Despite the uproar over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet passing the new “Jewish nation-state” bill, its discriminatory contents are part and parcel of Israel’s long history of marginalising and discriminating against the country’s Palestinian minority.
The bill, which still needs to be passed by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, defines Israel as the “nation-state for the Jewish people” and enshrines the Zionist principles that the state was founded on at the expense of all Palestinians more than six decades ago.
Its defenders point out that it protects “the personal rights of all [the state’s] citizens”, ignoring that it only guarantees “communal rights” to Jews, who, regardless of their ancestral origins, have always been permitted to immigrate to Israel and gain citizenship.
Within Netayahu’s cabinet, the bill was passed by a 14-6 vote and reportedly sparked a passionate debate. As usual, that debate didn’t focus on the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the total population, but centred on the state’s Declaration of Independence and founding ideology of Zionism.
For the 1.7 million Palestinians who were forced to take Israeli citizenship and continue living in what became Israel after the Nakba, this bill is nothing more than Israel finally taking off its mask in front of the world.
The debate it has thus far sparked is also nothing new: Despite our nominal citizenship, we have always been rendered second-class citizens with limited rights, for no reason other than not being born Jewish.
Discrimination from day one
Whether Netanyahu’s latest bill passes is irrelevant to Palestinians everywhere – in present-day Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and the diaspora, where millions of refugees are waiting to return to the lands they were violently expelled from in 1948.
For those of us living in present-day Israel, the law is merely symbolic, as there are already dozens of laws that “discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures,” as Adalah Legal Centre has revealed.
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Was it not already clear that Palestinians in Israel are living under the same occupation as Palestinians in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the imprisoned Gaza Strip? Treating us as a “demographic threat”, Israel champions our citizenship in front of the world as alleged proof of its democratic nature, while simultaneously attempting to limit our presence and influence in society.
Following the state’s declaration of independence, the first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, dismayed at the number of Palestinians who stayed in their ancestral lands, lamented that Israel wouldn’t be able to “clear the entire central Galilee region” of the then 100,000 remaining indigenous residents without a war.
But Israeli leaders have actually attempted to do so, even in peacetime. In recent years, a plan to demolish the Galilee village of Ramiyya and expel its people is one example of attempts to make Ben Gurion’s dream come true. As Professor Hilel Cohen of the Hebrew University said, “The project of ‘Judaizing the Galilee’ commenced when the state [of Israel] was founded and has continued in various guises to the present day.”
In the Negev region, Palestinian Bedouins with Israeli citizenship have been exposed to home demolitions and denied basic services, such as water, electricity and education. Living in more than 40 “unrecognised” villages across that region, an estimated 53,000 men, women and children face impending eviction.
Al-Araqib, for instance, has been razed by Israeli bulldozers 78 times since July 2010. Its residents, however, refuse to leave, returning and rebuilding it each time. Was it not already clear to them that Israel’s leaders viewed us as second-class citizens from day one? And can a Jewish “nation-state” bill, largely devoid of practical content, possibly make their daily lives any more difficult?
The opposition to the law by Israel’s so-called “centrists” and “liberals”, such as finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni, exposes the whole affair as yet another case of Israel’s political establishment debating over and controlling our future without our input.
A failed project
Nonetheless, Palestinian political parties in Israel continue to sit as lawmakers in the Knesset. Ostensibly convinced that they could impact the laws being pumped out of the parliament, they continue to vie for our votes and encourage us to support them each time campaign season comes around.
But this has proven to be a failed project. Despite giving the opportunity to speak in the Knesset, they have not made our daily reality any better. The onslaught of racist laws hasn’t slowed down, the incitement from Israeli politicians has also grown and our ability to organise as a unified political force has been impeded by internal divisions and competition between the Arab political parties.
Palestinian lawmaker Hanin Zoabi was recently expelled from the Knesset for six months after remarking that Palestinians who kidnapped and killed three Israeli settlers this past summer were not “terrorists”.
Now, Netanyahu and his rabid rightwing cohorts are pushing a new bill to expel Knesset members “who in a time of war or military action against an enemy state or terror organization offers public support for military struggle”. It was aptly named the “Hanin Zoabi bill” by its sponsors.
Israel’s claim to not be an apartheid state has always relied on the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel can vote and participate in the Knesset. Do we need any more proof that this was a facade from the outset?
With a law that outright declares that this state exists solely for the Jewish people, it’s high time that Palestinians in Israel drop the idea that participating in this theatre of absurdity that is the Israeli political process will improve our lives and further our cause.
It is time to take steps to dissolve our political divisions and build ties with our compatriots in the occupied Palestinian territories and the diaspora in order to build a joint struggle capable of posing a serious challenge to world’s last settler colonial occupation.
Waad Ghantous is a Haifa-based Palestinian activist and a member of the Al-Awda organisation.