Al-Ahram Weekly – 15 July 2004
Ethnic exclusivity and democracy are impossible bed-fellows. In the second of a two-part article on Israel’s constitution in the making, Jonathan Cook examines further the reality behind the myth of Israeli democracy
Religion: In principle there is protection of religious rights, such as the freedom of religious practice and worship. But in reality Israel has devised a partial theocracy in which large areas of the citizens’ private dealings with the state fall exclusively under the control of religious authorities. So there is no option of a civil marriage within Israel, nor are inter-faith marriages possible. The religious authorities — Jewish, Christian and Muslim — have sole authority over issuing birth, marriage and death certificates. The Interior Ministry refuses to classify citizens on their ID cards in any terms other than ones that reveal their ethnic and religious identities. Even the adoption law of 1981 provides that a child can only be adopted by people of the same religion. The outcome, if not the purpose, of all these measures has been to reinforce the ghettoisation of the weaker, non-Jewish religions.
As an avowedly Jewish state, official funding is overwhelmingly targeted at Jewish religious institutions: throughout the 1990s the Palestinian minority received approximately two per cent of the Religious Affairs Ministry’s budget. Adalah, the legal centre for the Arab minority, has tried to challenge these discriminatory practices with some success. In 2000 the High Court backed a petition against the Religious Affairs Ministry’s allocation of its entire cemeteries budget to the Jewish sector. Enforcement, however, has been far less successful.
The antiquities authority directs most of its energies at excavating and preserving ancient Jewish sites. It has been assisted in this by another legal relic of the British mandate era, a regulation that restricts classification as an antiquity to artefacts produced before 1700. This measure excludes many historic Muslim and Christian sites from protection. Although in principle there is no interference in observance of Muslim and Christian holy days and festivities, in practice the Israeli economy is geared up to recognising only Jewish rest days: many Palestinian citizens, for example, have great difficulty taking time off work on Fridays or Sundays, or during Ramadan.
The Declaration of Independence states that Israel will “safeguard the Holy Places of all religions”. In fact, according to a forthcoming report by the Human Rights Association in Nazareth, almost all of the Muslim and Christian holy places that existed in Israel before 1948 have been destroyed, fenced off, locked up or converted for the use of Jewish communities. In the Jewish artists’ colony of Ein Hod near Haifa, the mosque is now a restaurant, while many kibbutz and moshav farm collectives use confiscated churches and mosques as animal pens. Similarly, graveyards attached to Palestinian villages that were destroyed in or after 1948 are almost always off- limits, even when the surviving refugee families live nearby. The courts have done almost nothing to protect Christian and Muslim holy places when these policies have been challenged in the courts.
Religious practice is also made virtually impossible by Israeli planning laws for one in 10 Palestinian citizens who have been administratively criminalised and live in “unrecognised” locales, even though most of these communities pre-existed the establishment of the state. These citizens have no rights to build places of worship. In February 2003 when the Bedouin of the unrecognised village of Tel Al-Mileh built a mosque with their own money after years of being denied a permit, the government demolished it.
Demography: In September 2002 the government re-established a unit inside the Labour and Social Welfare Ministry called the Public Council for Demography, after its closure four years earlier. The council’s main task is to ensure the “preservation of the Jewish character of Israel” and oversee the work of the ministry’s Demography Centre. Staffed by academics, gynaecologists and lawyers, the council is charged with devising state policies for increasing the Jewish birth rate, and implicitly “disincentivising” large Arab families. As part of this, the government has been trying to tie child allowances and other state benefits to military service, from which most Palestinian citizens are excluded.
The demographic problem is seen by Israeli politicians as existing on two planes: a local and a national one. At the local level, the state has worked tirelessly since its establishment to ensure that Palestinian citizens do not gain a numerical advantage over Jews in any geographical location. Because there are two Arab heartlands — in the Galilee in the north and in the Negev in the south — this policy has required strong state interference in these two areas’ development. Both the Galilee and Negev have been and continue to be subject to a policy of “Judaisation”: encouraging Jews, often poor immigrants, to move into towns and settlements built on confiscated Arab land through a system of government grants, preferential mortgages and tax breaks. Arab communities do not receive these benefits.
At the national level, a consensus has developed that the state made a historic misjudgement in allowing 150,000 Palestinians to remain on their land in 1948, thereby leaving modern Israel with what is often referred to as “an existential crisis” — meaning the state cannot exist as a Jewish state if there are too many Arabs living in it. Scholars point out that within a decade Palestinians inside both the occupied territories and Israel will outnumber Jews in what was once Palestine. This view has even become fashionable on the left: revisionist historian Benny Morris has criticised the first Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion for not committing graver war crimes to clear the land of all non-Jews.
But the debate is not just a historical or academic one. In May former Transport Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for the expulsion of the “Arabs of Israel” on Army Radio. It was not the first time he, and other ministers, had made such racist remarks. At the influential Herzliya conference in December 2003 Dr Yitzhak Ravid, a senior researcher at the government’s Armaments Authority, demanded that Israel “implement a stringent policy of family planning in relation to its Muslim population”. Demographic warnings were also issued from the very top, including a speech at the same conference by Benyamin Netanyahu, who is the treasury minister and is expected to become the next prime minister. He observed: “If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens.” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly launched, apparently as a trial balloon, the idea of transferring the Arab-dominated area known as the Little Triangle, next to the Green Line, into the West Bank along with its 100,000 Palestinian citizens. He has not mentioned the need for their consent.
Citizenship: In 1950 David Ben Gurion said the citizenship law and the law of return would together “constitute the Bill of Rights, the Charter, guaranteed to all Jews in the diaspora by the state of Israel”. In fact, these two laws– entitling Jews anywhere in the world to claim the right to immigrate to Israel and then receive citizenship — form the backbone of a legal system of citizenship discrimination. Under the two laws, the indigenous population, the Palestinians, are conferred either non- citizenship — the refugees in exile — or second-class citizenship –Palestinian citizens. These classifications are immutable as no Palestinian immigration — as opposed to Jewish immigration — is allowed. The one exception to this rule were Palestinians who gained Israeli citizenship on marrying an Israeli citizen. Last summer, however, that loophole was closed by the Knesset. It passed an amendment to the citizenship law banning family reunification in one case only: marriages between Israelis and Palestinians. All other examples of family reunification were unaffected. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the law as blatantly racist.
Nationality: Related to the question of Israeli citizenship — a territorial issue — is the question of nationality — an identity issue. Israel has never assigned an “Israeli” nationality to its citizens. This is because it refuses to recognise Israel as a nation apart from the Jewish nation. In 1970 the Supreme Court backed the government in ruling that there was no such thing as Israeli nationality. Instead the Interior Ministry assigns its citizens one of 137 possible statuses: from Jew, Georgian, Russian and Hebrew through to Arab, Druze, Abkhazi, Assyrian and Samaritan.
Each citizen’s assigned nationality — and their presumed security threat –is immediately revealed to the authorities on his or her identity card either as a “ethnic label” or as code number.
Land: Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the authorities have been working relentlessly to transfer as much private Arab land as possible to state, and therefore Jewish, control. In 1948 the Jewish community controlled just six per cent of the land, whereas today 93 per cent is under the control either of a government body known as the Israel Lands Authority or of quasi- governmental Zionist bodies such as the Jewish Agency or the Jewish National Fund. This transformation has been effected through the wholesale confiscation of private Palestinian-owned lands by the state, either from the refugees of the 1948 War through legislation known as the absentee properties law or from Palestinian citizens through the ongoing expropriation of their lands for military zones, conservation areas or Jewish immigration. Today Palestinian communities own only three per cent of the land and control even less — for much of their land falls under the planning authority of obstructive Jewish regional councils.
The land control mechanisms perpetuate a legally enforced system of territorial separation, or apartheid. The attempt by an exclusive Jewish community called Katzir to block the application for residency by an Arab family called the Qaadans has been a test case for the past nine years. Although the courts reluctantly backed the Qaadans’ claim in 2000, no enforcement of the ruling was ever made. In May the Israel Lands Authority, facing yet another court hearing, finally allotted the Qaadans a plot of land in Katzir to avert the threat of another ruling against them. However, the case produced no legal precedent: the courts have not addressed the question of whether the main exclusion mechanism, these communities’ vetting committees, are legal. The ethnic stranglehold on selection in these hundreds of exclusive Jewish communities has yet to be broken. The next Arab family that wants to cross the ethnic divide in Israel will have to launch the same costly and time- consuming legal battle as the Qaadans.
Palestinian citizens also have almost no involvement in the hierarchy of state planning committees. These committees designate land and resources for future development. Dozens of Arab communities, most pre-existing the state, are officially declared illegal — they are termed “unrecognised villages” — and have no building or planning rights at all. Even in legal Arab communities building permits are usually difficult to obtain. A recent government report found more than 30,000 illegal structures in the Negev alone. Last year more than 500 Arab homes were demolished in Israel and East Jerusalem.
Economy: A report by the Adva centre for equality in Tel Aviv showed last year that the worst 36 blackspots for unemployment in Israel were all Arab communities. Although the national jobless rate hovers around 10 per cent, many Palestinian communities suffer official unemployment in the mid to high 20 per cent, and this is after the figures are skewed to bring down Arab joblessness. Palestinian citizens have little protection from overt discrimination at work. It was recently revealed that Arab labourers working on an extension of the Knesset building in Jerusalem were being made to wear hard-hats marked with a painted red cross to distinguish them from non-Arab workers and to help snipers track their movements. There have been innumerable examples of workers being sacked for using Arabic at work. A website called “Hebrew Work” which lists businesses that refuse to employ Arabs has not been closed down, despite complaints from Mossawa to the police and Labour Ministry.
Large swaths of the Israeli economy are officially off limits to the Palestinian minority on the pretext that the work is security related. This not only covers the main defence industries such as the Rafael Armaments Authority, the nuclear reactor, the secret nuclear weapons factory and the Israeli Aircrafts Industry, but most government corporations such as Bezeq, the telecoms company, which employs only a handful of Palestinian citizens out of a workforce of some 10,000. In an interview in Haaretz in May, Nachman Tal, a former deputy director of the Shin Bet, said such state discrimination was rife. “I recently checked and found that out of the 13,000 permanent employees in the Israel Electric Corporation, only six are Arabs.”
In another incident in May the governor of the Bank of Israel, David Klein, admitted that there was not one Arab among his staff of 800. In its 50-year-long history, the bank has employed only two Arabs, and they oversaw the bank’s operation in the occupied Palestinian territories. Both were dismissed when the territories were handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 1994.
The civil service is the largest employer in the country and by law must offer equal employment opportunities. Recent laws, including one introduced by Azmi Bishara, require affirmative action for Palestinian citizens in the civil service and on the boards of government companies. According to figures released by the Civil Service Commission in May, however, only five per cent of the country’s 55,000 civil servants were Arab. In fact, the situation is deteriorating: of the 4,500 civil servants recruited in 2003, only four per cent were Arab. Many ministries have no Arab representation at all, including the Water Commission and the Communications Ministry. In the powerful ministries such as those for finance and foreign affairs, the number of Arabs employed was in single figures. Most Arab civil servants work in the Health Ministry — where 57 per cent of them are employed — or in education. This is because Arabic-speaking staff are needed to administer health clinics and schools in the Arab sector.
According to human rights groups the situation is even worse than it appears. The figures for Arab workers include all non- Jewish groups, such as immigrants from the former Societ Union, hundreds of thousands of whom were not considered Jewish by the rabbinical authorities although they are largely integrated into Jewish society. The excuse for the lack of Arab representation cannot be lack of qualifications. Most Arab graduates cannot find work in the “Jewish” private economy, but only a third of Arab civil servants have a college degree. Another third only had a high school education. On the boards of government companies, only 31 of 641 directors were Arab — less than five per cent.
A system of “national priority areas”, which offers extra benefits to residents and businesses, is applied almost exclusively to Jewish communities — even though figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics in May showed 70 per cent of the poorest areas in Israel were Arab. Adalah has been petitioning the court to end this practice, so far without success. At the moment four small Arab villages have been given priority compared with 492 Jewish communities.
There is also no opportunity for hi-tech or investments employment in Arab areas. “The entrepreneur does not know the banker; he wasn’t in the army with him and lacks the network that exists in Jewish society,” says Naif Abu Sharqiya, a student of small businesses in the Arab sector. Instead 35 per cent of Arab male graduates end up as teachers, three times the number of Jewish graduates. Those Arabs who manage to become trained in science and technological fields usually have no choice but to work abroad or abandon their research.
Politics: From the very establishment of the state, almost all independent political activity by the Palestinian minority has been severely regulated or banned. During the 18 years of the military government, movement between towns and villages was prohibited without the permission of the military governor. Freedom of assembly was rarely possible and Arab parties were banned from publishing newspapers. Instead Palestinian citizens were offered a series of “Arab lists”, off-shoots of the main Zionist parties that had no serious platform for the minority. The one independent party that was popular with the minority, the Communist Party, which rejected the state’s Zionist agenda, has been hounded throughout the state’s history. Even as late as the 1980s the Shin Bet officially classified the party as “a danger to the state” and banned its conferences. A former senior Shin Bet official Reuven Paz said: “The Shin Bet believed then that any national organisation of Arabs would be an undesirable development.”
The first independent Arab party, Al-Ard, had a short life. It was banned in 1963 and its members jailed. Subsequently, on their election to the Knesset, representatives of all parties — including Arab ones — have been required to sign a pledge of loyalty to the state as “Jewish and democratic”. In this way, the minority’s own political representatives have been effectively neutered. None of the Arab parties has ever been allowed to join one of the coalition governments. Arab voices have been entirely absent from the decision making process — unless they are prepared to join the Zionist parties.
Worse than this, a relentless campaign to discredit and intimidate outspoken Arab politicians has been waged by the government, with almost no scrutiny from the Israeli media. A report by the Nazareth Human Rights Association in late 2002, shortly before the last election, called “Silencing Dissent” revealed that the security services had assaulted all the Arab Knesset members in that parliament, a few of them several times, at peaceful demonstrations. All but one had been hospitalised in such attacks.
As well as physical attacks, there have been legal assaults too. Azmi Bishara has been stripped of his parliamentary immunity and put on trial for speaking out against the occupation. The spiritual leader Sheikh Raed Salah has been in jail awaiting trial for the past year, originally on charges of supporting terror. It was soon clear there was no basis for the accusation, which has been scaled down to claims of financial irregularities by his Islamic Movement. Four leaders of Ibn Al-Balad, a party which seeks a one-state solution, were arrested in February and have since been held in administrative detention.