Palestinians in Israel discriminated against in their own homes
Since its inception, Israel has suffered from an intrinsic and intolerable duality, a sort of sociopolitical schizophrenia, derived from the tension of its aspiring to be concurrently Jewish and democratic.
Both pillars of the state of Israel are anchored in the country’s 1948 Declaration of Independence. On the one hand, the country was defined in this formative historical document by the leaders of the Zionist movement as the “Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” In the same breath, the declaration states that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” all in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter.
There are many questions that remain. Was it naive to believe that the two notions were ever reconcilable? Was it deliberately misleading to project a progressive, tolerant image of the newly founded state? Or was there, and is there still, a way to harmoniously accommodate these two notions of Jewish and democratic, and it has just been the case that the Jewish majority has made a conscious decision to prefer the former to the latter? Judging by the way the country’s authorities and the Jewish population have treated the Palestinian minority, Israel has always been more Jewish than democratic.
Notwithstanding what was set out by the Declaration of Independence, for those Palestinians who remained in Israel and survived the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe), reality has always been one of legal, institutional and habitual discrimination. And not one single issue has been as discriminatory and damaging to the 1.9 million Palestinian citizens of Israel as the policies and legislation that have deliberately restricted their access to land. With natural population growth, this approach has caused a chronic shortage of space for a community representing more than a fifth of the country’s total to prosper and enjoy similar living conditions to those of their Jewish neighbors.
A new and alarming report by the New York-based human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has highlighted the discriminatory nature of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian citizens, which “have confined many Palestinian citizens to densely populated towns and villages that have little room to expand.” The opposite applies to the Jewish neighborhoods, where expansion is not only permitted, but ideologically nurtured and incentivized through generous investment in infrastructure and other financial benefits.
Let us not delude ourselves: Israel’s land policies are deeply rooted in the Zionist ideology that perceived the entire land of “Eretz Israel” as belonging to the Jewish people. From the very early days of the Jewish national revival, it was set as an imperative to “redeem” it from those who inhabited it, first by buying it and later by force or abuse of government authority. Racist terms such as the “Judaization” of Galilee or Jerusalem are part of the mindset that enshrines the wish to limit Palestinian citizens’ access to land and ensure that they are a minority in every part of their own homeland. If it was not enough that 750,000 Palestinians became refugees as a result of fleeing the war of 1948 or being forced to leave by Israel’s armed forces, the remaining 150,000 who were internally displaced were not allowed to return to their homes. For the next 18 years, until 1966, they lived under military law, which was not only discriminatory but also embedded the notion of them as a fifth column, not as equal citizens.
As early as 1950, the Israeli Knesset enacted the Absentees’ Property Law, which established the legal architecture of constant expropriations of refugee property. Absentees were defined in a deliberate and calculated way to designate any Arab who left their place of residence during the war as an absentee, even if he or she remained within the borders of the newly founded state. Hence, the oxymoronic name of this law: The “Present Absentee Law,” by which the state of Israel denied the right of refugees and displaced people to return to their land and homes; and, worse, allowed their houses and farms to be confiscated and “legally” expropriated, in flagrant contravention of international law.
Unlike most other democracies, in Israel the state controls 93 percent of the land, including in occupied East Jerusalem. As the HRW report — titled “Israel: Discriminatory Land Policies Hem in Palestinians” — correctly highlights, the state created the legal framework and the government mechanisms, all supported by an ideology that enshrines the idea that land must be settled by Jews and developed for them.
Since Israel was founded 72 years ago, the government has authorized the creation of more than 900 Jewish localities. But, with the exception of a handful of government-planned townships and villages in the Negev and Galilee, mainly to concentrate dispersed Bedouin communities, not a single new Palestinian locality has been authorized. When I spoke to the author of this report, HRW’s Israel and Palestine Director Omar Shakir — who now lives in Amman, Jordan, after being deported last year by the Israeli government — he observed that “Israel’s policies of boxing in Palestinians, maximizing land for Jewish communities, and segregation extend beyond the West Bank.” Equally important, as Shakir put it, “efforts to end Israel’s discriminatory rule will fall short as long as they overlook the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
The suffocation of Palestinian communities curtails their development and their ability to maintain their way of life.
This suffocation of Palestinian communities curtails their economic and social development and their ability to maintain their way of life and culture, not to mention harming their well-being. Land discrimination is only one facet, albeit a crucial one, of the treatment handed out to Palestinian citizens. Some of the discrimination has been formalized in legislation, such as the so-called nation-state law, and some is more informal, such as refusing to tolerate Palestinian residents in neighborhoods that are mainly Jewish or the constant incitements against them and vile way they have been delegitimized by the current government and especially by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Is the aim to keep them oppressed, and hence not involved in running the country, and expect them to just remain grateful for being allowed to stay? Or is there an even more sinister objective to make their lives so miserable that they seriously contemplate leaving? Or perhaps it is both.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg