My Brother's Fight for Democracy

by Marwan Bishara

Dissident Voice
January 3, 2003



Since Israel's Attorney-General recommended that the Arab-Israeli MP Azmi Bishara and his party be banned from running in the forthcoming elections, death threats against him have multiplied. It's natural that I should worry - he is my brother. But why should the world at large care?


The reason is that Azmi's vision of an Israel based on universal democratic values - including an end to inequality and the occupation of the Palestinian territories - is indispensable to solving the Middle East conflict. Today, this vision is threatened politically and physically.


Azmi has warned against Ariel Sharon's drive to war and supported popular resistance to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. As a result, his parliamentary immunity was lifted last year and he was put on trial for "supporting terrorism". Polls show that Azmi is now the most popular leader among the one million Palestinian citizens of Israel.


As the indigenous population of the land, and as citizens of the state, Arab Israelis were born under the shadow of military administration. We discovered early on that real civil equality and collective rights for the Palestinians in Israel cannot be achieved within the framework of a state that defines itself as the state of the Jewish people - and that subjects our people on the other side of the hills to military occupation.


In the five decades since Israel took over the land of the Palestinian refugees and rejected their right to return, it has confiscated more than two-thirds of the land of its Palestinian citizens.


Today, there are 220,000 displaced Palestinians in Israel banned from returning to their homes, while state funding for Palestinian municipalities (by far the poorest in the country) is only a fraction of that going to comparable Jewish areas. In Israel's much praised "democracy", the law discriminates against us - most flagrantly in immigration, property and elections - simply because we aren't Jewish.


The Palestinians' right to equality in Israel and their right to self-determination in all the territories occupied in 1967, are two sides of the same coin. Confronting the current logic of violence must start with the establishment of a Jewish-Palestinian peace movement in Israel on the same universal principles advocated by Azmi and others. An increasing number of Israelis are coming forward. But the Sharon government is fuelling an atmosphere of fear and segregation. His coalition partners of fundamentalist parties are appealing to the public's basest instincts, and threatening to murder proponents of a different opinion, literally. One parliamentarian suggested putting my brother in front of a firing squad.


What angers the Israeli right most is Azmi's contention that Israel cannot be both exclusively Jewish and genuinely democratic at the same time. His political agenda, modelled on the US civil rights movement, calls for a modern democratic "state of the citizens" - instead of "the state of the Jewish people", which translates into an ethnic republic.


Azmi Bishara is no advocate of violence. He was shot and detained by the Israeli security services. He has never lifted a hand to harm anybody, while some of his accusers have killed with their bare hands. Azmi is committed to seeking equality through peaceful means and within the framework of Israeli law. His support for legitimate resistance (he has consistently condemned targeting civilians) is restricted to the occupied territories. As a secular liberal humanist, Azmi represents a popular vision of the people of Israel and Palestine coexisting in security and harmony. His party, the National Democratic Assembly, has helped contain the religious fundamentalist camps in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.


To Sharon, Azmi is a threat precisely because of his restraint and moderation. His camp stands diametrically opposed to the vision of Sharon's Likud party of a Greater Israel extending over all of historic Palestine. Within two decades Palestinians will make up one-third of Israel's own population - and become the majority in "Greater Israel".


To put a democrat like my brother on trial is to put universal ideals on the stand. To ban him from running for parliament - while still giving the go-ahead to the racist and terrorist Kach leader Baruch Marzel - is to fail the most basic test of democracy.


Marwan Bishara is a lecturer at the American University of Paris and author of Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid (Zed Press)