Strangers in their own land
Has racism become a new acceptable trend in Israel? Such fears intensified among Arab Israelis as, on Election Day, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged Jewish voters to go to the polls to counter “Arabs voting in droves”.
The campaigning Israeli prime minister had, a few days earlier, confirmed there would not be any Palestinian state under his watch, a highly sensitive issue among Arab Israelis who are after all Palestinians, the descendents of those who remained on their land in 1948.
Arab Israeli Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi did not mince words when he told The Arab Weekly that “racism in Israel has raised its head and is becoming a central trend”.
Tibi noted that the Arab parties’ Joint List won 13 seats in the Knesset but “the landslide victory of the right is making it very difficult and challenges are bigger”, adding that Arab Israelis will be faced with a tough job in “confronting the spread of racism” against them.
One looming challenge might be a controversial Jewish Nation state bill approved a few months ago by the outgoing Netanyahu cabinet. This law, if adopted, would enshrine long-established discrimination against Israeli Arabs in Israel’s basic law, which is the country’s de facto constitution. The draft law was put aside ahead of the March 17th general elections.
Should Netanyahu’s next government decide to submit the law again, it will pass, considering the makeup of the new Israeli parliament. Israeli Arabs — about 1.7 million people in Israel’s overall population of 8 million — will then be formally deprived of any national rights.
The new basic law would assert that the right to express national determination within the state of Israel is exclusively reserved to the Jewish people. The “Jewishness” of the state will take precedence over its “democratic” character. The Israeli prime minister went as far a few months ago as to clarify that only Jews will have the right to a flag and an anthem. He added that only Jews will have the right to immigrate to the country.
As for the Arab Israelis who are being accused of “creating a state within a state,” they will have individual rights and will be treated “equally” — whatever that means.
Israeli Arabs are no strangers to the land once called Palestine. They are the Palestinians who struggled to stay on their land when Israel was established in 1948 while hundreds of thousands of others were forcibly expelled from their homes and sought refuge in the West Bank and Gaza or in neighbouring countries.
The Palestinian Arabs of Israel and their descendents are a national non-immigrant minority living in their historical homeland. They became — because of massive Jewish immigration — an involuntary minority. The majority of them (82%) is Muslim, 9.5% are Christian and 8.5% Druze.
In theory, Israel’s Declaration of Independence gave equal rights to the country’s minorities, including Israeli Arabs, but in practice it has been quite different.
Arab Israelis, though granted Israeli citizenship, lived until 1966 under military administration. Most of their lands were expropriated by the state “for development reasons” and, to this day.
The Jewish National Fund, a quasi-state body, wields decisive influence over land policies in the country and is widely reported to discriminate against Arabs. Apart from Bedouin townships, no new Arab village, town or city has been built while 600 Jewish municipalities have been established since 1948. The lack of access to land prevents Arab communities from expanding and from raising their revenues.
Discrimination is particularly obvious in education, social services, infrastructure and employment opportunities. Moreover, Arab Israelis are exempt from military service and therefore cannot apply to many jobs because of the military service criterion — even when no military experience is needed. They are largely under-represented in the civil service, which is Israel’s largest employer. As a result, poverty is widespread with more than 50% of Arab families in Israel living below the poverty line.
The victory of the right in Israel’s general elections makes it very difficult for Arab Israeli members of the Knesset to confront further discriminatory policies. Arab parties carry little weight in Israeli politics.
Furthermore, they must face an internal challenge and remain unified. They ran on a joint list in the last elections for the sole purpose of circumventing the new four-seat threshold to enter the Knesset. It remains to be seen if this unity between secular, leftist or Islamist parties will last. The silver lining lies though in the high Arab Israeli turnout, which rose from 59% in 2013 to 66% in this latest election.