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.
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.
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.
A group of Jews and Arabs are fighting in the Israeli courts to be recognised as “Israelis”, a nationality currently denied them, in a case that officials fear may threaten the country’s self-declared status as a Jewish state. Israel refused to recognise an Israeli nationality at the country’s establishment in 1948, making an unusual distinction between “citizenship” and “nationality”. Although all Israelis qualify as “citizens of Israel”, the state is defined as belonging to the “Jewish nation”, meaning not only the 5.6 million Israeli Jews but also more than seven million Jews in the diaspora.
Demands from Israel’s chief commander this month that all Israeli citizens should be required to perform national service has turned the spotlight on a rarely discussed group of soldiers: members of Israel’s Palestinian minority. Though no official statistics are available, an estimated 3,000 of Israel’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens have broken one of their society’s biggest taboos and are currently serving, often as combat troops on the front line of the conflict with their Palestinian kin, in the occupied territories.
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.
When Israel’s 18th parliament opens today, there will be only one Arab woman among its intake of legislators. Haneen Zoubi has made history: although she is not the first Arab woman to enter the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, she is the first to be elected for an Arab party. Sitting in her home in Nazareth, the effective capital of Israel’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens, she is dismissive of her predecessors, two women elected on behalf of Zionist parties.
Elias Khoury, a 33-year-old architect from the village of Ibilin in Galilee, has been a lifelong supporter of the Communist Democratic Front, the only joint Arab-Jewish party represented in the Israeli parliament. No longer. Tomorrow, when Israelis head to the polls to elect their next government, Mr Khoury – one of the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens – will be staying home rather than casting a vote. “After the attack on Gaza, I am sure there will never be two states here. It’s going to be either a Jewish state with no Arabs, or an Arab state with no Jews.”
Tzipi Livni, the woman leading the ruling Kadima party into Israel’s forthcoming elections, stoked anger in the region last week when she warned that a peace deal would put the future of the country’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens inside Israel in doubt. Speaking to a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Tel Aviv, she said: “When the Palestinian state is created, I will be able to go to Palestinian citizens, who we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them – you are residents with equal rights, but your national solution is in another place.”
The Human Rights Association with its 20-year record of exposing Israeli policies that discriminate against the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens is facing imminent closure as major funders withdraw money in what some observers believe may be a co-ordinated policy to silence Israel’s harshest “critics from within”. The association, one of the most prominent of several leading Arab rights organisations, is attracting the opposition of international charitable foundations concerned with promoting democracy in Israel, according to the HRA’s director.
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.
In a conflict that has produced more than its share of suffering and tragedy, the name of Kafr Qassem lives on in infamy more than half a century after Israeli police gunned down 47 Palestinian civilians, including women and children, in the village. This week Kafr Qassem’s inhabitants commemorated the anniversary of the deaths 52 years ago by marching to the cemetery where the victims were laid to rest. They did so as the local media published testimonies from two former senior police officers who recalled that day’s events.
Salwa Salam Qupty clutches a fading sepia photograph of a young Palestinian man wearing a traditional white headscarf. It is the sole memento that survives of her father, killed by a Jewish militia during the 1948 war that established Israel. Six decades on from his death, she has never been allowed to visit his grave in Galilee and lay a wreath for the father she never met. This month, after more than 10 years of requests to the Israeli authorities, she learnt that officials are unlikely ever to grant such a visit, even though Mrs Qupty is an Israeli citizen and lives only a few miles from the cemetery.
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.
A human rights organisation has accused the Israeli military of committing a war crime by placing military hardware, including artillery positions, inside Arab towns and villages during the war with Lebanon in July 2006. The group last week published a report claiming Arab communities were used as “human shields” by the Israeli military. The danger this posed to the Arab population was far from “theoretical”: Arab communities hit by Hezbollah’s retaliatory rockets were overwhelmingly those in which the Israeli army maintained a presence.
Coffins on Our Shoulders plots the troubled contours of Jewish-Arab relations in the Holy Land over the past century through two interweaving narratives. The first, intimate one comprises the stories of its two authors’ experiences of being Israeli – one a Jew, the other a Palestinian Arab – and the separate paths that led their ancestors, willingly and unwillingly, to their citizenship in the new state. A second, related narrative provides a series of contextualising analyses of ethnic politics in Israel.
Natan Zada had recently moved to the West Bank settlement of Tapuah, where, it was later reported, he had fallen in with the far-right Kach movement. Formally outlawed by the Israeli government, Kach expounds a virulently racist ideology demanding the removal of all non-Jews from the Land of Israel. Once his bus had arrived in Shafa ‘Amr, Zada set his M-16 on automatic and put his beliefs into practice. He killed the driver and three passengers, and wounded another 12, before being overpowered and then beaten to death by angry townspeople
For the past year, members of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee have been meeting on Sundays to draft a constitution that would, once and for all, define the nature of the state and the rights and obligations of citizenship. The task of hammering out a written constitution has confounded Israeli governments and legislators for more than five decades. Strangely, given its historic nature, the committee’s work has attracted almost no media coverage, even though—or, maybe, precisely because—it threatens to reopen wounds that have not fully healed since the Jewish state’s blood-stained birth in 1948.