Al-Ahram Weekly – 24 October 2002
Israel is a state for only some of its citizens, says a new report investigating violations of the political rights of the “Jewish State’s” Palestinian citizens. Report co-author Jonathan Cook sums up its findings
Israel calls itself a democracy: by its own reckoning, the only one to be found in the Middle East. It is a self-description readily accepted in the West. It has fallen to critics in the Arab world and a handful of radical Israeli academics to challenge this orthodoxy, calling Israel an “ethnic democracy”, a democracy only if you are a Jew.
Azmi Bishara, a former philosophy professor and Arab member of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, has made the same point more simply, calling Israel a “tribal democracy”.
But a fifth of the population, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, cannot claim membership of the tribe. They complain that they have been excluded from participating in all governments. For years their political parties have been campaigning for reforms to transform the Jewish state into “a state of all its citizens”.
The Jewish Israeli public and the political establishment have angrily opposed such reforms, claiming they would destroy Israel as a Jewish democratic state.
However, a new report, “Silencing Dissent” by the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth seriously challenges the view that Israel can extol its virtues as a democracy while defining itself as a state for Jews.
Our research throws up disturbing facts about the operation of Israel’s parliamentary democracy.
One survey, for example, shows that in the three years of the present parliament eight of the nine MKs belonging to independent Arab parties have been regularly beaten by members of the security forces at demonstrations. Seven of the nine have had to be treated in hospital — so harsh have been the attacks.
It is a sign of how unhealthy the Israeli body politic has grown that assaults on elected public representatives, if they are Arab, pass without comment among the majority Jewish public and in the Hebrew media. In fact the general attitude prevails that there is no smoke without fire: that the Arab MKs probably provoked the violence and therefore deserved their beatings.
Even if the behaviour of the Arab MKs could be characterised in this way, it would hardly justify incidents where soldiers or policemen have used potentially lethal force against them. One policeman, for example, shot a rubber bullet at MK Azmi Bishara’s chest during a protest against house demolitions. And at a demonstration against the invasion of West Bank towns in April a soldier fired a tear gas canister at Issam Makhoul from a distance of two metres, burning his leg. At the same event a stun grenade was fired into the face of another MK, Hashem Mahameed.
These sound more like the tactics of a banana republic than the legitimate activities of a democratic state. In none of these instances did the MKs pose any threat to the security of the state or physically threaten police or soldiers.
Despite this, Israel has shown no interest in investigating these assaults on representatives elected by a significant proportion of the Israeli population.
Even in cases where the identity of the assailant is known, no action has been taken. Nothing has been done, for example, to discipline a policeman more than a year after he confessed to a judicial inquiry that he joined a mob that tried to burn down the home of Bishara in Nazareth.
The attacks contrast with the security forces’ treatment of Jewish MKs who join protests against state policies. Right- wing MKs like the former Tourism Minister Benny Elon regularly attend angry demonstrations by settlers which end in clashes with the security forces. The MKs and their supporters expect and receive “restraint” from the police and army.
This is not the only difference between treatment of Jewish and Arab MKs.
Another survey in the report reveals that a total of 25 police investigations have been opened this parliament, all against the nine Arab MKs on charges of incitement, sedition or threatening behaviour during this parliament. Many of the charges have referred to speeches made by the MKs or to visits they have made to the occupied territories.
In most instances the cases have been quietly dropped for lack of evidence or because the political motive behind the charge was overt. But the damage has been done: the Jewish public is left with the impression that the Arab MKs are plotting against their country. This is presumably why Public Security Minister Uzi Landau felt comfortable last year calling the MKs “agents of the Palestinian Authority in the Knesset”.
In some cases, however, the authorities have pushed ahead with legal proceedings. Most notably Azmi Bishara is currently involved in two protracted trials.
In two separate cases MKs Ahmed Tibi and Mohamed Barakeh have faced investigation for verbally abusing and physically threatening policemen. They avoided prosecution only after producing taped recordings of the incidents.
It is a further sign of how effective the delegitimisation of the Arab MKs has been, and the degree of racism that pervades Israeli society, that the testimony of low-ranking policemen was instantly preferred over elected Arab public officials. Although the proceedings against these MKs were dropped, it is noteworthy that no proceedings were instigated against the policemen who lied.
Again, the ethnic dimension to these investigations is revealed by a comparison with the treatment of Jewish MKs. No investigations have been opened into comments made by Jewish MKs inciting against the Palestinian minority.
Comments by Cabinet Minister Effi Eitam that the Palestinian citizens are a “cancer”, by former Tourism Minister Benny Elon that the minority should be stripped of the vote or by Michael Kleiner that Bishara should be shot have not resulted in any legal action. In fact in June the Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein, who has pursued the Arab MKs relentlessly, ruled that talk of voluntary “transfer”, encouraging Arabs to leave the state, was not racist or illegal.
The special treatment being meted out to the Arab MKs has every appearance of being designed to intimidate and silence them. In fact three new pieces of legislation passed by the Knesset this summer will do just that.
Israel’s election committee will now be able to ban any party from running that implicitly denies Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.
This means that all the Arab parties can be banned at the forthcoming election, due in November 2003. The platforms of the parties all include a key plank that Israel cannot be a democracy until it becomes a “state of all its citizens”.
Al-Ahram Weekly – 24 October 2002