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?”

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.