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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A court decision this month that rejected Israelis’ right to a shared nationality has highlighted serious problems caused by Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, say lawyers and human rights activists. Critics say the system has far-reaching effects. The citizenship laws undergird a system of systematic discrimination against the one-fifth of Israel’s population who are non-Jews – most of them belonging to Israel’s Palestinian minority.
Israel is almost certainly the only country that deceives the global community every time one of its citizens crosses an international border. It does so because the passports it issues contain a fiction. When a border official opens an Israeli passport for inspection, he or she sees the passport holder’s nationality stated as “Israeli.” And yet inside Israel, no state official, government agency or court recognizes the existence of an “Israeli” national.
Israel’s right-wing government and its supporters stand accused of stoking an atmosphere of increasing intimidation and intolerance in schools and among groups working for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The government has also come under particular fire for its efforts to police the school curriculum to remove references to the Nakba and play down the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population.
The Holy Land may be the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the three Abrahamic faiths that share much in common – but Israel has preferred to draw on a tradition that imagines the region in terms of a clash of civilisations. This is the context for understanding the announcement this month of a “forum” between the government and Israel’s Christian Palestinians designed to push them into serving in the Israeli military.
Should talks ever lead to a deal on Palestinian statehood, Israel would wake up the next morning to an intensified campaign for equal rights from the Palestinian minority. In such circumstances, Israel will not be able to plead “security” to justify continuing systematic discrimination. Recognition of Israel’s Jewishness pulls the rug from under the minority’s equality campaign. If you don’t want to live in a Jewish state, Netanyahu will tell Palestinian citizens, go live in Palestine.
Leaders of Israel’s Palestinian minority have accused the Israeli authorities of intensifying efforts to push Christian and Muslim communities into conflict, as part of a long-running divide-and-rule strategy towards the country’s Palestinian citizens. The allegations have been prompted by a series of initiatives to pressure Christian school-leavers into the army, breaking the community’s blanket rejection of the Israeli army draft for the past 65 years.