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Racism remains a cornerstone of Israeli society

Ahmad Tibi, a leading Palestinian member of Israel’s Knesset (Parliament), did not pull any punches when he recently told me the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is racist and the main obstacle to Middle East peace. Elected to the Knesset in 1999, Tibi heads Ta’al (the Arab Movement for Change), one of four parties representing Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.

“I’m here to tell the truth and the reality,” said Tibi, 58, adding that nearly 50 laws discriminate against non-Jewish Israeli citizens. “We’re talking about unequal treatment and policies for the Arabs. We’re citizens, but we’re unequal in all fields of life: Employment, infrastructure, budgets, education, religious places, industry, agriculture, everywhere.”

Tibi said despite the efforts of US President Donald Trump and leaders from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, no peace will be achieved while Israel is governed by Netanyahu, who first became prime minister in 1999 and led the dismantling of the Oslo Accords signed in 1993.

“There isn’t one minister in Israel who supports the two-state solution,” Tibi said, adding that he was surprised and encouraged when Trump said he could support two states or one during a press conference with Netanyahu on Feb. 15. But Tibi cautioned that the one-state solution has two sides: One in which Israel maintains apartheid oppression over non-Jews, and one that is truly democratic with one person, one vote.

“I support the two-state solution,” Tibi said, adding that Netanyahu has a third option: “Continuing the status quo because it doesn’t have a cost.” Challenging Israel’s assertion that it is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” Tibi said: “It’s an ethnocracy.” He spoke as the guest of honor of the United Holy Land Fund, which raises money to support orphans and provide scholarships to Palestinian youths.

He expressed support for Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian dissident jailed by Israel 15 years ago on trumped-up charges of terrorism. Barghouti has launched a hunger strike to protest torture and abuse by Israeli prison guards, joined by hundreds of fellow inmates.

Israeli propaganda asserts that not only are Palestinians accused of violence as “terrorists,” so are their family members. In violation of international law, Israel destroys the homes of family members, relatives and neighbors of Palestinians railroaded in Israel’s prison system.

Ray Hanania 

Tibi embraced Barghouti’s son Aarab, telling him Palestinians in Israel, under occupation and in the diaspora have not forgotten his father’s sacrifices for the Palestinian cause. Many compare Barghouti to Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison in South Africa on the same kinds of fabricated terrorism charges.

“My father is a freedom fighter,” Aarab told me. “He’s the Palestinian Mandela. He symbolizes the freedom that Palestinians hope to one day achieve from Israel’s occupation and brutality.” Tibi told the audience that Israeli officials who deny that Palestinians exist are guilty of anti-Semitism. He said several of Netanyahu’s ministers support the forced expulsion of non-Jews from Israel.

I was moved by the courage of Tibi, a Muslim Palestinian in an oppressive Jewish state that discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens every day. He has not shied from challenging Netanyahu and his racist government in the Knesset, denouncing vicious and racist rhetoric from officials such as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

Tibi rebuffed Israel’s claim that it treats Christians better than any other Middle East country, asking why the government has refused to implement a Supreme Court ruling issued in 1951 that Christians be permitted back to their homes in Iqrit, one of two Christian villages where civilians were forcibly evicted by Israel’s military (the other was Kafr Bir’im).

To undercut the ruling, the military razed the homes and the village church within months of the order. The village was literally erased on Christmas Day, the holiest Christian holiday, sending a hate-driven Israeli signal to Christians about their future.

Tibi’s powerful words resonated with me. They echoed the words of another courageous Israeli Palestinian who I interviewed in 1976: Tawfiq Ziad. The mayor of Nazareth, Ziad was elected to the Knesset in 1973, serving in both positions for 19 years. At the time, he told me that racism and discrimination in Israel against Christian and Muslim Palestinians was “policy, practice and reality” in every aspect of life.

He conducted a study in 1987 detailing torture and violence by Israeli soldiers and officials against Palestinian prisoners. Since 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been jailed by Israeli authorities, denied rights to legal representation and visits from family members.

Israeli propaganda asserts that not only are Palestinians accused of violence as “terrorists,” so are their family members. In violation of international law, Israel destroys the homes of family members, relatives and neighbors of Palestinians railroaded in Israel’s prison system.

Palestinians face the same challenges not just in Israel, but in the occupied territories and in the diaspora. Israel’s racism against Christians and Muslims today is as strong and pernicious as it ever was.


Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian-American former journalist and political columnist. Email him at [email protected]