Region – 14 – 20 December 2006
Issue No. 824
The official political leadership of Israel’s more than one million Palestinian citizens issued a manifesto in Nazareth last week demanding a raft of changes to end the systematic discrimination exercised against non-Jews by the state since its creation nearly six decades ago.
Included in the manifesto — the first ever produced by the community’s supreme political body, known as the High Follow-Up Committee — are calls for Israel to be reformed from a Jewish state that privileges its Jewish majority into “a state of all its citizens” and for sweeping changes to a national system of land control designed to exclude Palestinian citizens from influence.
The document is likely to further increase tensions between the Israeli government and the country’s Palestinian minority, and has already been roundly condemned in the Hebrew media.
Although individual Arab political parties have made similar criticisms of the state before, it is the first time in its history that the High Follow-Up Committee — a cautious and conservative body, mainly comprising the heads of Arab local authorities — has dared to speak out. The committee is seen as setting the consensus for Israel’s one in five citizens who are Palestinian.
The most contentious issue raised in the document, called “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel”, is Israel’s status as a Jewish state. The authors — leading academics and community activists — argue that Israel is not a democracy but an “ethnocracy” similar to Turkey, Sri Lanka and the Baltic states.
Instead, says the manifesto, Israel must become a “consensual democracy” enabling Palestinian citizens “to be fully active in the decision-making process and guarantee our individual and collective civil, historic and national rights.”
An editorial in Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper denounced the document as “undermining the Jewish character of the state” and argued that it was likely its publication would “actually weaken the standing of Arabs in Israel instead of strengthening it”.
The campaign among Israel’s Arab parties for a state of all its citizens began in the mid-1990s after it was widely understood that under the terms of the Oslo Accords Israel’s Palestinian population would remain citizens of the State of Israel. Until then the minority had kept largely out of the debate about its future, fearing that expressing a view would prejudice negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership.
The demand for a state of all its citizens has wide backing among the Palestinian minority: a recent survey by the Mada Al-Carmel Centre revealed that 90 per cent believed a Jewish state could not guarantee them equality, and 61 per cent objected to Israel’s self-definition.
However, Israeli prime ministers, including Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, have always characterised the call for a state of all its citizens as tantamount to sedition. In a speech last week, Avigdor Lieberman, the new minister of strategic threats, repeated a similar line, telling policy-makers in Washington: “he who is not ready to recognise Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state cannot be a citizen in the country.”
As well as highlighting the various spheres of life in which Palestinian citizens are discriminated against, the manifesto makes several key demands that are certain to fall on stony ground.
The High Follow-Up Committee argues that the Palestinian minority must be given “institutional self-rule in the field of education, culture and religion”. Israeli officials have always refused to countenance such forms of autonomy. Instead, the separate and grossly under-funded Arab education system is overseen by Jewish officials; the status of the Arabic language is at an all-time low; and the government regularly interferes in the appointment of Muslim and Christian clerics, as well as controlling the running of their places of worship and providing almost no budget for non-Jewish religious services.
The manifesto also demands that Israel “acknowledge responsibility for the Palestinian Nakba ” — the catastrophic dispossession of the Palestinian people during Israel’s establishment in 1948 — and “consider paying compensation for its Palestinian citizens”.
As many as one in four Palestinian citizens are internal refugees from the war, and referred to as “present absentees” by the Israeli authorities. They were stripped of their homes, possessions and bank accounts inside Israel, even though they remained citizens. Most homes were either later destroyed by the army or reallocated to Jewish citizens.
An internal government memorandum leaked several years ago showed that most of the internal refugees’ money, supposedly held in trust by a state official known as the Custodian of Absentee Property, had disappeared and could no longer be traced.
Another controversial demand is for a radical overhaul of the system of land policy and planning in Israel, described in the manifesto as “the most sensitive issue” between Palestinian citizens and their state. Israel has nationalised 93 per cent of the territory inside its vague borders, holding it in trust not for its citizens but for the Jewish people worldwide. The land can be leased, but usually only to Jews.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens, on the other hand, are restricted to about three per cent of the land, although they do not control much of the area nominally in their possession. Gerrymandering of municipal boundaries means that Arab local authorities have been stripped of jurisdiction over half of their areas, which have been effectively handed over to Jewish regional councils.
The manifesto calls for an end to other discriminatory land practices: the exclusion of Palestinian citizens from planning committees; the refusal of such committees to issue house- building permits to Palestinian citizens; the enforcement of house demolitions only against Palestinian citizens; and the continuing harmful interference by international Zionist organisations, particularly the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund, in Israel’s land and planning system.
The chairman of the High Follow-Up Committee, Shawki Khatib, said: “We’ve already seen the reality of which the Arab public says to the Jewish public, ‘I want to live together, and I really mean it’, but the Jewish public has still not reached the same conclusion. This document is a preliminary spark. Its importance is not in its publishing, but in what happens after it.”
The High Follow-Up Committee was established in 1982, in the wake of Land Day in 1976 when six unarmed Palestinian citizens were shot dead by Israeli security forces during demonstrations against a wave of land confiscations by the state to advance its official goal of “Judaising” the Galilee.
The Follow-Up Committee has lost much of its status over the past decade, widely seen as too unwieldy a body to represent the Palestinian minority’s needs effectively. Members, drawn from the heads of local authorities and major Israeli Arab organisations and parties, do not have to submit to direct election and reach their decisions through consensus, which has often paralysed the committee into inaction. The manifesto is viewed as an attempt to reassert the committee’s authority.
In recent years Arab political factions have called for direct elections to the Follow-Up Committee, but the Israeli government has intimated that it would consider an Arab “parliament” as an attempt at secession and react harshly.
In a related development, the Mossawa advocacy centre presented a position paper at a conference in Nazareth this month, arguing that internal refugees should be allowed to return to villages that existed before 1948. “The move by refugees of 1948 to their villages will not change the demographic balance or endanger the Jews,” said Jafar Farah, head of Mossawa. “Unlike the [Palestinian] refugees in Arab states, we are [already] here.”