Arab lawmaker: Israel must be a 'state for all citizens'

ALEXANDRA J. WALL

Being a member of Israel's parliament when you're not Jewish puts you in an odd predicament -- just ask Azmi Bishara.

"Israel is a country that not only treats its Arab citizens as second-class citizens, but will not separate state and religion, and it won't separate nationality and religion," he said. "I was born Catholic, and I have to sit in the Knesset and decide who is a Jew and how to convert -- this decides who is a citizen."

While his remark got a big laugh from those gathered May 21 at the First Congregational Church in Oakland, most of what Bishara had to say about his existence as part of the Arab minority in Israel was much less humorous.

Bishara, who has a doctorate in philosophy and is founder of the National Democratic Assembly (the acronym Balad in Hebrew), was in the area last week to receive Global Exchange's annual Human Rights Award at a San Francisco dinner. In Oakland the night before, he addressed a sympathetic audience of about 150.

Even though he was suffering from a bout of laryngitis, Bishara still argued strenuously as to why he believes Israel is not in fact a democracy, and why it should become a "state for all its citizens."

"This cannot be a liberal democracy when a convert to Judaism gets more rights than an indigenous person," he said.

Within its 1967 borders, Israel is a democracy, albeit a colonizing one, Bishara maintained. But even then it is problematic since decisions must be made by a Jewish majority vote.

Furthermore, while Israel claims Palestinian civilians are only killed when they are caught in the crossfire of military actions, Bishara charged this is false.

"An occupation targets civilians in order to break them down," he said. "To break their spirit and their will."

While Americans tend to frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of a territorial dispute, this too is a false conception, Bishara said. There is no symmetry in the relationship between the two parties, he said, adding that in western Europe people are beginning to see this.

Always, he is asked about suicide bombings -- as if they are the root cause of all the troubles in the region. His response? The suicide bombings did not begin in a vacuum.

"The American media reports on a meeting between [Palestinian Prime Minister] Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, and then you get a report about the suicide bombings," he said. "It doesn't report about the last 50 to 60 deaths of Palestinian civilians."

"The violence of the occupier is the rule. The violence of the occupied is the exception.

"The fact that the Palestinians are under occupation does not make them the good guys, and the fact that the Israelis are the occupier doesn't not make them the bad guys. The Palestinians make many mistakes, but that does not change the fact that an occupation is unjust, and the struggle against an occupation is just."

Bishara was stripped of his parliamentary immunity a year and a half ago for a remark like that one, when he told a gathering of Arab leaders in Syria that Sharon was trying to drag the region into war, and Arabs should choose "the path of resistance" to support Palestinians. That opened the door for Israel's attorney general to press charges on suspicion of incitement against Israel. The case is still pending.

"I am completely against actions that target civilians," Bishara told the Oakland crowd. "People shouldn't die because they enter a restaurant or wait for a bus. But if you go speak like this in a refugee camp, they'll tell you to come live here for awhile, without hope, without exits."

In speaking of President Bush's "road map" to Mideast peace, Bishara pointed out an interesting distinction. In English and Arabic, the road map is called that, while in Hebrew it is mapat derachim, which translates as roads map, because "the Israelis insist there are many roads," he cracked. Meanwhile, he said that within its six pages, "I think you'll find it very hard to find the road there."

The road map requires Israel to withdraw to its September 2000 borders, which does not comprise a large concession, in Bishara's eyes. Likewise, demands regarding the settlements did not appear to be unreasonable, he indicated.

"There are 70 to 80 outposts that are illegal according to Israeli law," he said, "and these are the ones the U.S. has courageously asked Israel to dismantle. All of them are illegal according to international law, but these are even illegal according to Israeli law, and Sharon says no."

Bishara said that given Israel's right-wing government, it is no wonder that President Bush and Sharon seem to be in sync.

Still, he remains hopeful about the future.

"We're going through a period where the Palestinian issue is gaining more attention worldwide than ever before," he said. "It's stronger than ever."