The fate of Palestinian citizens of Israel is often ignored in the many examples cited for why it is an apartheid state. This assertion rests on a number of irrefutable facts, which prompted former US President Jimmy Carter to write his New York Times bestseller, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.
The facts are: Israel is an occupying power; Israel does deny 11 million people basic human rights for no reason other than that they are of a different ethnic group; Israel does operate one legal regime for Jewish Israelis and another for Palestinians living in the same area; Israel does transfer Palestinians forcibly from their homes to make way for Jew-only illegal settlements; Israel does deny Palestinians their legitimate right to return; Israel does allocate state resources and restricts citizens’ movement on the basis of their race and ethnicity. These are all the hallmarks of an apartheid state; of a regime clearly defined and outlawed in international law.
The 2002 Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court at The Hague, defines apartheid as “An institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” In short, apartheid is a political system, or structure, that assigns rights and privileges based on race. Israel fits the bill.
A typical refutation of the above assertion usually mentions Israel’s liberal and democratic features, top amongst them the fact that Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel are allowed to vote and stand for election to the country’s parliament, the Knesset. Even critics of Israel like Carter, who endorse the assertion that Israel implements apartheid beyond its 1967 borders, are not inclined to extend this designation to the state itself.
While this defensive tactic has become very much a cliché, soft critics of Israel are often reminded of the fact that between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea there is a de-facto single state maintained by the Israeli authorities. The Zionist state has, in fact, been an occupying power far longer than it can claim to have been a non-occupier. Furthermore, successive Israeli governments have steadily incorporated the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, into the fabric of the state, through settlements and road networks that are denied to Palestinians inhabiting the same territory.
Within Israel too, inequality is institutionalised through a system of quasi-state institutions such as the Jewish National Fund which, along with the Development Authority, is granted administrative control over 93 per cent of the country’s land. The JNF’s mandate is to develop and lease land only to Jews, an arrangement which allows Israel to discriminate against 20 per cent of its citizens who are not Jews.
Institutionalised racism is maintained not only through this discriminatory land arrangement, but also through a series of laws which have been adopted to ensure that the state gives Jews privileges over non-Jews, the most recent of which was last year’s “Jewish Nation-State Law”. Critics say that this law codifies racism in Israel. Prior to its inclusion amongst a long list of discriminatory Basic Laws, up to 65 different pieces of legislation discriminating against the Palestinian Arab minority had been passed to expose the fact that the “Jewish Nation-State Law” was not the beginning of apartheid within Israel but the confirmation of its institutional status.
Few have experienced the injustice of institutional racism within Israel more than the country’s Bedouin citizens. Residing mainly in the Naqab Desert, the 240,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel are the most marginalised of the Palestinian Arab minority. They are denied basic services by the state, and have their land and housing rights violated; home demolitions and land confiscation are common.
The Bedouin’s plight is one of the many injustices that compelled Saeed Alkharumi to enter politics. The poverty and dire economic conditions of Arab citizens, especially in the Negev, are very important, he told me recently.
Alkharumi hails from a Bedouin village in the Negev called Segev Shalom, to the south-east of Beersheba. He entered the Knesset through an alliance of the main Arab-dominated political parties known as the Joint List. Having been relative successful in winning 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the 2015 election, the coalition has gone through a mini-crisis after one of the four main parties, Ta’al, split ahead of next month’s General Election. The three remaining members of the coalition are Alkharumi’s Raam Party, for which he has been the secretary general since 2002; the Balad Party and Hadash.
As an active member of the Bedouin communities, over the past few years Alkharumi has been the head of the Supreme Steering Committee of Negev Arabs. The former teacher has emerged as the leader of the Bedouin’s struggle against home demolitions and for the recognition of “unrecognised” villages in the Negev.
The poverty rate among Israel’s Arab citizens is estimated at between 50 and 60 per cent; according to Alkharumi it is just one of many issues that are hurting Palestinians in Israel. The struggle against evictions and displacement, and the demolitions of Arab homes and villages are on his list of priorities, he said, as is the broader Palestinian cause of the establishment of a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel on the 4 June 1967 borders. “Of course, this includes liberating Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque and returning them to the Palestinian state,” he added quickly.
What are the main issues facing the Bedouins? “There is a drive against them by the Israeli authorities to demolish villages that the state does not recognise,” he explained. “The demolitions are ongoing. Last year the government demolished 2,775 homes, leaving Arab citizens in the south [of the Negev] in a terrible situation.” Highlighting the underlying racism of this state policy, he pointed out that “the majority, if not all” demolitions are of Arab-owned properties.
“Of course, it’s the racist laws which the Knesset passed, including the Nation-State Law and the laws regarding planning and construction that ban Arab citizens from building their homes, which are behind this discrimination,” he insisted. In his official objection to the Nation-State Law, Alkharumi noted that it “stripped away the legal rights of the Palestinians and turned them into second and third class citizens.”
With a track record of campaigning against home demolitions, he was keen to tell me of his concerns about Clause three of the law, which stipulates “Jewish settlement [as a] national value” and mandates that the state “will labour to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” Alkharumi predicts that this will accelerate the already out of control home demolition policy and an even greater number of Palestinian villages and towns in the Negev will be razed to the ground. The magnitude of the misery caused by this discrimination is clear: “Since its establishment, Israel has built 700 villages for Jews and hasn’t built a single one for Arab citizens. This demonstrates the racist nature of Israeli laws.” He could also have pointed out that since 1948 Israel has wiped more than 500 Palestinian towns and villages off the map.
“What is happening in the Negev,” he concluded, “is a crime against humanity. When the state demolishes, and forces people to demolish their own homes, at a rate of 2,270 buildings a year, that is a heinous crime.” The world, however, seems reluctant to do anything about it, leaving Israel free to be the apartheid state that it undoubtedly is, with no fear being held to account for its crimes.