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As Israelis protest authoritarianism, Palestinians say their fight remains ignored


During the weeks of protests, we heard Israelis express their fears for the future of the country's democracy. We wanted to know how the millions of Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, are viewing all of this. And we should note that Palestinian citizens of Israel have the right to vote in Israel. Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank do not. So we called Sami Abu Shehadeh. He's a former member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, and he's a Palestinian citizen of Israel. Welcome.

SAMI ABU SHEHADEH: Hello, Scott. How are you?

DETROW: I'm doing well. How are you?

SHEHADEH: (Non-English language spoken). I'm managing. I'm managing.

DETROW: Managing.

SHEHADEH: It's a very complicated situation. It's a totally new situation. We have never seen something like this.

DETROW: And there's so much to talk about - the massive protests, what may come next. But let's start out with this. What was your reaction to the proposed reform and what immediately followed?

SHEHADEH: We totally oppose this reform, Scott, because it's going mainly to change the situation of the Arab Palestinian minority who live as citizens inside the state of Israel. One of the biggest challenges that we have is that in Israel, there is no constitution. So there is nothing to defend the rights of individuals and any kind of collective groups within the state. And we were little bit trying to defend ourselves from oppression or from different attacks from the government and the parliament by heading to the high courts. But now the reform also wants to take from us also this option. So we will be totally under the oppression of the Israeli government.

DETROW: Did you have any frustration to see hundreds of thousands of people in the street protesting for democracy at this particular moment, given the fact that this has been a decades-and-decades-long struggle with questions about representation and self-government in the West Bank and Gaza and elsewhere?

SHEHADEH: Yeah. Well, what added to this frustration, Scott, are two main things. And imagine hundreds of thousands of people going to the streets, claiming that they are struggling for democracy. But if someone wants to remind them that there is occupation, they would attack him physically in their demonstration. Another very important thing is that their main claim is to go back to the bad situation that was a few months ago, which means when the system was mainly against Arab Palestinians and was discriminating against us - from their point of view, it was totally OK.

DETROW: So from your point of view, this protest move-in that came in the wake of this attempted change to the courts - for you, did that ring entirely hollow or did you think, this is a good thing? I just wish that there was this level of interest in the broader question of Palestinians.

SHEHADEH: We thought that it is good.


SHEHADEH: And the fact that people are struggling and asking for democracy is something good. But we want it to be an essential democracy, a real democracy. We have been suffering out of racism and equality for decades. In order to have a better future for everyone, we should change this system, which is built on race. Where they're - now they are enjoying racism. What we are saying, in order to have a better future for everyone, we should target a political program that is built on justice and equality for all. This is the only solution that we can find ourselves part of.

We cannot find ourselves part of a Jewish democracy. We are not Jews. And we are the indigenous population in this part of the world, Scott. We did not immigrate to Israel. In our case, Israel immigrated to us. So what we were thinking, what we wanted to bring into the political discourse, into the struggle, into the dictionary of the demonstrators - that democracy is built on equality. Without equality, there is no democracy.

DETROW: I'm wondering what you make of the United States' role in all of this. We just heard a conversation about how President Biden is criticizing Prime Minister Netanyahu and that he is getting pushback. But we've also talked about the fact that the United States is such a big backer of Israel and does have clout when it comes to Israel's decision. What is your view of how the United States has handled all this? I mean, there's been decades and decades of American officials saying we want to see a two-state solution, trying to bring parties to the table to have those conversations. But do you feel like the U.S. is doing enough?

SHEHADEH: First of all, I think that the American pressure on Netanyahu and his government to stop this judicial revolution, it was very important and was very effective. But at the same time, we should say that Israel has been continuing its occupation and discrimination against all Palestinians because of the backup and because of the support of the United States of America. We also think that the Jewish population, after all their sufferings, with their very hard history, should also be safe in a political system in a state that would guarantee their individual and their collective rights. But in the same time, we don't want this acknowledgement to continue destroying our present and our future. Israel has been existing for 75 years. Because of the way the system was going on all these 75 years, Scott, there is no Palestine. Half of my people are refugees still today, all over the world.

Today, we prayed in Al-Aqsa Mosque. The millions of Palestinians who are in Palestine cannot come to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque. In the next few weeks, we will be going to pray in the church in Jerusalem. The vast majority of the Palestinian Christians cannot do that. We are asking for basic human rights, for basic things that everybody has anywhere in the world. You know, this is something that has been going for decades. This must stop. And we are struggling for a historical compromise. We want to see this conflict ending, Scott. Too many generation has grown while this conflict was going on. We want to see it ending.

DETROW: You were a former legislator. What do you think happens next on the particular bill? And I'm wondering, do you think this was a moment where Netanyahu overstepped and may lose power, or do you think he will continue to survive in the way that he has survived so many times before?

SHEHADEH: First of all, the audience should know that the crisis did not end. Netanyahu did not say that he is going to stop the legislation. He said that he's going to postpone the legislation for a very short time and try to get into dialogue with the other side. But both sides are very far from each other. So I think we're going back to the crisis in a few weeks. And we don't know where could this lead because the last night, before this decision of Netanyahu to postpone the issue, I think we were heading into a very violent situation within secular Jewish groups and religious Jewish groups. I'm afraid we are going to get back into this crisis in a few weeks.

DETROW: That was former Knesset member Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel. Thank you so much.

SHEHADEH: Thank you very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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