Palestinians in a ‘Jewish state’

Palestinians living in Israel face institutionalised discrimination and segregation in a supposedly democratic state.

Palestinians who live in Israel, not in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, face daily discrimination [GALLO/GETTY]

Israel’s crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories – like the settlements, the killing of civilians and the demolition of homes – are openly condemned in the West by human rights groups and others like never before. But as the peace process remains stuck, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu forces the issue of Israel as a “Jewish state” into the spotlight, understanding the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel has become crucial to grasping the core of the entire conflict.

So-called “Israeli Arabs” have got it better than most Palestinians, who are either under military rule or forcibly excluded from their homeland. But the institutional discrimination they have faced since 1948 goes to the heart of the contradiction that Israel is “Jewish and democratic”.

Many people will concede that the military occupation of non-citizens for over 40 years is undemocratic. Yet, inside the pre-1967 borders, Israel is far from the “liberal democracy” central to the propaganda, in areas like land, planning, housing, immigration and state budgets. Rhetoric and policies associated with the far-right in Europe – like an obsession with “demographics” and birth rates, or boosting one kind of population in a given area to counterbalance an “undesirable” minority – are mainstream in Israeli politics.

In my new book, Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy, I unpack some of the core elements of how Israel’s Palestinian citizens have been treated since 1948. One aspect is the area of nationality and citizenship rights, as this short extract explains:

A poorly understood aspect of Israel as a Jewish state is the distinction between “citizenship” and “nationality”, an issue confused by the fact that, in English, the two terms can often be used interchangeably. In Israel, “‘nationality’ (Hebrew: le’um) and ‘citizenship’ (Hebrew: ezrahut) are two separate, distinct statuses, conveying different rights and responsibilities”. Palestinians in Israel, as non-Jews, can be citizens, but never nationals, and are thus denied “rights and privileges” enjoyed by those “who would qualify for Israeli citizenship under the 1950 Law of Return”.

Professor David Kretzmer, law scholar at Hebrew University and member of the International Commission of Jurists, has explained how this concept of “nation” helps maintain “the distinction between citizens of the state who belong to the Jewish people and those who do not… [and] strengthens the dichotomy between the state as the political framework for all its citizens and the state as the particularistic nation-state of the Jewish people”. International human rights expert Miloon Kothari, who served as UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing for eight years, summed it up thus:

Nationality status in Israel is not linked to origin from, or residence in a territory, as is the norm in international law. Rather, the basic theocratic character of the Israeli legal system establishes ethnic criteria as the grounds for the enjoyment of full rights. The Israeli Citizenship Law (ezrahut), officially mistranslated as ‘Nationality Law’, establishes a civil status distinct from ‘Jewish nationality’.

The difference between “citizenship” and “nationality” has been affirmed by Israeli courts. One such example is related by Bernard Avishai, in his book The Hebrew Republic, when in the early 1970s, a Jewish Israeli called George Tamarin petitioned the High Court to change the official registration of his nationality from Jewish to Israeli. Avishai records the High Court’s ruling: that “there is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish nation”, an assessment complemented by the then-president of the High Court Shimon Agranat, who said that a uniform Israeli nationality “would negate the very foundation upon which the State of Israel was formed”. In 2008, a group of petitioners again unsuccessfully requested for their nationality to be marked “Israeli”, claiming, “that it made no sense for them to be Jews ‘for internal consumption’ and Israelis ‘for external consumption”‘.

A ‘Jewish’ state

While this use of “nationality” as a means of privileging Jewish citizens at the expense of Palestinians is long-standing in Israel, in recent times there has been a further assault on the minority’s citizenship rights. In 2003, the “temporary” Nationality and Entry into Israel Law was passed by the Knesset, and at the time of writing, has been renewed ever since. This law “prohibits the granting of any residency or citizenship status to Palestinians from the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) who are married to Israeli citizens” (amended in 2007 to include citizens of “enemy states” Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon).

In a press release at the time, the Head of the Delegation of the European Commission to the State of Israel described the law as establishing “a discriminatory regime to the detriment of Palestinians in the highly sensitive area of family rights”. In 2008, Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, commented: “It should be emphasised that no other state in the world denies the right to conduct a family life on the basis of national or ethnic belonging.”

The public justification for this law was that it aimed to prevent Palestinians using “family unification” as a means of gaining entry to Israel and committing terrorist attacks. Yet the “security” rationale was flimsy: as the Legal Advisor to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) pointed out, Israel’s security services had “previously approved the entry of 20,000 Palestinian workers into Israel”, showing it was entirely possible to “assess the extent of the ‘danger’ posed by Palestinian residents”.

But the “security” excuse is further undermined by remarks made by Israeli officials themselves, such as Gideon Ezra, then minister without portfolio and ex-deputy head of the Shin Bet, who affirmed that “the state of Israel is not prepared to accept a creeping right of return; no one wants our state to cease to be a Jewish state”.

In April 2005, the Israeli press reported that the government was “planning legislative amendments that will make it more difficult for non-Jews to receive Israeli citizenship or permanent resident status in Israel”, a move “aimed against granting legal status to Palestinians and other foreigners who have married Israeli citizens”.

This legislation – “based on the demographic consideration of ensuring a solid Jewish majority” – was linked in the reports to the 2003 “temporary” measure, and quoted then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as unashamedly admitting: “There is no need to hide behind security arguments. There is a need for the existence of a Jewish state”.

Ha’aretz observed that there is “broad agreement in the government and academia” that any such policies “must be strict and make it difficult for non-Jews to obtain citizenship in Israel”. Finally, this was also part of the context for the successfully-passed “loyalty oath” initiative, which obliges non-Jewish candidates for citizenship to swear loyalty to a Jewish state. In July 2010, a government source said “the wording of the declaration was designed to make it more difficult for Palestinians married to Israeli Arabs to gain citizenship on the basis of family unification”.

Ben White is a freelance writer, specialising in Palestine and Israel.

To purchase Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy click here.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.