The Palestinian struggle within Israel: Interview with the Communist Party of Israel
A crowd gathered to call for a ceasefire in Israel's war on Gaza in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Nov. 18. The police initially refused to allow the protest, part of a wider crackdown on anti-war activism, but relented after a civil rights group in Israel filed a petition with Israel's High court. | Ariel Schalit / AP

As the bombs rain down on Gaza and Israeli raids intensify in the occupied West Bank, it’s perhaps too easy to forget about the Palestinians living within Israel itself. Roughly 20% of the country is made up of those officially referred to as “Israeli Arabs.” They will often self-identify as “1948 Palestinians” to differentiate themselves from those who were forced to flee at the time of Israel’s creation.

One of the dominant political forces for Palestinians within the 1948 borders has long been the Communist Party of Israel. Tracing its lineage back to the Palestine Communist Party that was established in 1919 when Jewish immigrants first brought Marxism to the then British Mandate, the Communists have long been the principal force advocating for the equal rights of Palestinians, the forging of Arab-Jewish unity, and the end of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to enable the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Since 1977, the Communists have been the largest force within the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, or Hadash. They have five seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, four of which are held by members of the CPI.

In the wake of the Hamas attacks of October 7th, the Communists and Hadash—as well as the broader Palestinian minority in Israel—have suffered a wave of repression and intimidation.

The CPI’s lone Jewish Member of the Knesset, Ofer Cassif, was suspended for 45 days in mid-October for criticizing the war on Gaza. In early November, leading CPI member and former lawmaker Mohammad Barakah was detained in Nazareth for announcing an anti-war demonstration, on the grounds that it could lead to “incitement.” Most recently, another CPI parliamentarian, Aida Touma-Suleiman, was sanctioned for two months for daring to decry the slaughter of innocents by the Israeli military.

Reem Hazzan, International Secretary of the Communist Party of Israel, holds a megaphone at a protest in Haifa. | Photo via Hadash

As the first protests demanding a ceasefire and the return of hostages have started taking shape in Israel, People’s World met with the Communist Party’s International Secretary, Reem Hazzan, to ask her about the outlook for the coming period. Through it all, Hazzan maintains that she is still optimistic about a future of peace and equality.

People’s World: As communists, as peace activists, and as those pushing for Arab-Jewish unity, how has the situation after October 7th been compared to how it was before? How has the situation evolved for the Palestinian citizens of Israel during this time?

Reem Hazzan: To tell you the truth, even before the 7th of October, we as a party and as activists who have been engaged in struggle, were not in a good place. Likewise, as Palestinian citizens of Israel, we were living in a democracy that is a democracy only for its Jewish citizens.

Let’s take the Nation State Law of 2018. That year, the Knesset passed a law that said that only Jews have the full rights to the land and of everything else in this state. That was already actually the case even before 2018, but since then it has been enshrined in law. It is now clearly stated that the Arabs are not equal citizens.

We can see this when we talk about discrimination in terms of access to work, wage discrepancies, budgets for education and infrastructure, you name it. Being a second-or third-or seventh-class citizen did not start in 2018, and it certainly didn’t start in these last six weeks, although the situation for us is getting more tense.

After the 7th of October, there was a new threat added to our already existing fears, which is now persecution by the regime. It’s now the incitement from the extremist, right-wing Jewish groups. People are being arrested. They are being detained, interrogated, fired from work, expelled from university, and kicked out of the dorms of their campuses. There are fascist phenomena and actions that are happening under the guise of defending national security.

At the same time, we should remember that for nine straight months, hundreds of thousands had been protesting against the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the legal reforms that were planned. Huge numbers of Israelis were in the streets demanding democracy. We may differ on the question of what kind of democracy it should be, but what was obvious is that people could feel that there was something wrong with the regime. It wasn’t just the Palestinians saying this, but also the Jewish citizens. This gave some cause for hope.

In your view, how should the Israeli government have responded to Hamas’ attack on October 7th? What would you say to those who say Israel is merely defending itself?

As a party, we say that this did not start on October 7th. If you take everything out of context, then nothing has any meaning. We cannot say that things suddenly erupted on one peaceful morning as if violence and oppression had not been the constant reality of Palestinians for decades.

The emblem of the Communist Party of Israel.

Even if we don’t start with the Nakba of 1948, and begin with the occupation of the West Bank that’s been the reality since 1967, the problem is clear. We don’t have a Palestinian state. Gaza has been under siege for the last 16 years. The West Bank is being ethnically cleansed in a very methodical way. Nowadays, nobody’s paying attention to the increased violence against Palestinians in the West Bank because people’s eyes are fixed on Gaza. Settler violence has intensified, backed by the Israeli military forces.

If you ask me how Israel should have reacted, let me say that any peace-seeking country would not be engaged in an occupation to begin with. It wouldn’t take decades to solve, or we can say in this case to not solve. A normal government would not be in this situation in the first place. I think that Israel should have understood at that point that a political solution is desperately needed. But with such a far-right government, this means that the perceptions that should have changed on October 7th, did not. If you believe that military force is your only resort to begin with, then the only solution will always be military—more force, more violence.

On the other hand, we have to believe that there is no other option but a political solution, especially after the killing of thousands in Gaza, and after so many Israeli civilians have lost their lives. Israeli soldiers are now losing their lives. More mothers are crying for their children. The bloodshed is not stopping. It’s true that it’s perhaps 20 times worse in Gaza, but if we say that every child counts, every soul counts—then it’s true for everybody, regardless of their nationality or race.

We as communists and those on the left say this, but do the others say this? They do not. If you show any criticism toward the policies of Israel, you are automatically categorized as a terrorist. That puts us in a very undemocratic space.

Democracies, I think, are measured not only by the way they act in peacetime but especially in wartime. That is what is being uncovered right now about the Israeli state, which is that this is not a true democracy to begin with.

Why have we not seen bigger rallies in support of a ceasefire? Does this show that the majority of Israeli society sides with the war on Gaza?

Right from the start, the police chief, Kobi Shabtai, published a video saying that no protests would be permitted anywhere. Anybody violating this would be detained, intimidated, and fined. He threatened to send protesters to Gaza! People who have defied this have been held for days and then had their bank accounts and credit cards blocked, which is to dissuade them from taking to the streets again.

Also, Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has been dreaming for the past two years about how to have armed mobs do his dirty work. They would call themselves a “civilian support force” for the police. This war gave him the perfect opportunity to actually make this happen. Now, you have over 600 groups of armed people, some of them civilians, some of them ex-military or ex-police. They go on patrol in our cities and towns. I live in Haifa, which is a mixed city of Arabs and Jews. These people go around carrying M-16s, saying that they are keeping the order or supporting the police force, but their main aim is to intimidate Arabs.

Most of us who live here in Haifa live in some form of co-existence, whether it’s in sharing workplaces or places we go to party together. Life in a very natural way is integrated. And the level of shock that October 7th produced in the Israeli Jewish public, the amount of incitement that started immediately against Arabs and Palestinians, meant that we had to wait sometime for people to grieve, to comprehend what happened.

One or two days later, people were being arrested for incitement on social media. The police would come and violently start arresting people in the middle of the night, abducting them from their houses. I think the Palestinian citizens on the left were looking very carefully, very cautiously at what was happening. We knew immediately that any sign of being against the war would be crushed with the utmost power. It was very obvious from the response, in terms of what they started doing in Gaza and what they allowed settlers to do in the West Bank.

The problem is that we are in an emergency situation now, which means that any kind of repression is considered justified. Everything is legitimized.

They are targeting big names, including former Members of the Knesset like our comrade Mohammad Barakeh, who was arrested in Nazareth for announcing an anti-war demonstration. They have also targeted Arab judges who have refused to extend the detention of some people because they think there is no basis for their arrest. This is being done by the authorities, but also the right-wing mobs.

A joint Arab-Jewish protest demanding a ceasefire. | Photo via Hadash

Last week in two protests against the restrictions on freedom of speech, my colleagues and comrades were beaten up. Fifteen people were arrested in Tel Aviv, and another two or three in Jerusalem. People were badly beaten.

So that is not very encouraging, you know, for the average person to actually go out and protest when you know that the minute that you go on the street, this could happen. The only demonstrations that have generally been allowed are the ones asking for a return of the hostages.

Despite the repressive atmosphere, do you still maintain a sense of optimism for the future? What motivates you to keep going?

I think because there is no other way. That might sound naive, but I think communists are optimists by nature, because you have to believe that you can make the change, that you can help bring about a better life for people.

We have to find a way that works, and this can only happen when you care about human rights, about dignity. We don’t just want equality, we also want dignity, because people want to be respected regardless of whether they are a Jew or an Arab. There is really no other way but to go back to the old-fashioned two-state solution.

We always knew that this struggle would not be a short-term one. This is why we are still here after decades of fighting for peace, for dignity, for justice, and for some sort of co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis. Nothing is achieved in months or even years.

So as a communist, I have to be optimistic, but what also keeps us going is seeing the world standing by the Palestinian people, even if their governments do not. These global protests make the Palestinian people feel less isolated and make us as the left in Israel feel a little less lonely, too.

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Marcel Cartier
Marcel Cartier

Marcel Cartier is a critically acclaimed hip-hop artist, journalist, and the author of two books on the Kurdish liberation movement, including 2019’s Serkeftin: A Narrative of the Rojava Revolution, which was one of the first full accounts in English of the civil and political structures set up in northern Syria after 2012.