Arab politicians and rights groups decry Netanyahu’s strive to increase security in Palestinian communities in Israel.
Members of the Joint List, a predominantly Arab electoral coalition in the Israeli parliament, have vowed to sue Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “incitement” against Palestinian citizens of Israel during the recent large-scale fires that engulfed Israel and the occupied West Bank.
“They [Israeli officials] called it a wave of Palestinian terror while they were quiet about the thousands of Israelis inciting against Arabs and calling for their death,” Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, told Al Jazeera.
Last week, Netanyahu suggested that the fires were started deliberately and promised to punish any person guilty of arson in a string of threats made publicly. He said those responsible would be treated as “terrorists” – a term usually reserved by Israeli officials to refer to Palestinian attackers – and said he would revoke their citizenship.
Among several other officials who fuelled suspicions, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said: “There is no ‘wave of accidental fires’. There is a wave of nationalistic terror …” in a Hebrew-language tweet. “Only those to whom the country does not belong are capable of burning it,” he said in another tweet.
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, also chimed in, calling for the demolition of the home of any person found guilty of arson – a frequent sanction used by Israel against Palestinians.
“This incitement is very dangerous. It could cause Israelis to go out and attack Arabs [Palestinians] as acts of revenge,” Odeh continued.
The more than 1,700 fires began ripping through the country close to two weeks ago, with dozens taking place in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank. Palestinian firefighters were sent to help Israeli crews put out the flames in Haifa and Jerusalem.
Forty Palestinians – both citizens of Israel and others in the occupied West Bank – were detained and investigated following the fires, Israeli police told Al Jazeera. “Of the 40, 24 are still being questioned,” said Micky Rosenfeld, Israeli police spokesman.
While three Palestinians in Israel have reportedly been arrested over some of the smaller fires, the cause of the major fires in Haifa’s Carmel forests has not been determined.
as acts of revenge.”]
“The Palestinians who were arrested were only burning the garbage in their towns to get rid of its smell. But no one has been charged with starting the big fires in Carmel,” Odeh said.
“Even if they find one or two or three people that were guilty of arson, we declare that we are against such acts. We even ask that they be punished. But my question is how can Israeli officials turn this into collective accusations against all Palestinians in Israel?”
Approximately 1.7 million Palestinians – Muslims, Christians, and Druze – live inside Israel and carry Israeli citizenship. They face institutionalised racism and discrimination in a state that prizes Jews over non-Jews by law.
The Joint List has appealed to the Attorney General of Israel, Avichai Mandelblit, to open a criminal investigation in to Netanyahu’s statements. Israel has a law against incitement to violence, but Mandelblit is required to review such matters on a case-by-case basis.
Odeh says that if the attorney general decides against opening an investigation, they will take him [Mandelblit] to the High Court of Israel. If all efforts to put Netanyahu on trial inside Israel prove ineffective, they will appeal to the international community, he said. “Netanyahu is someone who systematically incites against us. We have two goals: To officially classify him as an inciter, and for us to gain more legitimacy here in Israel.”
“While he constantly makes such comments, we want to make him think twice about saying the things he does in the future.”
But the options to charge Netanyahu both in Israel and internationally, are limited and grim, legal academics and lawyers say. They believe the Joint Lists’s threats are empty, designed to pacify the anger of Palestinians in Israel.
“There is no chance that Mandelblit will open an investigation against Netanyahu because, if he did, that would mean that we [Palestinian citizens of Israel] could be filing lawsuits against every aspect of the Zionist foundation of the country,” Haifa-based lawyer, Jehad Abu Raya, told Al Jazeera.
“It is not just incitement we are facing – there are plenty of other racist crimes that the state carries out against us, but we are not able to seek justice through their courts, since they are built on Zionist thinking.”
Abu Raya says the Joint List “knows it will not be able to achieve anything locally”, and believes it would be wiser to prosecute Israel and Netanyahu in international courts.
Munir Nuseibah, a professor of law at al-Quds University, says the plot is not feasible – even on the international level. “None of the international courts have jurisdiction over Israel.
The International Criminal Court for example only has jurisdiction over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, and it can only prosecute individuals who are accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide,” Nuseibah told Al Jazeera.
“Since the ICC does not have jurisdiction over Israel, then it cannot look into cases therein without a United Nations Security Council referral – which will never happen to Israel,” due to its political impunity on the international level.
The crime of “incitement” says Nuseibah, is too minor for international courts to consider. “Should the Palestinians want to take Netanyahu to ICC, they should really choose the case carefully.”