In Israel, the main factor that determines the right of citizenship is “nationality” rather than the place of birth. Such nationality does not apply to all the current residents of the Zionist state because it is based on ethnicity, as stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Law of Return issued in 1950. According to this racist law, Israel is a national home for the Jewish people; all Jews, all over the world, have the right to Israeli citizenship without any official fuss. Non-Jews are not so privileged.
Israel’s Citizenship Act of 1952 prohibits any Palestinians – even those born in the territory now called Israel – from obtaining Israeli citizenship unless they were “registered” as such before 1952. This law deprives all rights of citizenship to around 80% of those who were driven from their homes in 1948 to make way for Jewish immigrants; it also prevents them from returning to their land.
According to official statistics, there were 1,431,700 Palestinians living in Israel in 2008. They have been described by many senior officials of the Israeli government as a “threat” to the state, worthy of deportation; the intelligence chief called them a “strategic threat to Israel’s security”. They have been discriminated against for many years and stand to lose what few rights they have gained.
Documented evidence shows an increase in concern among Israelis about the Palestinians living in Israel and their status as equal citizens. A 2007 opinion poll reported that more than 40% of Jewish Israelis agreed that Palestinians should not be allowed to participate in political affairs, while 64% believed that “Arab Israelis” threaten the demography of the state because of their relatively high birth rate. A later poll said that 75% of Israeli Jews support the deportation of Palestinians from Israel.
Racist comments by some Israeli leaders have helped to spread anti-Arab hatred among Jews. The extreme right-wing Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has called many times for compulsory military service for all who live in Israel, including the Arab Israelis, and proposed draft legislation compelling pledges of allegiance for the “Jewish nature of the state”. There are signs that the government in Israel links equal rights for its Arab citizens to compulsory military service, something that is not imposed on ultra-orthodox Jews who may face the opprobrium of some of their fellow Jewish citizens but do not face official discrimination as the Arabs do. Palestinians serving in the Israel Defence Forces would, of course, end up confronting fellow Palestinians – perhaps their relatives – looking down the barrel of their guns as part of Israel’s occupation authorities in the West Bank.
Discrimination against Israeli Arabs takes many forms. There are restrictions on political rights and deliberate economic deprivation as well restricted access to social services. No Arab has the chance to attain high office in state institutions and the campaign to crack down on Arab political movements is gaining momentum, especially in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. It is estimated that just over 61% of Arab families in Israel live below the poverty line; most live in poor neighbourhoods lacking in basic services like sewers and clean water. The Israeli government still refuses to recognise dozens of Arab villages, so no basic services are provided therein. On top of that, the government does not hesitate to confiscate Arab land and demolish homes. As a result of the 60-year process of ethnic cleansing, Palestinians now own just 3% of the land they owned in 1948 when Israel was created. Israel’s Arab citizens also face discrimination in education and employment.
Even the judicial system is biased against Israel’s Arab citizens. In August 2004, when a Jewish Israeli murdered four of his fellow citizens who happened to be Arabs the government – despite the obvious link in the Israel-Palestine context – refused to accept the murders as an act of terrorism; the victims’ families were unable to claim compensation for their loss. There are also cases where the roles have been reversed and the victims have been Jews killed by Arabs; in such cases, the judiciary has sided with the Jews as “victims of terrorism”. Such duplicity is commonplace in “democratic” Israel.
Over the past six decades Israel has been promoted as a democratic oasis in the midst of Arab tyranny; the “only democracy in the Middle East”. Israel has succeeded in convincing the international community of the truth of this myth. The facts on the ground, however, reveal a very different Israel, a racist state that deprives more than 20% of its citizens of their basic civil and political rights on the basis of their ethnicity. Why is such a state tolerated in the 21st century?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.