Land Issues

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?”

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”.

Welcome to Nazareth

3 August 2012

Nazareth found itself transformed twice-over by the 1948 war. A town of 13,000 more than doubled in size over the course of a few months as 15,000 refugees from nearby villages poured in seeking sanctuary from the Israeli army. And, with other cities vanquished inside the new state of Israel, Nazareth unexpectedly found itself the only urban Palestinian space to have survived. Swollen with refugees and in a position to become the political and cultural capital of the Palestinians inside Israel, the city attracted the sustained attention of Israel’s military and political leadership.

Little more than a decade ago, in a brief interlude of heady optimism about the prospects of regional peace, the Israeli Supreme Court issued two landmark rulings that, it was widely assumed, heralded the advent of a new, post-Zionist era for Israel. But with two more watershed judgments handed down over the winter of 2011-2012 the same court has decisively reversed the tide.

Over the past 15 months the dusty plains of the northern Negev desert in Israel have been witness to a ritual of destruction, part of a police operation known as Hot Wind. On 29 occasions, hundreds of Israeli paramilitary officers have made the pilgrimage to the zinc sheds and hemp tents of al-‘Araqib. Within hours of their arrival, the 45 ramshackle structures — home to some 300 Bedouin villagers — are pulled down and al-‘Araqib is wiped off the map once again.

A towering concrete wall looms over the main street of what was once a flourishing market in the northern Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiya, or Western Baqa. The 8-metre high barrier separates them from the West Bank and their former twin, Eastern Baqa. Western Baqa’s 22,000 Arab residents say they are opposed to living in the shadow of a wall that separates brothers from sisters and children from their parents. But they were equally unhappy to learn this week that, as part of peace negotiations with the Palestinians three years ago, Israel secretly proposed redrawing the borders to strip them and potentially tens of thousands of other Israeli Arabs of their citizenship.

The pretty two-storey home with a red-tiled roof built by Adel and Iman Kaadan looks no different from the rows of other houses in Katzir, a small hilltop community in northern Israel close to the West Bank. But, unlike the other residents of Katzir, the Kaadans moved into their dream home this month only after a 12-year battle through the Israeli courts. The small victory for the Kaadans, who belong to Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority, dealt a big blow to a state policy that for decades has reserved most of the country’s land for Jews.

Jews must not rent homes to “gentiles”. That was the religious decree issued this week by at least 50 of Israel’s leading rabbis, many of them employed by the state as municipal religious leaders. Jews should first warn, then “ostracise” fellow Jews who fail to heed the directive, the rabbis declared. The decree is the latest in a wave of racist pronouncements from some of Israel’s most influential rabbis.

Israeli security forces destroyed a Bedouin village this week for the second time in a matter of days, leaving 300 inhabitants homeless again after they and dozens of Jewish and Arab volunteers had begun rebuilding the 45 homes. Human rights groups warned that these appeared to be the opening shots in a long-threatened campaign by the Israeli government to begin mass forced removals of tens of thousands of Bedouin from their ancestral lands in the southern Negev.

Israel’s apologists are very exercised about the idea that Israel has been singled out for special scrutiny and criticism. I wish to argue, however, that in most discussions of Israel it actually gets off extremely lightly: that many features of the Israeli polity would be considered exceptional or extraordinary in any other democratic state. That is not surprising because, as I will argue, Israel is neither a liberal democracy nor even a “Jewish and democratic state”, as its supporters claim. It is an apartheid state, not only in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, but also inside Israel proper.

The Zakai and Tarabin families should be a picture of happy coexistence across the ethnic divide, a model for others to emulate in Israel. But Natalie and Weisman Zakai say the past three years – since the Jewish couple offered to rent their home to Bedouin friends, Ahmed and Khalas Tarabin – have been a living hell. “I have always loved Israel,” said Mrs Zakai, 43. “But to see the depth of the racism of our neighbours has made me question why we live in this country.”

Over the past few days graffiti scrawled on walls around the mixed Jewish and Arab town of Jaffa in central Israel exclaims: “Settlers, keep out” and “Jaffa is not Hebron”. Although Jaffa is only a stone’s throw from the bustling coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv, Arab residents say their neighbourhood has become the unlikely battleground for an attempted takeover by extremist Jews more familiar from West Bank settlements.

The inhabitants of the Bedouin village of Amra have good reason to fear that the harsh tactics used by the Israeli army against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have been imported to their small corner of Israel’s Negev desert. Over the summer, the Tarabin tribe, all of them Israeli citizens, have had the sole access road to their homes sealed off. Coils of razor wire encircle much of the village, and children as young as eight have been arrested in a series of night-time raids.

Despite the loss of their village, the 4,500 Palestinian refugees from Saffuriya and their descendants have clung to one hope: that the Jewish newcomers could not buy their land, only lease it temporarily from the state. According to international law, Israel holds the property of more than four million Palestinian refugees in custodianship, until a final peace deal determines whether they will be allowed back or compensated for their loss. But last week, Benjamin Netanyahu, forced through a revolutionary land reform.

Israel’s housing minister called for strict segregation between the country’s Jewish and Arab populations last week as he unveiled plans to move large numbers of fundamentalist religious Jews to Israel’s north to prevent what he described as an “Arab takeover” of the region. Ariel Atias said he considered it a “national mission” to bring ultra-Orthodox Jews – or Haredim, distinctive for their formal black and white clothing – into Arab areas, and announced that he would also create the north’s first exclusively Haredi town.

A community in northern Israel has changed its bylaws to demand that new residents pledge support for “Zionism, Jewish heritage and settlement of the land” in a thinly veiled attempt to block Arab applicants from gaining admission. Critics are calling the bylaw, adopted by Manof, home to 170 Jewish families in Galilee, a local “loyalty oath” similar to a national scheme recently proposed by the far-Right party of the government minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Palestinians across the Middle East were due to commemorate Land Day today, marking the anniversary of clashes in 1976 in which six unarmed Palestinians were shot dead by the Israeli army as it tried to break up a general strike. Although Land Day is one of the most important anniversaries in the Palestinian calendar, sometimes referred to as the Palestinians’ national day, the historical event it marks is little spoken of and rarely studied.

Among the images of Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebrations to be found on the internet is a photograph of CNN reporter Ben Wedeman being kicked firmly on the behind as he tries to run from the boot of an armed policeman. All around him, as other photographs reveal, journalists are fleeing for safety, families are being charged by mounted police, and parents can be seen grabbing toddlers as clouds of tear gas engulf them. The stragglers are shown with bloodied faces after a beating with police batons.

The ground floor of Zaki Khimayl’s home is a cafe where patrons can drink mint tea or fresh juice as they smoke on a water pipe. Located by Jaffa’s beach, a stone’s throw from Tel Aviv, the business should be thriving. Mr Khimayl, however, like hundreds of other families in the Arab neighbourhoods of Ajami and Jabaliya, is up to his eyes in debt and trapped in a world of bureaucratic regulations apparently designed with only one end in mind: his eviction from Jaffa.

Israel’s parliament last week approved by an overwhelming majority the first reading of a bill to ensure that much of the country’s inhabited land remains accessible to Jewish citizens only — a move described by one leading local newspaper as turning Israel into a “racist Jewish state”. The private member’s bill, called the Jewish National Fund Law, has received cross-party support.