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Israel: is it really a democratic state?

Omar Shakir, Regional Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) [Twitter]
Omar Shakir, Regional Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) [Twitter]

Most global democracy indices rate Israel as the most democratic state, or even the only democratic state, in the Middle East. Freedom House and many others have also given Israel high scores regarding human rights, political freedoms and the right of people to express freely what’s on their minds. They classify Israel as a “free” state.

In the light of such positive ratings, oppressed people all over the world should think of Israel as their ideal when they plan to escape from their own political oppression. However, the reality is very different; tests in the real world expose the fact that Israel is a racist state within which discrimination is entrenched very deeply in both policies and practices. The state deals with people according to their political or religious views, as well as their ethnicity.

On Tuesday, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld a previous ruling of a lower court that Human Rights Watch Director in Israel, Omar Shakir, must be deported from the country in 20 days just because of his political ideas and beliefs. The court said that Shakir promoted the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions Movement (BDS), which calls for non-violent boycotts of the state in order to bring about an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

The Times of Israel reported that the ruling handed down by the Jerusalem District Court in April stated that, “Not only did [Shakir] not prove that he had abandoned his calls for a boycott of Israel, but he has continued to carry out his agenda as evident from his actions and statements.” The ruling was based on a false premise because it referred to a Jewish settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories as “Israel”, despite settlements’ illegal status in international law.

READ: Israel bans Palestinian Amnesty worker from travelling 

The court clearly wanted to suppress Shakir’s way of thinking so that he would put aside his own beliefs. Most of the world except the United States, as well as international bodies, agree that the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are illegal, and yet here we have a court in Israel punishing someone critical of them.

According to the Times of Israel, the Israeli courts ruled on Shakir’s deportation precisely because of his rejection of the Israeli occupation; it said that he was denied an Israeli work visa in 2017 due to concerns that he was engaged in “anti-occupation” activity. In 2018, it added, the Israeli interior ministry refused to renew his work permit because of his support for BDS.

BDS protesters [Twitter]

Demonstrators supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement [Twitter]

Shakir’s deportation is not an isolated incident. There are many other examples which prove that there is no place for real democracy in Israel. Many of the country’s civil and military courts have been used solely to justify Israeli violations against the Palestinians and international law. This is not limited to Israeli judges; it is a plague which has spread to other state officials too.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one of the most authoritarian leaders on earth, and faces multiple corruption charges. Under his leadership, Israeli police are tasked to crack down on any gatherings of more than 50 people because such gatherings require permits. The police can even impose restrictions on smaller events just to deter those who protest against his government and corruption.

Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz felt no shame about praising Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at a Shas Party memorial event marking six years since his death, even though Yosef described the Arabs as snakes and claimed that God was sorry that he created them. Nevertheless, they are currently the most popular politicians in Israel.

READ: Israel may face third election as chances of new government diminish

I am not alone in questioning the credibility of Israeli democracy. Consider, for example, what the policy director of Israel Policy Forum, Michael J Koplow, wrote early this year to Haaretz. Netanyahu’s actions, he said, have “damaged one of Israel’s most valuable national security assets… one of Israel’s most potent claims on the world stage [which] is that it is the only democracy in the Middle East.”

The aforementioned democracy and freedom indices have been accused of being biased; they do not take into account the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights and Jerusalem. Israel’s rating is very different when looked at through the prism of international law or UN reports, which state that Israel “is imposing an apartheid regime of racial discrimination on the Palestinians.”

The claim that Israel is a democratic state “has always been disingenuous, ahistorical and tinged with racism,” wrote Josh Ruebner in the Huffington Post. “Israel can claim to be a democracy only in the sense that apartheid South Africa could also claim to be so: an ‘ethnocracy’ with full democratic rights for the privileged race or religion; lesser or no democratic rights for those with undesirable skin colour, ethnicity, nationality or race.”

A state which enacts democracy and democratic principles for the benefit of one particular section of society at the expense of a substantial number of “others” cannot claim to be a democratic state. That is a fact which should be obvious to any reasonable person. It is thus a disgrace that Israel and its supporters can continue to get away with making its “disingenuous” claim, while maintaining an “apartheid regime”, suppressing and violating human rights and killing Palestinians with self-declared impunity. In answer to the question is Israel really a democratic state, we have to stand up and say no, it is most definitely not.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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