by Ben Schiller
We are living in Palestine. Our history, our culture, our everything is Palestinian. — Mahmoud Jreri of DAM
“I see myself as a fisherman,” says Suhell Nafar, a member of DAM, the leading Palestinian hip-hop group. “Today, I fished a few fish who didn’t know anything and now know a little thing. Maybe now when they see the TV news, they will think differently about it. Maybe they will go on the Internet and learn about it.”
Suhell was speaking at last weekend’s WOMAD music festival, minutes after DAM had given a passionate performance in front of a big crowd. “There were thousands of people at the concert screaming ‘Free Palestine’. Most of them have never heard about Palestine, and now they know something.”
Hip-hop has been one of the Palestinians’ most effective communication vehicles in recent years. While conventional messages are often drowned out, groups like DAM have been able to reach several new audiences at home and abroad, including the young. The group is not only popular among Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza, but also in their native Israel, where they have a following among some Jewish-Israelis. Since forming in 1999, they’ve toured several times in Europe and the US, appeared in the Sundance-nominated film Slingshot Hip-Hop, and received exposure in US and European media, including on CNN and in Time.
Suhell says performing live allows the band to speak directly to people, and thus counteract what he sees as a bias in much of the media. “I hope that people might go in a different direction, not listen to the propaganda that Sky and the BBC have. I have seen a few things on Sky and it was really fucked up,” he says, speaking of the UK satellite network.
During interviews, Suhell, his brother Tamer, and their friend Mahmoud Jreri, often come back to the argument that the Western media fails to report the Palestinian situation accurately, and that much of the current suffering remains under wraps, somewhere in the shadows.
Mahmoud is particularly critical of a tendency to treat both sides in the conflict as equals. “People are trying to make it one army fighting another army. There is no army fighting another army. There is one army with tanks and planes fighting people with guns, and a few simple things to protect themselves,” he says.
That DAM has access to various media outlets and can travel more or less easily to festivals like Womad is because they have an Israeli passport. The benefits of their status as “’48 Arabs” are limited, however. While the group has sold CDs in the US and Europe, and people have downloaded their songs millions of times online, they struggle to sell music in Israel itself, or in the Arab world.
Tamer complains of being “caught in the middle”. “If we were part of the mainstream, we would make lots of money and do a lot of shows. But we have to struggle to survive because we are Palestinians and Israel is not working with us. And the Arab world is not working with us because we are Israelis,” he says.
Much of DAM’s music is about Arabs in Israel, particularly those living in the slums where the group grew up. They describe Israel as “racist” and an “apartheid” state, and say the rights of the 20 percent Arab native population are frequently questioned, if not denied. Suhell and Mahmoud say the situation has been getting progressively worse in the last few years, as the government has shifted rightwards, and an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia has asserted itself.
“Now [the racism] is obvious, but actually it’s always been like that. It was always like that even under the left wing. They were talking nice to the TV and to the radio, and demolishing houses, and building settlements. Now you have extremely white people who are prepared to come on the TV and say what they really think. They are now prepared to bring laws to the Knesset and pass those laws. That’s the only difference,” Mahmoud says.
He is referring, for example, to proposed new laws that would require Arabs to swear an oath of loyalty to Israel, and new immigration rules that would make it harder for Jews and Arabs to inter-marry.
DAM are particularly angry about the recent demolition of 13 Arab homes in their home town of Lod/Lyd, a few miles from Jerusalem. Shortly before coming to the UK, they organised a protest against the action. Arab-Israelis frequently complain that they are denied to right to build new homes; if they build illegally, they face the prospect of having structures destroyed. “They are kicking people out, forcing them to camp in front of their homes. Israel is not looking for a solution. It’s just looking to kick more people out,” Suhell says.
Lod, as it became in Israel, was a site of mass expulsion during the summer of 1948. The late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin wrote in his memoirs that he witnessed the transfers, and that he agreed with then-Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s order to do so. Some Palestinian groups have insisted that 250 Arabs, including women and children, were killed during the operation.
Suhell says his family ended up in the Lod/Ramle area by chance. His grandfather was living in Jaffa, but was transferred during the war to Ashkelon in the south-west. Trying to reach Jordan, he stopped off in Lyd on the way. When the war ended, he was stuck there.
DAM refuse to describe themselves as Arab-Israelis, preferring ‘Palestinian’. They see themselves as part of one group of people that is forced to live separately across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. “We are living in Palestine. Our history, our culture, our everything is Palestinian,” says Mahmoud.
The group points out that they feel no inherent animus towards Jews, Mahmoud says. “A lot of people are making the mistake saying we are against Jewish people. We are just against occupiers. It doesn’t matter if they are French or British. Or whoever. If they come to our country and kill our people, we are going to be against them.”
In fact, Mahmoud is one of the growing number of Palestinians who think that Jewish and Palestinians should live side-by-side rather than be divided into separate states. He says the “one-state solution” represents a better long-term solution than the two-state model that has been on the table for decades. This idea is corroborated by a recent poll on the Ma’an news web site, which showed that 56 percent of Palestinians support a former Israeli defence minister idea of annexing the West Bank and granting its 2.5 million residents Israeli citizenship.
Mahmoud says a single state would solve more problems than two states, where large numbers of Palestinians would inevitably be denied the right to return to their families’ homes. “I believe in one country where Muslim, Jewish and Christians are welcome inside this country, because this country has history for all these kinds of people. It can unite all people and work for the citizen. I’m not telling you it’s going to come true in two hours, but there are already politicians, on both sides, who are already pushing this idea,” he says.
Asked how long such a state might take to come into being, the 28-year-old says “within my lifetime” – and he seems certain it will happen.
Whatever happens, DAM will continue fighting for social justice. And if it’s not through hip-hop, then with something else: youth groups, theatre, acting. Whatever gets the word out. “If we weren’t doing this, we’d be doing something for the community”, Suhell says.