The foundations of a democratic society are well-known and include personal freedoms, respect for law and order, equality for all citizens and controls to prevent the abuse of power. The state of Israel has always described itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East” in comparison with the authoritarian regimes in the Arab states. In looking at some of the basic democratic principles alongside Israel’s policies and practices it is possible to judge how accurate such a description actually is.
For a start, the state of Israel was founded on land belonging to another people but essentially handed over to the Zionists by the British government. In 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, wrote to a leading Zionist of the day, Lord Walter Rothschild, and told him that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”
More than six decades ago, American lawyer Sol Linowitz insisted that the Balfour “declaration” was illegal; “[It is] legally impotent. For Great Britain had no sovereign rights over Palestine; it had no proprietary interest; it had no authority to dispose of the land.” How, we must ask, can a state claiming to be democratic ever be built upon land usurped from its indigenous people?
Furthermore, it has to be agreed that a democratic state will make every effort to abide by international laws, conventions and resolutions. If we look at the so-called “only democracy in the Middle East”, we find that it displays open contempt for international law and order. For example, the 11-year-old Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip is regarded as collective punishment and this clearly “contravenes the Hague Conventions on the laws of war, as well as Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states: ‘No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.’” A UN report released in 2011 stressed that the Israeli siege on Gaza is illegal, as it deprives the Palestinians in Gaza of their fundamental rights.
Israel’s membership of the United Nations was subject to it allowing Palestinian refugees expelled during the Nakba of 1948 to return to their homes and land; the state has still not fulfilled this condition. What’s more, it has a long history of ignoring the terms of the UN Charter and UN Resolutions, as listed by Foreign Policy Journal. This particular “democratic state” does anything but abide by the international laws and conventions that the rest of the world is expected to follow.
When it comes to equality for its citizens, Israel also falls short. Jewish Israelis are given priority over non-Jews; Arab Israelis are second-class citizens. The state even discriminates between European Jews and Black Jews. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the right to equality in this “democratic” country “is not yet enshrined in laws regarding most aspects of life… prejudice and discrimination still run rampant throughout Israeli society.”
On 23 November, 2014, the Israeli cabinet approved a law that defines Israel as a Jewish state, denying at a stroke full citizenship rights to the 20 per cent of Israelis who are not Jews. The Economist commented on this law, pointing that it gives Israel’s Arab citizens an “inferior status in relation to Jews.”
British writer and expert on Middle East affairs Ben White reported that former Israeli Supreme Court President Aharon Barak said: “Israel is different from other countries. It is not only a democratic state, but also a Jewish state.” Writing for Al-Jazeera, White continued, “In other words, Israel is not a state of all its citizens, something freely admitted by senior officials.”
A US-based rights group has said that Israel’s discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens is similar to the former South African Apartheid regime. It noted that former US President Jimmy Carter was the first to describe Israel as an “apartheid state”.
As far as personal freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of information and freedom to impart knowledge are concerned, we find that Israel tends to ignore all related international charters and conventions. Its ongoing campaign against Al-Jazeera is a case in point.
According to the Director of the London-based Ethical Journalism Network, Aidan White, the Israeli decision to close Al-Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau is a “full frontal attack” on press freedom. “It is a shocking statement,” he insisted, “and it completely undermines Israel’s claims to be the only democracy in the region, because it gets to the heart of one of the most important institutions of democracy.”
In this war against personal freedoms, Israel has declared openly — and somewhat ironically — that it is taking the lead from authoritarian regimes in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. All have closed Al-Jazeera’s local offices and imposed fines on their own citizens who watch its programmes on satellite television. “We have based our decision on the move by Sunni Arab states to close the Al Jazeera offices and prohibiting their work,” proclaimed one Israeli minister, referring to the aforementioned countries plus Jordan.
Israel is, therefore, not driven by democratic role models, but by anything that its Machiavellian politicians deem necessary; in their eyes, the end justifies the means. Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are now close friends with Israel despite their appalling human rights records, simply because these dictatorships and the “only democracy in the Middle East” appear to have shared objectives.
Having controls in place to prevent the abuse of power is one of the basic principles of democracy. This is not taken seriously by Israeli officials; in fact, it is ignored intentionally. In the maintenance of its brutal military occupation, Israel’s occupation forces, including the army, the police and intelligence services, are directed by senior officials to abuse Palestinian men, women and children.
Prominent Israeli rights group B’Tselem believes with good reason that the Israeli legal system tends not to accept the word of Palestinians abused by Israel officialdom and security services, and sets out “to protect rather than prosecute those who injured them.” Human Rights Watch also proved that the Israeli legal system is complicit with the Israeli security forces in their abuses, pointing out that the army and police officers have been involved in a number of documented cases of child abuse but the justice ministry denied the facts presented in such cases. This intentional denial suggests very powerfully that Israel officially condones human rights abuses.
After interviewing Palestinian children who had been arrested by Israel, a UNICEF report found that “ill-treatment of [Palestinian] children who come in contact with the [Israeli] military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalised throughout the process, from the moment of arrest until the child’s prosecution and eventual conviction and sentencing.”
It is essential, therefore, not only for Israel to stop claiming that it is a democratic state but also for the rest of the world to stop accepting this outrageous claim. It is a state which has cemented human rights abuses within its government and is now in the process of exporting its illegal security “skills” to the rest of the undemocratic world. Israel is, without doubt, a “democratic state” that is built upon decidedly undemocratic principles, policies and practices.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.