‘We are not citizens with equal rights’

Controversial ‘Jewish state’ bill follows a series of laws targeting Israel’s Arab minority, rights groups say.

Palestinian citizens of Israel 'face official discrimination in every area of life' [EPA]

Haifa – Israeli prime minister’s statements on Tuesday that he would call for an early elections, and for dissolving the parliament as soon as possible, is likely to delay the passing of the new ‘Jewish state’ bill, that should have taken place today, for the next term. However, the bill is one among dozens of existing laws that negatively affect Palestinians who carry Israeli citizenship.

First proposed by parliamentarian Zeev Elkin, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, the bill defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”. It was approved by Netanyahu’s cabinet last week by a vote of 14-6, but will not become law until passed by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Though the bill “affirms the personal rights of all [Israeli] citizens”, it only allots communal rights to Jewish Israelis.

Salah Mohsen, the media coordinator for Adalah, a Haifa-based legal centre for Palestinian citizens of Israel, said the bill’s passage would have “little practical significance” for the estimated 1.7 million Arabs residing in Israel. Unlike Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (including annexed East Jerusalem) and the blockaded Gaza Strip, these Palestinians carry Israeli citizenship and live in communities in cities, towns and villages across Israel.

But their citizenship has never afforded them equality with their Jewish-Israeli compatriots, Mohsen told Al Jazeera. “Mostly this [proposed] law is a declarative measure,” he said. “Palestinians in Israel face official discrimination in every area of life. The laws enshrine Jewish superiority within the state. The only practical aspect of the new bill is that it makes it constitutional, but it is not expected to change the [daily] reality very much.”

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The proposed law has prompted outrage among Palestinian citizens of Israel and leftist Israeli activists, as well as rights groups and advocacy campaigns. The US State Department called on Israel to “stick to its democratic principles”, noting that “all its citizens should enjoy equal rights”. 

However, according to Adalah’s online database, more than 50 discriminatory laws targeting the Palestinian Muslim, Christian and Druze citizens of the state predated the Jewish state bill. From the 57 laws that directly affect Palestinians in Israel, at least 31 were passed after the 18th Knesset commenced in February 2009. Adalah described it as “one of the most right-wing government coalitions in the history of Israel”, focused on stifling the Palestinian minority’s political expression, conditioning constitutional rights and limiting access to state resources, such as land and education funding.

Another 29 laws that affect both Palestinian citizens of Israel and those in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, are looming in the Knesset.

The most prominent among these would limit Palestinian citizens’ “access to land and political expression”, Mohsen said, noting economic discrimination is also prevalent. Even when such bills do not become law, they “affect the public discourse in a way, by questioning the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and [harming] our status”. 

Palestinians in Israel face official discrimination in every area of life. The law enshrines Jewish superiority within the state. The only practical aspect of the new bill is that it makes it constitutional, but it is not expected to change the reality very much.

by - Salah Mohsin, media coordinator for Adalah

Likud member Miri Regev has drafted a new bill stipulating that all Knesset members, including representatives from Palestinian parties in Israel, be mandated to take an oath that they will “faithfully serve the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and to follow the laws of the state”. 

Until now, the oath included no mention of the state’s official Jewishness, asking legislators to “uphold the principles of the State of Israel and to faithfully fulfil their mission in the Knesset”. 

A string of loyalty-related laws have been passed or proposed in recent years. Among them are bills that target rights organisations in Israel and citizens who question the state’s definition as Jewish, as well as several bills that allot privileges to citizens who complete military service, which is extremely rare among the Arab minority.

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Israel’s hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a long-time advocate of transferring large groups of Palestinian citizens of Israel to the West Bank, recently published an updated programme for his Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party.

The platform’s “peace programme” will encourage Arab citizens to move to the West Bank by offering them “economic incentives”. Lieberman’s programme states that Arab citizens “who feel that they are part of the Palestinian people” should be encouraged to move “with economic incentives” in order “to resolve this issue of duality and divided loyalties from which they are suffering”.

But some analysts note that Palestinian citizens of Israel have faced both institutionalised and de-facto discrimination since the state’s founding in 1948.

Yara Hawari, a researcher and doctoral candidate specialising in the identity and history of Palestinians in Israel, noted that Palestinian citizens of Israel were placed under harsh military rule from 1948 until 1966, with their movement restricted to their own villages.

“If they wanted to visit a relative elsewhere, a doctor or even go and sell goods in a nearby market, they needed permission [from Israeli authorities],” Hawari told Al Jazeera, noting the Palestinian minority was “considered a fifth column and its citizenship was purely nominal. Israel never intended to include these Palestinians in their state.”

The state’s harsh crackdown on Palestinian communities in Israel during the second Intifada (an uprising that spanned 2000 to 2005), Hawari said, “cemented feelings among Palestinian citizens of Israel that they are not part of the state and that their lives are inferior to that of their Jewish counterparts”.

Objections to the Jewish state bill, voiced by a handful of Israeli centrist and liberal political leaders, have assumed a variety of forms, mostly centred on what Israeli political leaders view as a violation of the state’s founding principles and Zionist ideology.

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Speaking on Tuesday, President Reuven Rivlin said: “The formulators of the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence, with much wisdom, insisted the Arab communities in Israel, as well as other groups, should not feel as the Jews had felt in exile.”

Former President Shimon Peres called the bill a political ploy that would “erode democratic principles” and spark “religious devastation”.

Responding to the widespread criticism, Netanyahu defended the law by arguing that it would protect Israel from becoming binational and rule out the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees displaced during the country’s independence and the ensuing wars.

The prime minister’s office declined Al Jazeera’s requests for further comment.

Hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel have responded by replacing their Facebook profile pictures with an image of them with a passport-like stamp that reads “second-class citizen”.

“They’re making a new law, but this is our last 66 years of reality,” Haitham Haddad, 25, one of the graphic designers who started the campaign, told Al Jazeera. “It’s almost like they are making fun of us Palestinians [in Israel].”

Haddad said the bill is “nothing more than Israel coming out of the closet”, adding it would “show the world what we’ve known for more than six decades: that we are not citizens with equal rights, and that when push comes to shove, we’re all Palestinians and ‘demographic threats’ in Israel’s eyes”. 

Ilan Pappe, Israeli historian and author of more than a dozen books on Israeli-Palestinian history,described the new bill as “part of a historical process, which to mind was inevitable given the impossibility of creating a democratic state that is also supremacist.”

He cited the Nakba Law and the Citizenship and Entry Law, both passed in 2010. The former allows Israel to strip organisations or groups of state funds if they hold events that designated Israel’s establishment as the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”). The latter is a temporary order that enables Israel to deny citizenship to the spouses of “enemy states” – most notably making difficult marriages between Palestinians in Israel and those in the West Bank or Gaza.

“The whole move of the Israeli political system to the right is exemplified in this new [proposed] law – there is no wish to play the democratic charade any more, and there is a great belief that the powers that be are still in Capitol Hill and nowhere else,” Pappe said, explaining that many believe the United States will support Israel unconditionally.

Follow Patrick O. Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera