"We are facing times like never before." These are the words of Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and member of its parliament (the Knesset). On 7 June, he filed a complaint with the Knesset Guard about death threats he has received. Tibi is not alone; two other leading Arab politicians, Talab El Sana and Haneen Zoubi, have also received death threats in recent days. This ugly development has arisen after the Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean.
The political fallout from the attack shows no sign of abating in Israel or abroad. Faced with international pressure for an independent inquiry into the killing of civilians on the aid flotilla, Israel's ruling elite has gone on the counteroffensive, directing their venom at the Arab parliamentarians who participated in or supported the aid operation.
The macabre death threat to Tibi was left on his assistant's mobile phone, which is registered in his name warned: "Your days are numbered, you dirty Arab. You will meet a miserable end… Your days are numbered – you and all the Arabs, you will die. Just you wait, if they killed a prime minister here, killing you is nothing."
Tibi believes this latest campaign of intimidation is orchestrated by what he often describes as the fascist elements in the Israeli political establishment. The Interior Minister, Eli Yashai, who also heads the Shas party, well known for its anti-Arab views, has proposed a bill in the Knesset specifically to revoke the parliamentary privileges of Haneen Zoubi and strip her of her citizenship for her support for the flotilla.
Using this logic, citizenship should be withdrawn to the whole Arab population of Israel. Palestinians in every major town and city in Israel demonstrated against the attack on the aid flotilla. Perhaps that's what Yashai and Shas are actually aiming for.
Will the death threats be extended to all those who marched against the attack, in Israel and abroad, including Jews and Jewish Israelis? And will they all be stripped of their citizenship? Uniquely in the "only democracy in the Middle East", such wacky policies are being contemplated. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann's "no citizenship without loyalty" policy is aimed at Israel's Arab citizens. Knowing full well that Israeli Arabs will not enlist in the Israeli army that is sent to kill their countrymen in the West Bank and Gaza, the racist Liebermann has made this test a hallmark of his party pledge to "denationalize" Israeli Arabs.
Underlying all of this is the very concept of citizenship in Israel. Paul Eidelberg of Bar Ilan University explained: "Non Jewish citizens of Israel hold citizenship as a privilege determined by state laws and not as a natural right guaranteed by the constitution." [Masalha, 2000] It goes without saying that such a concept belies the Zionist state's claim that Palestinian Arabs in Israel are afforded democratic rights the like of which they would not find anywhere else in the Middle East.
While the flotilla affair has uncovered the underlying tensions simmering in Israeli society there is no doubt that the lid was bound to come off sooner or later. In late 2000 a Commission was appointed by the Israeli government under high court judge Theodore Or to investigate the events of October in that year when, at the beginning of the Aqsa Intifada, 12 Arab citizens were killed by police. The inquiry found that the official treatment of the Arab population has been "neglectful and discriminatory". Its recommendations to address the entrenched inequalities were never implemented. In fact, the grievances have been allowed to fester and divisions grow wider, fuelled by Israel's repression of the West Bank and military campaigns in the Gaza Strip.
Arab members of the Knesset blame the incumbent extreme right-wing government for creating this tense atmosphere. Any attempt to curtail further the already limited rights of Israel's 1.5 million Arabs, who make up 20% of the country's population, could have unpredictable but far-reaching consequences for Israel and the region.
The Palestinian Arabs did not choose to be citizens in Zionist Israel. Like the indigenous people of the Americas they were absorbed into the state established by their conquerors. Regarded as an albatross at best and as a threat to security at worst, Israeli politicians have made their feelings very clear about the Arabs in their midst. Tzipi Livni spoke for many in the political class when she said in December 2008, "Among other things I will also be able to approach the Palestinian residents of Israel… and tell them, 'Your national aspirations lie elsewhere.'"
Often restricted to living in officially "unrecognized" villages and subjected to institutional discrimination, it is no wonder that Israel's Arab citizens feel no sense of affinity to the state that defines itself not as a state for its citizens but a state for Jews only.
Whatever their status, Palestinian Arabs in Israel are an integral part of the Palestinian people. They share a common history, identity, culture and language with their compatriots in the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora. Hence, until there is a just solution to the Palestinian problem Israel's Arab population will never feel a sense of loyalty to a state which oppresses and occupies their fellow Palestinians.
The quasi-official campaign against Israeli Arab parliamentarians is crude political opportunism, seeking as it were to take advantage of the flotilla affair. The Israeli authorities did not strip Yigal Amir of his citizenship after he murdered their Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and none of the Arab parliamentarians targeted in this sinister witch-hunt have committed such a heinous crime; and yet their citizenship is under threat. Why? The only plausible explanation is that they are Palestinian and Arab. Such is the racism masquerading as Israeli democracy.