Israel’s Palestinian Citizens

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.

Salah Sawaid remembers when this huddle of shacks was surrounded by open fields. Today, his views from the grassy uplands of the central Galilee are blocked on all sides by luxury apartments – a new neighbourhood of the ever-expanding city of Karmiel in northern Israel. “We are being choked to death,” said Sawaid, Ramya’s village leader. “They are building on top of us as though we don’t exist. Are we invisible to them?”

Israel and the United States now appear to regard the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state as the key obstacle to a peace agreement. Suddenly it has become the cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy. But this demand made its debut only in 2007 – 14 years after the Oslo accords originally laid down the path that was supposed to lead to Palestinian statehood. So what is at stake for both sides on the recognition issue?

Mounting efforts by Israel to divide its large Palestinian minority along sectarian lines have heightened fears that the Biblical city of Nazareth may be about to return to the scenes of violent clashes witnessed 15 years ago. Netanyahu is playing a very dangerous game, seeking to inflame tensions so that he can pit Christians against Muslims and weaken us as a community,” said Hanna Swaid, a Christian Knesset member.

The last thing Israeli leaders want is for Jewish and Palestinian citizens to develop shared interests, forge friendships and act in solidarity. That would start to erode the rationale for a Jewish state, especially one premised on the supposed need of the Jews to defend themselves from a hostile world – Israel’s self-image as “the villa in the jungle”. A Jewish state’s future precisely depends on the anti-Arab stereotypes inculcated in young Israeli minds.

Israel has unveiled an ambitious plan to build in Nazareth the first Israeli branch of an American university. But despite the economic benefits, Nazareth officials are concerned. Not least they fear the new campus will be used to drive a wedge further between Palestinian Christians and Muslims; stymie efforts by Palestinians in Israel to win educational autonomy; and strike a powerful blow against mounting pressure from the international movement for an academic and cultural boycott.

In what was billed as a “day of rage”, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets to protest against a plan to uproot tens of thousands of Bedouin from their ancestral lands inside Israel, in the Negev. The stakes are high, not least because Israel views this battle as a continuation of the 1948 war that established a Jewish state on the ruins of Palestine. The roots of the so-called Prawer Plan can be traced to one of Zionism’s earliest and most sinister principles: “Judaisation”.

When people call Israel an apartheid state, they are referring to the crime of apartheid as defined in international law. So what color the victims of apartheid are, what proportion of the population they constitute, whether the economy depends on their productive labor, whether the early Zionists were socialists, whether the Palestinians have a Nelson Mandela, and so on have precisely zero relevance to determining whether Israel is an apartheid state.

In some parts of Israel, voters in Tuesday’s elections will be casting a ballot not on how well their municipality is run but on how to stop “Arabs” moving in next door, how to prevent mosques being built in their community, or how to “save” Jewish women from the clutches of Arab men. According to analysts and residents, Israel’s local elections have brought a tide of ugly racism to the fore, especially in a handful of communities known as “mixed cities”, where Jewish and Palestinian citizens live in close proximity.

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