All posts

Palestine ’48: House Demolitions, Good Arabs And Resistance

Thanks to Z magazine’s generosity, LeftEast is delighted to republish Kristina Božič‘s interview with Majd Nasrallah on the life of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Majd Nasrallah has worked in Palestinian cultural institutions and is a local community organizer with a degree in international law and human rights. He talks about criminal violence being the last stage of the attempt to dehumanize and subjugate Palestinians by the Israeli apartheid system. After being a proponent of a one democratic state he now says that future should aim beyond the national state model that has been forced upon the region and the world by the colonizing powers.

Kristina Božič: Europe, especially in liberal circles, likes to pride itself that it has surpassed Orientalism. Yet we have never seen greater dehumanisation and anti-Muslim discrimination than we have been witnessing since October in relation to Israel’s war on Gaza and Palestinians under occupation. Having the name and identities that you carry what do your experiences tell you about the West’s norms, rule of law and values?

Majd Nasrallah: This puts us on the traces and at the base of the colonial thought. Five hundred years ago the Europeans were morally justifying their conquests, importantly, by quoting the Bible, the word of God. The natives were dehumanized and the conquerors rationalized their violence. Dehumanization creates sub-humans and holly scriptures offer the reasoning for an appropriation of a foreign land. The Bible says, the God put the land for men to graze and cultivate. The Europeans have recognized themselves as men, designated the natives as sub-human and claimed the right over the land.

The consistency of this thought and the moral justifications have now been transformed into the rhetoric and the language of human rights, rule of law and democratic systems of governance. However, inherently, whiteness remains a political category. My surname uncovers many layers of this. Especially when I pull out an Israeli passport. It breaks up the binary.

In what ways?

The Jewish question of Europe still has its repercussions on today’s world and an Israeli passport grants privileges. It also hits at the fragility of the identity politics. We have seen the difference in the outrage after the deaths of Westerners compared to Palestinians killed. It comes as no surprise. It is sickening, though, and we are sick of it. We are sick of our lives being worthless.

I think we need to stop speaking to the West. We are not here to show the West its faults or wrongs. No one is oblivious to these. And I will not sit to debate my humanity – with anyone. The Palestinian struggle has transcended throughout the Global South and beyond. Black Lives Matter, Palestinian Lives Matter, these movements show us it is not just Palestinians who face injustices and inhumanities. It is high time that we take a critical look at what we believe in. Human rights language disenfranchises us. It was never ours. Hannah Arendt wrote critically about it. Western institutions use human rights to define their morality and to offer a safety net to the oppressor.

Israel is a prime example. It claims it has “the most moral army” and justifies the oppression of the Palestinians and massacres using the humanitarian law language, terms and definitions. This is how the language of human rights and morality is used – and I would claim that this is why it was established. Human rights do not serve the protection of people but only allow violations in a more nuanced way.

A legal scholar Shahd Hammouri sees now as the last chance for the international law to change to ensure a more equal world and to decolonize itself. She still sees this possibility. You do not?

I have a degree in international law and human rights but I have never believed in them. I studied to understand. I am a big advocate of systems of security and also of international regulation. I am not a proponent of chaos. However, we need to be critical of the current system. We cannot put all our hopes and trust in international law and current human rights system, especially not today in Palestine. Politicians and the most prominent advocates of Palestine talk about the use of international law and how strong the Palestinian case is. But Palestine is the strongest case and the prime example of how the international law does not deliver.

We have been cornered to the point that we believe that the tool of oppression used against us will somehow be the tool that brings about change. There are dozens United Nations General Assembly and even Security Council resolutions that advocate for the return of the refugees and for the establishment of the Palestinian state – yet, none have worked in our favour. And the biggest vessel that enables this has been the Palestinian Authority. We see how politics of power subjugate legal mechanisms. The USA says to Palestinians: “We will give you funds if you withdraw your case from the ICC.”


And prime example of how power resources are used to bend people: Do you want to eat or do you want to liberate yourself? We should also remain critical of the ICC: established in 1998, nothing before that date matters and it has no tools for enforcement?

No, I do not believe in the international law and its structure of rights.

Is that because of the ideas in its base or because of the misuses by the world powers that shape it?

There is something novel in the structures of international law following the World War Two. However, we cannot ignore the fact that after the WWII there was a need for a system that would allow the powers to be to continue in their positions. The bases for peoples’ liberation struggles were set. Seventy percent of the entities we call states were not states before the WWII. The desire to retain colonial hegemony and imperialism meant that people were given autonomy as the classic empire changed. America was keen to allow people to run their affairs but inside the international system that determines how affairs can be run.

The recognition of the right to self-determination as a key human right was presented as a success of the Global South. But self-determination was never defined and new states were tied up by the IMF, World Bank and the international financial system. We should not uncritically accept things as they are presented. The importance of using the language of human rights today lies in exposing the West’s cynicism. 

After completing your studies you have dedicated yourself to community organizing. What have your experiences taught you? What works on the ground under an apartheid system of occupation that builds on ever more separations among the oppressed community?

Having graduated I searched for ways to put my knowledge to practice. I wanted to work for the rights of Palestinians but I hit at one of these separations. The existing human rights NGOs work almost entirely for the Palestinians in the West Bank. I come from the Triangle (a concentration of Palestinian settlements to the East of Haifa), my father was born in Qalansawe and my mum is from Nablus. They raised us in Jerusalem and for the longest time I was trying to figure out, who I am. If I said I was from the Triangle the reaction was either oblivion or a knowing look with a stereotypical undertone. The Triangle is associated with everything lowly: uncultured, barbaric, peasant, violent. I wanted to work with the community using new skills and knowledge but there was nothing. I could pursue social or economic rights of Palestinians in Israel, maybe legal stature, but nothing political.

I wanted to contribute to the betterment of the Triangle as a parcel of the mosaic of the Palestinian community.

But you did not grow up in Qalansawe?

No, I returned there after graduating. I was raised in East Jerusalem but we visited Qalansawe every weekend with my dad. Qalansawe is marginalised within the Triangle, which is itself a marginalised area in Israel. My father’s family are farmers and we still have our ancestral lands there, for which we are to this day in court against the state of Israel. The state claims we are absent refugees and in 2020 the Supreme Court ruled that we have no rights, proclaiming our land state property. The land is just across from our house. My great-grandfather was among the first Palestinian refugees before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, when Zionists were coming and buying land. The Palestinian farmers were forced out and my great-grandfather bought the land in Qalansawe. We have the deed, certified by the British, who ruled the territory at the time. But these legal papers count for nothing. Moreover, the Israeli Land Administration is using our case as a precedent. Before 1948 Qalansawe stretched over the area of 32.000 dunams. In 1948 Israeli actions shrank it to a little over 7.000 dunams with more than a half being agricultural land. In 1948 the population was 2.000 people, today there are 26.000 people.

What happened in spring 1948?

In 1948 our area was under the control of the Iraqi forces. A side-anecdote claims that Qalansawe was spared for a year because it had piles of manure that Jewish militias thought were Iraqi tanks. If the Triangle were part of the West Bank, the Israeli stretch along the sea would be only 7-kilometeres wide. The story goes that Golda Meir sat down with the Jordanian king and insisted she wants this land. Jordanian king in May 1949 saw it as a speck on the map. He agreed to transfer to Israel whole communities. Once Qalansawe reached out all the way to the sea, while today people are amassed on 3.000 dunams. This concentration is part of the Israeli urban control policies, a layering of the oppression by creating a ghetto. My town is infamous. However, the two places where the best strawberries in Palestine grew were Qalansawe and Gaza. This historical pride has been disintegrating. We are losing agricultural land and Qalansawe is a target of house demolitions. This has been the starting point of my grassroots activism.

Did this put you in contact also with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions – ICAHD and Jeff Halper, a proponent of one democratic state?

ICAHD works on house demolitions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Not in Israel. We have no supporting organizations because we are not considered under occupation. Qalansawe is today one of the most targeted cities for Israeli state land grab. Across from Qalansawe there are Jewish settlements on what used to be Palestinian land. Israel spends millions on real estate for young Jewish couples while Palestinian communities are increasingly overcrowded. At the moment there are 366 house demolition orders.

For homes in the surrounding areas of the city?

Yes. To oppose it we organized local political actions, we formed youth groups and local committees. We pioneered certain strategies because we understood how the Israeli system works. The court issues house demolition orders and hands them over to the police for execution. Police does not act on them in two situations: if this presented a threat to the security of the state and public life or to their offices. This taught us how to proceed. We formed human chains, filmed statements of desperate owners who were ready to say they would lose their mind if they lost their home and all the pillars of the security for their families. Police interrogated the owners and went back to court. It did not solve the issue but it bought us time.

Why would the land-grab of your family’s land be a precedent?

In 1949 the demilitarized line was drawn based on the Rhodes Agreement. It is on Israeli official maps. However, now they claim its route is different, ascribing them more land. After taking our 25 dunams, they can confiscate further 600 dunams.

Because of the land grabs and house demolitions the price of the land that can be built on is sky-high. This also led to the problems we had with the mafia. They shot my uncle and killed three of my cousins.

The mafia is after the land as well?

Yes, especially inside the urban area, where the land prices are so high. For some time there was no built structure on one part of our land. My grandma and uncles were sitting outside their house, when big black cars drove up. The men said, showing to the plot, that is our land, you have one week to clear everything. I was not there, but when they returned, I was.

“You have not cleared the land.”

“We are not clearing anything. Our blood has been fertilizing this land and it will carry our coffins,” I told them.

They returned the next day and threw grenades at the house. My mum and sister were inside. We decided my mum should go to her parents to Nablus and my siblings went to Jerusalem. I grew up surrounded by really good people but also bad ones. I understand the street-crime culture and I knew I could not measure up to them in strength. Everyone was telling me to let go of the land.

In the Triangle there are two competing crime syndicates. During the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war the numbers of people killed in crime violence were higher than of Israeli soldiers, killed in the war. Around that time the crime and bombings of the cars got so intense that the Israeli state came to sign a peace treaty with both crime syndicates. I knew that and I wanted to do like the Israelis do in the West Bank: to put facts on the ground. The first builders cancelled on me after mafia threatened them. The mafia again attacked our house. I had put some cameras around and the man with AK47 stepped out of the car, looked at the camera and smiled, before shooting. I took the recording to the police, told them what I knew, they arrested the guy but two days later let him loose. So I went to their competitors, the other crime syndicate, explained the situation and asked them to build the foundation for the house on the land. After the building started the mafia shot my uncle in his knees on his way to check the strawberries. They told him to tell me to stop building. It was getting worse and worse. 

At that time I got the lead position at the only cultural institution in the Triangle. I had this duality in my life, dealing with a crime mob, going around in a bulletproof jacket and talking about culture. The situation was getting worse so I decided to write to a Palestinian Knesset member and then I reluctantly contacted the Haaretz.

Afterwards a car pulled up at the house and a man introduced himself as the commissioner of the police for the Triangle area. He told me, that I was not special, that police was not my private security and that I should solve it as “we Arabs solve it, with some Sulha”. He said: “If I were a thug and even with hundreds of police and tanks around your house, if I wanted to kill you, I would find a way.” He ended it by saying: “And don’t let me come to your house with a search warrant in two days and find weapons.”

He did not know that I was recording everything on my phone. The media got the recording and exposure grew. It is the absurdities of being a Palestinian, an Israeli citizen, but not fully … The police have the duty to protect. They sent swat teams to guard our house. I was inside, organizing our community against house demolitions. I did not leave my home to go to work but I did go to the protests. The police called my dad to ask him, what was wrong with me. My dad told them off. He said, they were doing their job and I was practising my rights.

But this is how they usually play the game: they present their work as help or even pose as friends. Then they demand “favours” in return. Thus the state violence reproduces itself and morphs into social and community violence. Land is transformed from a home, history and heritage into money, profit and business.

But the mentioned court battle is for a different piece of land?

Yes. In the early 1980s they transferred our land from our family’s name to the Israeli Land Association (ILA). They claim that as they did this, they sent a letter with a notification. My family has never received it. Twenty years later the municipality wanted to build a street. My cousin wanted to build a house. We learned that the land was no longer ours, we went to court and they told us we had missed the statute of limitations. We fought and we lost. Although they have no proof that the letter, in Hebrew, was sent. It is absurd.

During the Covid we tried to organize film screenings on our land as a drive-in cinema, now we farm it and we are fighting in court to be recognized as legal squatters. If we lose, the ILA can put the land up in an auction. The mafia comes and leases it for 99 years at reduced price. The ILA never sells most of the land. But if auction happens, we want to be the first bidders. It is crazy – to buy the lease for your land … but it is better than losing it altogether.

And it is such land grabs and house demolitions that mostly connect and activate people?

House demolitions are the main issue – they destroy people’s lives. But the sad truth is that often people whose houses are to be demolished do not participate.

They feel too vulnerable?

Yes. Many Palestinians get a call from a Jewish official and they conclude that they will be better off collaborating. I found ways to work with youth groups and students. There are so many injustices and violations and they are so angry. They understood that other violations were part of the pattern leading to house demolitions. Protests and organizing gave them a channel to express their anger.

We had some great successes. In 2017 the land issue exploded. 900 soldiers came at 5 AM and demolished 12 houses. It was after the court ordered an illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank to be demolished. Bibi Netanyahu commented on the demolitions in the Triangle, that they had sent their army to ensure peace and security. We organized a march. And for the first time ever 20.000 people came.

You have gone to Brazil to the school organized by the Landless Workers Movement. Now, you have lived in Ramallah for two years. Can you still participate in organizing in the Triangle or has the fragmentation caused by the Israeli occupation distanced the lived experiences of Palestinians too much?

I have moved to Ramallah after working at a cultural centre Tishreen in the Triangle. There we launched an alternative space and did a lot of youth organizing. Now I work for the Qattan Foundation, one of a few cultural institutions in Palestine.

Palestinians in 1948 have gone through a very complex process of fake assimilation. The level of political ignorance is startling. They no longer talk about Palestine. The existing political representation is abysmal. Our existence is precarious, our privileges are here but can be easily taken away. So it is better to be quiet. Many have internalized it all: inferiority, fear …

The first phase of this process were the twenty years of martial law, when people were psychologically broken. Our way of life was stripped away from us. Palestinians, who had been mostly farmers, were forced to become labourers. Their existence depended on permits and their Israeli overlords. The violence experienced from employers was then brought home. It was an era of black points or marks. My father still has an internalized fear of being given a black mark. He remembers how they were on a calorie count. Israel’s blockade on Gaza had had its history. Chicken was holiday, there was no sugar and my father first tasted chocolate when he was 17. In 1950s and 60s until 1966 Israel broke Palestinians of 1948 psychologically, stripping them of pride and integrity. People became terrified and their preoccupation has been survival. 

Later the subjugation was subtler. My father did not finish his first MA because the topic was dictated and politically motivated to further marginalize and undermine the Palestinians. The term Arab Israelis was normalized and slowly it all became a way of life.

And today?

Today we see the final stage of this humiliation and marginalization: organized crime. A big shift started in 1993 when the Palestinian Authority signed the Oslo Accords. There were pages about perks for the PA officials but there was no mention of the 1948 Palestinians. This turned us into an internal Israeli domestic affair. The second stage of the shift came with the second intifada. During the Black October the Israeli police shot its citizens and killed 13 of us. The Israeli state understood it needed to create new ways of consuming us. Drugs were let into our communities, respect was dissolved. Israel has for 76 years built on the message that a person, who works with Israel, is the most successful, powerful and influential. The family structure dissipated or was co-opted. Today the biggest criminals are people who can solve problems and who are honorary members of the Israeli police force. Few youth programs that exist are geared towards israelization. There is nothing else.

And in schools?

Schools are the central tool for this character creation. Not only are schools under funded, they are headed by people who are vetted by the Israeli security agency, Shabak. The same is true for the imams. Children who are troublemakers are picked out with the help of school principles and co-opted by Shabak. In schools children learn about the right of return – for Jews. They learn about the Other and how to hate the Other – and that Other is them.

Life options are narrow and restricted: you drop out of school and become a manual labourer to build the state of Israel; you join the world of crime or you join the universities to become the good Arab. Good Arab leaves his Arabness at home. Yet, we can never assimilate because we are not Jewish. Successful Palestinians have come to see their success as something they have gained as individuals, not as members of a community.

They are successful because they are no longer members of the community?

Yes. They have internalized Arab inferiority despite their high education.

And this is prevalent?

The protests in 2021 were the game changer. For the longest time we were lost hope. Many families have kept history from their children because they wanted to protect the kids. My interest lies in this intersection between criminality and resistance. What politicizes the “troublemakers”? How to build popular political education and new forms of political organizing that is real for people. Those educated talk about apartheid and colonial policies but it is the ordinary people who experience the effects and violence. If you offer popular knowledge inside the communities so that people can understand their predicament in relation to facts, they can position themselves in the triangle of needs, problems and actions needed to overcome these problems. We can think of new political theories that lead to new political organizing. Palestine needs these.

How was 2021 a game changer and what is you vision onwards?

The uprisings were among the ’48 Palestinians channelled through anger. Israel arrested 800 people and made a clear point that a stick follows such protests. However, I am not interested only in ’48 but also in the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Gaza … Cultural institutions have an important role to play in creating value-based systems that correspond, influence and lead the society, influence collective behaviours and characters … I understand well the faults of the present day cultural institutions that follow European model and the problems of political factions and parties. 

The political horizons and ideologies need to break out of the present frameworks. How can we create new political visions for a value based system that is grounded, that people can connect to and is not exclusionary? And how can we build new political organizing that translates into practice?

For the last three years I have worked on the project titled Living otherwise. I focused on three groups: activists in the ecology of death – many great initiatives have surfaced, sparked and died. They want a new society but they keep failing, running out of means or reproducing the capitalist relations. The second group are the outlaws – criminal syndicates and militants, who exist only because of the ecology that supports them. They survive in places where law is suspended, like the Triangle, in refugee camps, next to the Apartheid Wall. They present a way of life, are highly organized and internally well controlled. The third group is a mosque as a cultural centre, a place where apolitical people go. The organizing comes by itself, like the protests in 2017 against the metal detectors at Al-Aqsa, and they also aim for a new society.

My interest lies in the creation of a melting pot, merging these practices together in a decentralized but organized way. I want to create a mobile organization – a bus that travels around Palestine and works with different communities on their needs, organizes nucleuses that work for the needs of their local communities while at the same time engage in cultural creation that talks across localities. How can we create methodologies for popular political education that result in two things: in creation of cultural content that speaks with people, to people and by the people, and in engagement of communities through a new political outlook that results in organizing these communities. This I want to explore.