Israel’s Palestinian Citizens

The first-ever “truth commission” in Israel will feature confessions from veteran Israeli fighters of the 1948 war that they perpetrated war crimes as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes. The event is the culmination of more than decade of antagonistic confrontations between a small group of activists called Zochrot, the Hebrew word for Remembering, and the Israeli authorities and much of the Jewish public.

The right needs a credible enemy, one that can be feared and that keeps the Jewish tribe from feuding too viciously. The occasional rocket from Gaza hardly qualifies. The role is instead being assigned to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. They and Palestinians in Jerusalem are now likely to take centre stage in any future election campaign.

Haaretz warned this week that, if Netanyahu’s Jewish nation-state bill passed, it would remove Israel “from the community of democratic nations, and give it a place of honour instead beside those dark regimes in which minorities are persecuted”. But as human rights groups in Israel explain, Israel has long dwelt among such dark regimes. Netanyahu’s bill simply helps to shine a light on that fact.

Rauf Hamdan admitted to one small consolation as he sat in his mourning tent, nearly a week after his son was gunned down in the street by Israeli police. “At least his death was caught on camera. Otherwise the police would accuse me of lying when I said that he was executed in cold blood.”

The killing of a 22-year-old Arab youth by Israeli police has highlighted tensions that have been building rapidly between the Israeli authorities and the country’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens. Their treatment as an enemy derives from an ideological viewpoint that regards the Palestinian minority as the state’s Achilles’ heel: an opening for Palestinians in the occupied territories to undermine the state’s Jewishness.

The Israeli parliament voted overwhelmingly last week to suspend Haneen Zoabi, a legislator representing the state’s large Palestinian minority, for six months as a campaign to silence political dissent intensified. But Zoabi is not the only Palestinian representative in the firing line. The Knesset raised the threshold for election to the parliament, in what has been widely interpreted as an attempt to exclude all three small parties representing the Palestinian minority.

Israel’s effective loss of its only international airport for a couple of days last week—and the cloud of uncertainty that continues to hang over its operation in the future—has deeply unsettled Israelis. It was a warning to Israelis that, now Palestinian factions in Gaza have longer-range rockets, there is a potentially more serious, collective price to be paid for Israel’s repeated military assaults on the tiny enclave.

There are no wrecked houses, no crushed or blasted bodies in Umm al-Fahm. But Israel is waging a campaign against this town of 45,000 inhabitants and its leading son, Sheikh Raed Salah, closely related to its current assault on Gaza. Salah, leader of the northern Islamic Movement, expects Israel’s war on Hamas to come knocking at his door next.

Black, pungent smoke from burning tyres mixed with white, even more acrid plumes of tear gas to create an ugly grey smog eclipsing Nazareth’s most famous landmark, the imposing spire of the Basilica of the Annunciation. Clashes over the weekend between youths and police in Israel’s largest Palestinian city have not been seen on this scale since the outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000.

Israeli security forces entered the embattled Bedouin village of al-Araqib in the Negev to evict a handful of families who had sought sanctuary in the community’s graveyard. Bulldozers tore down an improvised mosque, caravan and several shacks that had been set up in the cemetery by 30 residents after the rest of the village had been destroyed dozens of times over the past four years.

The leaders of Israel’s large Palestinian minority are stepping up opposition to Israeli government plans to recruit Christians into the military with a specially convened congress. The move follows an announcement in April from the Israeli Defence Forces that all Christians would receive call-up papers on graduating from high school. An initial batch of 800 papers is due to be issued in the coming weeks.

Israel is preparing to shut down the most popular Islamic party among its large Palestinian minority, apparently hoping to exploit the tide of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. “Outlawing the Islamic Movement is intended to send a clear message to all Palestinians that Israel will not tolerate political Islam,” said Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University.

Some 9,000 police have been drafted in to protect the Pope during his visit to Israel, and Christian institutions are under round-the-clock protection. According to a Vatican official, Israel’s preparations have turned “the holy sites into a military base”. But Israel is loath to publicise the grounds for its concerns, because the most tangible threat comes not from Islamic extremists but Jewish fanatics linked to the settler movement.

For 66 years Israel’s founding generation has lived with a guilty secret, one it successfully concealed from the generations that followed. Forests were planted to hide war crimes. School textbooks mythologised Israel’s creation. The army was blindly venerated. But while Israeli Jews tried to enjoy guilt-free street parties last week, news reports focused on the Nakba marches held by the fifth of the population who Palestinians.

Palestinians were due to stage marches to commemorate Thursday the loss of their homeland 66 years ago – an event they call the Nakba, or “Catastrophe” – a little more than a week after Israeli Jews celebrated the anniversary of the Jewish state’s birth. But for many Israelis, it is becoming ever harder to mark their Independence Day without confronting the fact that Israel’s establishment created a new set of victims.

The Israeli government has been slowly raising the stakes to pressure Palestinian Christians to serve in the military. In April, Israel announced it would issue enlistment notices to Christians on graduating from school. The Greek Orthodox patriarch responded by sacking a Nazareth priest who has styled himself the spiritual leader of a small but vociferous group of Christians who back the government campaign.

The arrest of a journalist and several political activists in Israel over the past few weeks has provoked a troubling debate: are laws applied differently depending on whether a citizen is Jewish or not? Particularly controversial was the arrest last month of Majd Kayyal, a journalist from Israel’s Palestinian minority who was seized on his return from Lebanon and interrogated for five days without access to lawyers.

A wave of violence over the past fortnight, including attacks on two mosques and a church, has shocked Israel’s large Palestinian minority. Growing ever bolder, it seems, Israeli right-wing extremists are shifting attention to Palestinian areas inside Israel. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have accused Israeli authorities of repeatedly turning a blind eye to the attacks.

The rise in sectarian sentiment in Nazareth can be understood only in the context of a wider political climate being fomented by the Israeli government. In recent months, the right have unveiled plans to create for the first time separate Christian and Muslim national identities, and, even more controversially, Benjamin Netanyahu has personally backed a campaign to encourage Christians, but not Muslims, to serve in the Israeli army.

Emile Habiby ends up writing the quintessential character in Israeli-Palestinian literature: Saeed the Pessoptimist. This character represents the tension the Palestinian minority in Israel lives: pessimism imbued with optimism. The Jewish state is the situation you’re trapped in, that’s pessimistic; the optimism looks to the equality you think you can aspire to, despite the reality. Saeed is always trying to square the circle. This very much becomes a theme of Palestinian literature in Israel.