggerate in the airport. Even when I told them I am a politician, member of Knesset and that I will speak in several Universities. This made them more nervous, not less. I don’t know what’s going on. I am not familiar with Canadian politics but I know that this treatment doesn’t represent how Canadian people think.
I used to be student activist, even used to write to newspapers, and I think it’s extremely important that students are active in social, economic and political and cultural issues because universities should not be machines only to produce professionals but to raise human beings to do their duty to community and people all over the world. I think that the solidarity movements in all universities all over the world supporting the Palestinian people give us hope for the future and that government do not represent the young generation and the citizens.
Some argue that having you come here and speak is a form of democracy. Do you face any repercussions in talking about how Israel is an apartheid state?
Before coming, there was an attack on me in an Israeli newspaper. Many Israeli politicians said I should be forbidden from going abroad. Others said that I should be treated as a traitor and punished, and there were many attacks from MPs and Israeli politicians. But this is part of our struggle and our confrontation with Israeli policies. You mentioned that the fact that I am here may mean something about Israeli democracy. A question like this was raised in the Knesset last time I spoke about how Israel stole 90% of Palestinian land. I told them take your democracy and give me my land. We want the land