International Herald Tribune – 29 October 2002
Israel calls itself the only democracy in the Middle East, a description readily accepted in the West. Only critics in the Arab world and a handful of radical Israeli academics have challenged this orthodoxy, observing that the country is really a democracy only if you are a Jew.
Azmi Bishara, a former philosophy professor and now an Arab member of the Knesset, calls Israel a “tribal democracy.” Not included in the tribe, he says, are the country’s million Arab citizens, a fifth of the population. Although they have the vote, they have long complained that they are excluded from participation in the government. Since the mid-1990s they have campaigned for the Jewish state to become a state of all its citizens. The Jewish Israeli public and political establishment angrily oppose such reforms, claiming that they would destroy Israel as a Jewish democratic state.
However, a new report, “Silencing Dissent,” commissioned by Israel’s Arab Association for Human Rights, 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 that are little appreciated outside Israel. One survey shows that in the three years of the present Parliament eight of the nine legislators belonging to independent Arab parties have been beaten by members of the security forces at demonstrations. Seven of the nine have had to be hospitalized after attacks.
It is a sign of how unhealthy the Israeli body politic has grown that assaults on elected representatives, if they are Arab, pass without comment among the majority Jewish public and in the Hebrew media. The attitude prevails that there is no smoke without fire – that the Arab members of Parliament probably provoked the violence and deserved their beatings.
Even if the behavior of the Arab legislators could be characterized in this way, it would hardly justify incidents in which soldiers or policemen have used potentially lethal force against them. One policeman shot a rubber bullet at Azmi Bishara’s chest during a protest against house demolitions. 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 legislators pose any threat to the security of the state or threaten police or soldiers.
Israel has shown no interest in investigating these assaults. Even in cases where the identity of the assailant is known, no action is 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 Azmi Bishara.
The attacks contrast with the security forces’ treatment of Jewish members of Parliament. Rightist legislators like the former tourism minister Benny Elon regularly attend angry demonstrations by settlers which end in clashes. The legislators and their supporters expect and receive restraint from the police and army.
Another survey in the report reveals that all nine of the Arab members have faced police investigations on charges of incitement, sedition or threatening behavior during this Parliament. Most have been investigated several times. The charges invariably refer to speeches or to trips 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 too overt. But the damage has been done. The public is left with the impression that the Arab legislators are plotting against their country. This is presumably why the public security minister, Uzi Landau, felt comfortable last year calling the Arab legislators “agents of the Palestinian Authority in the Knesset.”
In some cases, the authorities have pushed ahead with legal proceedings. Most notably, Azmi Bishara is currently involved in a protracted trial about free speech.
In two other cases, Ahmed Tibi and Mohammed Barakeh have faced investigation for verbally abusing and physically threatening policemen. They avoided prosecution only after producing taped recordings of the incidents confirming their accounts. It is a sign of how effective the delegitimization of the Arab members of the Knesset has been that the testimony of low-ranking policemen was instantly preferred over elected Arab legislators.
The ethnic dimension to these investigatons is revealed by a comparison with the treatment of Jewish legislators. No investigations have been opened into comments made by Jewish members of Parliament inciting against the Palestinan minority, including Effi Eitam, a cabinet minister who called Palestinian citizens of Israel a “cancer.”
The special treatment meted out to the Arab legislators has every appearance of being designed to intimidate and silence them. In fact, new pieces of legislation passed by the Knesset this past summer will do just that. Israel’s election committee will now be able to ban any party from running which implicitly denies that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.
The writer is co-author of “Silencing Dissent,” a report into violations of the political rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel. The report is available at www.arabhra.org.