Can you tell us about yourself?
Awad: I was born to a hard-working farming family in Kawkab, a village in the north of Palestine, today Israel. Since childhood, my father told me stories about its history. My family is one of those who survived the expulsion and the ethnic cleansing which the Zionist gangs carried out during and after the 1948 war, the Nakba. At the time, the population of the village was 400 and most of the people remained thanks to the wisdom of a charismatic and influential figure who conducted successful negotiations with the gangs’ officers that occupied my village. However about 20 percent of Kawkab’s residents, many of whom are my relatives, fled as soon as they learned the gangs had gathered village men in front of my grandfather’s house. They were subjected to torture and everybody expected them to be massacred as had happened in many other places. Women were screaming and crying; it was very frightening. At the time, my grandmother had just lost one of her sons while engaged in defending the village, and she expected that her three remaining sons and husband would also be massacred by the Zionists; thankfully they were spared. My father remembers how his brother bled for hours before he died, and he carried the trauma with him for many years.
How has this impacted your life and the choices you have made?
Awad: Three years ago, there was a campaign to arrest leaders and activists from the Balad party and I was amongst the 39 taken. After being detained for ten days, while I was in the police van heading from the prison to the court to be remanded in custody, one of the three interrogators surprised me by engaging in conversation. He was curious to know why I entered politics and how I became the Secretary General of the Balad party.
I thought it was a good opportunity to convert his question and my answer into a charge against his state, so I told him my family’s story which is symbolic of the entire Palestinian tragedy. I said that for me, being political was not a choice. I explained that I was born into a reality that he had created; he had shaped our life trajectories. I could have become a musician, because I loved music and as a young teenager, I was playing the Oud; I could have become an athlete, as I played football. But at the age of 14 I was summoned for interrogation. For a child to be taken by the police was terrifying. It happened because like my school mates also wearing black stripes, I was mourning the death of the late Egyptian president, Jamal Abdel Nasser. For Palestinians, Nasser was a revolutionary hero and so I was arrested.
Over the years I learned that the story of my family, and the entire Palestinian national narrative, is totally ignored in the Arab schools’ teaching curriculum. Our history classes focus on the Zionist narrative, not ours. Very few teachers are willing to resist this policy, because they do they are subject to a policy of intimidation. In 1979, I qualified to teach high school and I was determined to orally pass on the Palestinian narrative to my students. The Israeli Ministry of Education’s reaction was to fire me, and that experience spurred me on to become very active politically. Harassment, persecution, and arrest became a routine practice, against me and my brothers.
Even after I was hired by an East Jerusalem Palestinian newspaper to work as a reporter, the persecution continued, including physical assault. Zionists wanted to break me, but that only increased my outrage, and consolidated my resolve to resist. By then I realized the limitations of just writing and became convinced of the necessity to join a political party because it is only through collective activism that we, Palestinians living in Israel, have the possibility to affect far greater change. Over the years, reading and writing became crucial in shaping my political and organizational struggle.
What party did you choose and why?
Awad: Until early 1981, there were only two political parties operating among the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Israeli communist party dates back many decades. It has a semi Zionist approach and Palestinians make up most of its membership. The party opposes discrimination and all forms of political persecution against Palestinians in Israel. And it has been embracing the two-state solution.
At the time, the second party was the movement of Abnaa Albalad which is the one that I joined. It was a smaller party that emerged in 1972, as a local, national and social movement which a short while later spread mainly among Palestinian students in the Israeli universities. It was reconstructed as a centralized progressive movement in 1984, and I had a central role in this important development which led to me being elected its Deputy Secretary General. Along with my new post, I continued working as a journalist for the English language Palestinian newspaper Alfajr (the dawn) which I did from 1981-1989.
Abnaa Albalad advocated for one secular democratic state in all of Palestine, where after defeating and dismantling the Zionist regime, Palestinians and Israelis would live equally. The Israeli authorities looked at it as an extreme movement and we leaders and many of its activists were systematically targeted. Unlike the Israeli communist party, Abnaa Albalad boycotted the Israeli Knesset elections and viewed the Palestinians in Israel as part of the Palestinian people not only historically and culturally, but also politically. Its platform perceived Israel and its Knesset as a colonial entity, and that only the Palestinian liberation movement (PLO) should represent the Palestinians living in Israel.
But you became a co-founder of a new party in 1995, Balad, which has been participating in the Knesset elections. Could you explain the background of this transformation?
Awad: Ok. Yes, it was after the signing of Oslo Accords which surprised and shocked me and my movement’s comrades as well as other progressive intellectuals and activists. Azmi Bishara, a philosophy scholar, and activist, was the first to publish a strong critique of Oslo, comparing it to the Apartheid Bantustans in South Africa. Bishara was the leader of the new party Balad (Tajamoa), and the first member of the Knesset on behalf of our new party. He did very well and became the most outspoken and articulate leader among the Palestinians in Israel. On behalf of the party, he challenged Israel’s definition as a Jewish state, and called for full citizenship and equality for the Palestinians in Israel, withdrawal from the 1967-occupied territory, and the return of the refugees. In 1996, I was appointed as editor of the party’s mouthpiece, Fasl Almaqal, and a year later was elected Secretary General.
I understand that the one-state idea disappeared from the platform; what happened?
Awad: On the surface it is right, but the one-state was inherent, or included implicitly, in the political program. Let me explain how and why there was a shift in thinking in respect to the solution.
The idea of founding a new party evolved as a result of interaction between thought and the changing reality among Palestinians in Israel, in all the Israeli-Palestinian landscape of the conflict, the Arab regional regime, the crumbling of the Soviet Union, and the brutal American invasion of Iraq . All these dramatic developments came as a major blow to the Palestinian struggle, which had witnessed the remarkable popular, unarmed First Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
My movement and the other co-founders of Balad, who, unlike the communist party, have viewed themselves as part of the Palestinian national movement, which embraces the solution as one secular democratic state in all of Palestine. The explicit retraction of the PLO from this inclusive model left us initially very confused, particularly for excluding the Palestinians in Israel from the solution, and for the PLO’s recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. What did that mean? First, that we are not part of the conflict and the solution, thus perpetuating our inferior status as second-class citizens, and we objected to the legitimization of taking over 93 percent of our lands. Second, that recognition meant we couldn’t have our relatives, the refugees, back to their villages from which they were expelled in accordance with the UN resolution 194.
The message was clear for us, that we Palestinians inside Israel, should take our matters into our own hands. We knew that in the words of Edward Said, the prominent Palestinian American thinker, we shouldn’t succumb to the imbalance of forces that dictated the “Palestinian Versailles”. In order to cope properly and more effectively with the new situation and challenges, we had to modify our political approach, and design a new political formula that enabled us to participate in Knesset elections without giving up on our principled opposition to Zionism. It called for reinventing the state of Israel into a state for all its citizens, thus challenging its Jewish character and demanding the dismantling of the racist legal structure which is the source of the long-standing injustice suffered by the Palestinians. In other words, we decided to use our citizenship seriously and stretch it to an extreme end. This new discourse became center-stage in Palestinian politics inside Israel and appealed to some of the Israeli anti-Zionist and progressive intellectuals. More importantly, the party helped create mass mobilization of the Palestinians about their national identity and collective rights.
You are now involved in a separate political initiative calling for one democratic state through the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC). Is there an organizational relationship between it and the Balad party? And why is this the time for the formation of the ODSC?
Awad: No this is an independent initiative, but it’s a conceptual development of the ideology of both the Balad party and Abnaa Albalad and their political approach to the conflict. In the One Democratic State Campaign, I engage with my Israeli colleagues like Ilan Pappe, Jeff Halper and Yoav Haifawi and Palestinians , such as Diana Buttu, Bassim Tamimi, Professor Mahmoud Mieari, Dr. Moneer Nuseibeh, activist Majd Nasralkah, Umar al-Ghubari (from Zochrot), Rafah Anabtawi, Hatim Kanaaneh, and other activists and Palestinians mainly from inside the green line. The Balad party planned to develop its debate about the one state, which I, as a Secretary General, initiated ten years ago. But the Israelis continued an aggressive campaign against the party, which manifested, among other things, in repeated political and legal attempts to disqualify Balad from running for the Knesset. This deterred the leadership from one-state development as it could become a pretext for the Israelis to disqualify it, and probably outlawing it, as it did with the Islamic movement which boycotts the elections.
Three years ago, I thought it best to resign from the leadership of the party so I could act freely for the ODSC, however I’ve maintained my membership. I still see that Balad could become the party which will expand its slogan of “state of all its citizens” to include the occupied Palestine territory. When we examine Israel’s ongoing brutal settler-colonial project, we that Israel has created a one state reality, albeit under an apartheid regime. Most of the young generation in the party embrace ODSC and the debate continues.
As for the timing to start the Campaign, I would say the one-state idea should have been on the agenda long before now as it never really disappeared, but the illusion of the two-state option lasted beyond what it should, sustained by the Palestinian Authority, the international community, and the Arab regimes. Now that the illusion fades away, as the imperialist American-Israeli alliance has formally perpetuated the colonization of all of historic Palestine, it has become imperative to relate to Israel as it has always been: a settler-colonial apartheid regime, that has to be replaced by an egalitarian one, following in the South African model. In this respect, it’s important to connect more systematically with all freedom fighters and civil society organizations around the world that are engaged in local and global struggles against the current unjust neoliberal capitalist order. It’s this world order which created the Palestinian problem (late 19th century), and many others, as well as the exploitation of the people, and which continues to play the same destructive and disastrous role, against human beings and the natural world.
What are the challenges you face in this call? Why is it dangerous to continue to call for a two-state solution?
Awad: Starting with the second question pertaining to the two-state solution, I would say that it will simply allow Israel to continue its crimes with impunity: land theft, settlement construction, killings, imprisonment, siege, etc. The continued adherence to the two-state solution will only perpetuate the PA’s incompetence, passivity, lack of vision, action, and innovation, the catastrophic internal division, and the geographic and demographic fragmentation.
As for the first question, of course there are challenges. Besides campaigning about the one-state as the best solution, we have been recognizing and identifying the main concerns and questions posed by activists and figures of different backgrounds. Our systematic encounters with these people, as individuals and as groups, has helped us relate to these concerns more seriously and in greater depth which is enabling us to formulate clear answers to most of these questions.
Amongst these challenges are the claims that this is an idea of utopia, that it doesn’t have a legal reference like the two-state solution, that the Israelis will never agree to give up their privileges, and that there is no major Palestinian party which is ready for this paradigm shift. Another challenge is organizational; namely the task of building a popular grassroots movement, and who, or which, Palestinian constituent is qualified to lead this potential movement. Of course, there are other conceptual and organizational challenges that this space doesn’t allow us to elaborate on. However, through our collective work we keep trying to address them. On the practical level, being all volunteers, we have difficulty moving faster. It has become clear that the Campaign should be institutionalized and for this fundraising is required but that is not easy. We have recently begun collecting membership fees.
How much support is there for the one-state solution, and what you are feeling about the Campaign at the moment?
Awad: Our activity is driven by the growing popular support for one-state which is encouraging. A recent poll conducted by a respected polling centre (headed by Al-Sheqaqi) has revealed that 38% of the Palestinians in the occupied Palestine territory are in favour of one-state. Inside the green line, polls from two years ago also indicated a rise in support to about 30%. The Campaign began by reaching out primarily to influential people and now what is important is that the support is moving from the narrow circles of academics and activists, to the average people. As I said before our Campaign doesn’t yet have the capacity for making a qualitative leap. But I believe it’s only a matter of time and things are changing slowly but steadily. This is a noble and moral idea, worth sacrifice, and we call everyone, including internationals, who support the one-state solution, to join us and engage in the efforts we all are making.