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The persecution of Azmi Bishara

Tuesday 17 April 2007, by Ali Abunimah

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 movement.

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

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 Question.)

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 Jews.

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.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One
Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse
(Metropolitan Books, 2006)

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