Did you know that one in five of Israel’s citizens are Palestinian? Israel refers to them as “Israeli Arabs”, and claims that they have full freedoms as part of a multicultural democracy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected any accusations of discrimination, and claims that all citizens, Jewish and Arab, are treated equally. The truth, however, is somewhat different.
First, some background. In 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from what became the State of Israel. Some, however, remained, and became Israeli citizens. All the way up until 1966, however, they were subjected to a military regime that was used to expropriate land, control movement and suppress political activity.
But the end of military rule didn’t mean equality. In fact, as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has put it, “the right to equality is not yet enshrined in law regarding most aspects of life.” Rather, Israel defines itself as “Jewish and democratic”, and calls for Israel to be a state of all its citizens are seen as tantamount to treason.
For decades, Israeli authorities have pursued policies of land colonisation and dispossession, refused to allow Palestinian communities to expand, and demolished homes built by desperate residents without a permit. By the mid-1970s, between 65 to 75 per cent of Palestinian citizens’ land had been expropriated. This is not just history; today, Israeli authorities are pursuing the demolition of an entire Palestinian village in the Negev so a Jewish one can be built on its land.
Meanwhile, so-called residential “admission committees” are used – in the words of Human Rights Watch – “to exclude Arabs from living in [hundreds of] rural Jewish communities”.
Discrimination affects every area of life – even love. One law blocks family reunification for Israeli citizens – almost all of whom are Palestinians – with their spouses from the West Bank or Gaza. In other words, husbands and wives are separated on the basis of national origin. Israel’s Supreme Court, upholding this law, stating: “Human rights are not a proscription for national suicide.”
Palestinian citizens also face routine political repression; Dareen Tatour, for example, has attracted worldwide attention after Israeli authorities prosecuted her for anti-occupation poetry. Tellingly, Israel’s security service, the Shin Bet, has vowed to “thwart” the activity of anyone who seeks to undermine the “Jewish” character of the state – “even if such activity is sanctioned by the law”.
As if all that wasn’t enough, there is open anti-Palestinian racism and incitement from politicians, journalists, academics and others. Netanyahu made headlines last year for warning of Arabs coming to the polls in “droves”. But he’s hardly alone. Current Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman last year said of “disloyal” Palestinian citizens: “We need to pick up an axe and cut off his head.” Labor party head Isaac Herzog has openly stated: “I don’t want a Palestinian prime minister of Israel.”
So, to summarise, that’s:
- no legal guarantee of equality
- land theft and demolitions
- spatial segregation
- legal discrimination
- political repression
- mainstream racist incitement
Given this reality of institutionalised discrimination, for Israel’s supporters to boast of the fact that “Arabs can vote in the Knesset” is just missing the point. To try and whitewash past and present systematic inequality because “an Arab won Israeli Masterchef” is laughable tokenism. Oh – and about the Knesset. Yes, all Israeli citizens – including Palestinians – can vote or stand for office. But Palestinians are very much excluded from real power. For example, since 1948, there have only been two, non-Jewish ministers. Ever.
Now Israel’s record when it comes to Palestinian citizens would be a disgrace if Palestinians were an immigrant community. But they’re not. They were turned into second-class citizens in their own land, when their people were expelled and colonised. And if any religious or ethnic group was treated like this in a so-called Western country, that government would be considered a pariah.