Israeli Occupation and the Palestinian Identity: An Interview with Sami Al-Arian

June 30, 2020

Palestinians have nothing to lose because living under occupation, oppression, tyranny, and losing their dignity is not a life. As long as they refuse to give up their fight for their cause, victory will be their ultimate destiny.
Large bundles of personal possessions are carried on the head of Palestinian women and children begin a three mile hike through no man's land to the Palestinian lines in Tulkarim. They were brought by truck to this point from a non combat Arab village near Haifa after being forced to leave their homes. Getty Images

After the state of Israel was established, millions of Palestinians were either displaced or forced to move from their lands – some into refugee camps and others to Arab or Western countries. This uprooting was highly traumatic and has had profound effects on the Palestinian identity. Yeter Ada Şeko speaks about the effects of this trauma to Palestinian political activist and the Director of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Sami Al-Arian, in relation to the Palestinian identity as well as the long struggle of Palestinians for their freedom.


Ada: After the state of Israel was established, millions of Palestinians were forced to move to different regions such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Some of them also left Arab lands and started a new life in Western regions such as the US and Europe. What is the effect of this immigration process on the Palestinian identity?

Sami Al Arian: There are many effects and great impact which depends on generation to generation, and geography to geography. When the first generation was exiled, many of them lived in refugee camps, whether in Gaza, in the West Bank, Lebanon, and later on in Syria. Some of them went to Egypt even though there were no refugee camps in Egypt, and many of them had over the years immigrated to different places, looking for better living conditions such as the Gulf areas. A few also went to the West, especially after the 1967 war, and lived in different regions in the West including the US and Europe. So when we talk about Palestinian identity, many factors shape that identity.

The first is that this was a collective trauma that the Palestinians faced. When they were uprooted suddenly from their homeland, that they had lived in for centuries, it was very traumatic for many people, especially since it did not happen over time but all of a sudden.

80 percent of the Palestinians who lived in the 1948 areas, approximately 800,000, were uprooted and placed in places that were alien to them, some of them living in very poor conditions. People were living in good conditions in their country and suddenly they faced poverty – that affected the psyche of the Palestinians. That psyche has never really left the Palestinians from generation to generation, and the experience was fed into every generation. My father’s generation, my generation, and my children’s generation – we always talked about that trauma. We always talked about the impact of being uprooted so there was always this strong connection between the Palestinians of each generation with Palestine. It wasn’t something that was forgotten or something that was put away.

The pain, the suffering, and the whole experience of being uprooted lived with them as well as their history of living in Palestine. So that is the first thing.

And it may have differed. Some communities have more affinity than others depending on where they are based, but overall Palestinians do connect and have this connection with the land of Palestine.

Secondly, because the majority of Palestinians, especially those living in refugee camps, were never given citizenship – they were never assimilated in a way that immigrants or refugees could have been.

Being Palestinian has always been part and parcel of suffering because being a non-citizen in these countries meant that you were denied many rights and privileges otherwise given to citizens of a country: the right to work, the right to healthcare, education and so forth, and that also cemented the fact what it means to be Palestinian.

Also, you can see the same in the Gulf areas because they do not give citizenship. The Palestinians lived as communities within a community in these countries, like Kuwait before 1990. Before they left Jordan there were very large Palestinian communities and that cemented their identity of what it means to be Palestinians.

In the West, for example in the United States of America where I lived for four decades, you could see whole villages, especially from the West Bank, relocated to the US, and there they would begin life again and eventually gain citizenship. They would form associations that identify with the land of Palestine. So you have different villages and each village would have their association so that they can maintain the feeling and connection to their land, as well as to their fellow Palestinians of what it means to be a Palestinian.

Also, those who have been a part of the struggle, and that’s tens of thousands of people that are part of the struggle for Palestine, you will see that the struggle also cemented that Palestinian identity, because for many societies if you are struggling for Palestine that is not something that would come easy, as you will become a target. If you are in the US or if you are sometimes in Europe and even some Arab countries – if people work for Palestine they become targets of the security agencies in which they would suffer for being a part of the Palestinian struggle and that would also further cement their Palestinian identity.

Palestine, over the years, has become a symbol. A symbol against racism, a symbol against oppression, a symbol against tyranny, and a symbol against the occupation, therefore many people identify with that issue from that standpoint. This makes Palestinians even more committed to the struggle, cementing their identity further.

So, what I would say is that being part of a Palestinian exiled community, or being part of people under occupation is a struggle, whether in the areas of 1948 or the West Bank or Gaza, and that struggle continues, the suffering continues, and the pain continues, enduring from generation to generation. The collective memory is transferred from generation to generation, therefore there is more commitment and more association with what it means to be a Palestinian – that identity is further cemented.

Ada: Do you think that Palestinians who live in other lands, where they can get citizenship, may lose their Palestinian identity as a result? Do you think this suffering, i.e. not being able to get citizenship, keeps the Palestinian identity alive?

Sami Al Arian: I think it’s true. Historically it’s true that in many of these communities, particularly in the Arab countries (except Jordan), they never received citizenship, and that cemented what being a Palestinian is. However, many Palestinians would argue that it’s not an excuse for them to be denied basic rights as human beings because not being a citizen in a nation-state system puts huge hardship and burden on these communities and makes them non-entities, non-citizens, and non-human beings.

They are denied necessities, basic rights in life: the right to a decent education, the right to a job, the right to retirement, the right to live in dignity, the right to healthcare, and so forth. So not being a citizen did cement the meaning of what it means to be Palestinian and this was the only identity that people could identify with – being a Palestinian. So with that suffering – yes identity was certainly strengthened.

Even for Palestinians in Jordan – they do have citizenship or at least a form of citizenship, even though there is subtle discrimination between Palestinians and Jordanians by the government, but even with that the Palestinians still identify with Palestine and they still yearn for the day when they can return to their country, and that’s also being transferred from generation to generation.

Sami A. Al-Arian is the Director of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) and public affairs professor at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. Anadolu Images

Ada: For Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship, being an Israeli citizen is another aspect of their identity. What do you think about the identity issue of Israeli-Palestinians and their relationship with the state of Israel?

Sami Al Arian: Palestinians who stayed in Palestine, after the catastrophe of 1948 and after the occupation of 78% of Palestine by the Zionist regime, never felt they were citizens.

For 18 years between 1948 and 1966, these communities lived under military curfew, under martial law, so they never felt part of society. Though 80% of the Palestinians were exiled the remainder lived under military rule, even though they lived side by side with Israelis. Living under military rule for 18 years brutalized an entire generation. Even after that was lifted and they were given citizenship by Israel, they never became part and parcel of society, and you can see the racist policies and mentality of the Zionist leaders in clear and plain ways. They don’t even try to hide it: a Jewish only state, Jewish only laws, some Jewish only roads in the West Bank, and settlements and so on so forth.

When they were uprooted suddenly from their homeland, that they had lived in for centuries, it was very traumatic for many people, especially since it did not happen over time but all of a sudden.

There is a lot of discrimination against the Arabs inside the 1948 areas, which is manifested in education, in job discrimination, in healthcare, and even in their right to go and pray in the al-Aqsa mosque. If they take a different political position, they will be prevented from praying at al-Aqsa. Most Palestinians outside Jerusalem have also been denied this right for decades.

So, even though the Israeli state tries to portray itself as being a state that respects different religions and ethnicities, the fact of the matter is that it is not the case. Numerous studies will prove that what we have in Palestine today, in terms of the Israeli state, is a state that discriminates against its citizens based on their ethnicity, faith, and religion, and therefore we cannot say that Palestinians inside that state enjoy the privileges and rights of being equal citizens to the Jewish citizens.

Ada: As was mentioned before some Palestinians have Israeli citizenship and some do not. From what you say, it is clear that this citizenship isn’t of equal value. So why does Israel give citizenship to Palestinians?

Sami Al Arian: That was a historical decision that the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, made. Many Israeli politicians regret that decision and the reason that Ben-Gurion made that decision, which is basically to grant the remaining Palestinians a form of citizenship, (which now many right-wing groups and settler movements and others, such as even Lieberman, are trying to undo so that they can maintain the ‘purity’ of a Jewish only state) had more to do with the image that Israel wanted to portray to the outside world than to the actual ideology of Zionism.

One of the strategic imperatives of Zionism is to occupy as much of Palestine as possible with as few of Arab Palestinian Christians and Muslims as possible. So they have a problem now that the Arab population inside the state have ‘citizenship’ whether Muslim or Christian. These populations are approximately 20% of the state, and they grow even faster than their Jewish fellows inside the state and that is a concern to them. That’s why in the so-called deal of the century, there is a clause there that says that part of that final status is to transfer what is called the triangle (these are three villages at the top of the border between the West Bank and Israel) numbering over 300,000 Palestinians.

This population will be transferred and they will lose their citizenship and be transferred to the Palestinian communities in case there is some kind of a deal. So there are concerns about that. As I said, for many it was a controversial decision but Ben-Gurion made that decision to improve Israel’s image in the eyes of the international community, after exiling 800,000 people and refusing to allow them to go back to their original homes.

Ada: It appears that Israel is using some narratives to justify their position over the land, right? How does these narratives effect Palestinian relationship with their history and their identity?

Sami Al Arian: Israel has a different narrative. They try to falsify what happened in 1948. They try to falsify the history of the land; they try to falsify the history of an indigenous people – Palestinians of the land. They even try to falsify what’s happening now on the ground. Palestinians unify and they have their narrative and they would like to talk advocate it in a way that will show the true nature of the conflict as well as the identity of what it means to be Palestinian today. So in this sense, you can also see the Palestinians common identity, regardless of where they are. I mean Palestinians today are in dozens of countries and yet they can identify with each other.

Each Palestinian can identify with the land, with the village, with the town they came from, or their ancestors came from. They can recite each chapter and verse of their history. So that collective memory and common destiny are what shapes what it means today to be a Palestinian even for those who live inside the state under racist policies. They identify with their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza and beyond. They still see themselves as part of the Palestinian people and share this common identity.

Also, Palestinians believe the struggle has not ended. People who have power think that they have dominated their victims therefore, they believe that the struggle is waning and it’s going to be over soon. But Palestinians look at that completely the opposite way – that the struggle continues and it will never cease until their rights are restored: the right to return, that Jerusalem is liberated and that this racist state and its institutions would be dismantled. That’s how Palestinians feel, therefore as long as the struggle continues, that means the struggle is not over, the conflict is not over, and that identity will continue to be transferred from generation to generation. The Jews pride themselves on never forgetting the years that they were at one point in Palestine and use this to justify their right to go back and occupy the land. I mean if they could not forget in four thousand years how could Palestinians forget after seventy? I believe that the struggle is far from being over; that this will continue till justice prevails.

As long as any people in the world refuse to give up their fight for their cause, ultimately victory will be their destiny.

Ada: I also see this faith in Palestinian people, especially when I follow the Great Return Protest at the Gaza-Israel strip. But there is something that I cannot understand. Palestinians are facing a lot of difficulties each day – great powers such as the US fully support the Israel state. In this struggle, what makes Palestinians faith remain strong and alive?

Sami Al Arian: That’s a good question. As I said, the struggle itself has been shaped by many factors. One of the important factors is that Palestinians believe very strongly in their cause – they believe that they are free people and will never accept living under occupation. They will continue to struggle for their liberation. They have faith that comes from their history from the truth of their cause. They don’t give up. That has been proven over and over again through years of suffering, even before 1948. Palestinians pride themselves on having had the longest strike in history – three straight years between 1936-1939. They were at the time protesting British policies towards Palestine in which unlimited immigration of European Jews was being allowed into Palestine. They shut down the government completely. They had to struggle against a very brutal military occupation by Britain.

They continued that tradition of struggle, they suffered tens of thousands of casualties, and thousands of people are in prison, millions of people under occupation so the overwhelming majority of Palestinians continue to believe in the justice of their struggle that will prevail one day. Even though the balance of power is not in their favor, they still believe as long as they struggle, one day they will prevail and falsehood will perish. As for your question where does this faith come from, I would say that it’s a common thing of pride in your faith – a lot of people are Muslim and Christians and they have a lot of faith. They believe God is with them, they believe this cause is just, therefore they will not give up. They believe they have been wronged and the sign of a free people is to struggle until either they are victorious or they face a dignified death. Therefore, they have nothing to lose because living under occupation, under oppression, under tyranny, and losing their dignity is not a life. As long as any people in the world refuse to give up their fight for their cause, ultimately victory will be their destiny.

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