West Asia

Legalising racism

Print edition : August 31, 2018

Arab lawmakers protest in the Knesset on July 19. Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/AP

Palestinians burn portraits of U.S. President Donald Trump during a demonstration in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 2 against the U.S. policy supporting Israel. The sign in Arabic reads: “Palestine is not for sale, No to the shameful deal of the century.” Photo: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

Israel’s Nation-State Law draws widespread condemnation as it reduces Palestinians and other minorities to second-class citizens and gives the state a constitutional basis to claim Palestinian land.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a Bill into law on July 19 that completely swept away the notion that the country was the only democracy in the region that gave equal rights to all its citizens. The controversial law declares Israel as the “national homeland” of all Jews, irrespective of their nationality, and makes the assertion that “the realisation to the right of national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people”. It was enacted after the Bill was passed narrowly after an acrimonious debate, with 62 members voting in favour and 55 opposing it.

The current Israeli parliament is the most right-wing in the history of the country. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu depends on the support of right-wing and ultra-orthodox Jewish parties for his political survival.

It has always been the right-wing Prime Minister’s cherished dream to turn Israel into a Jewish state, with Palestinians and other minorities reduced to the status of second-class citizens. The next logical step would be to start expelling them. A few days before the law was enacted, the right-wing majority in parliament also empowered Israel’s Education Minister to ban those critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories from speaking in educational institutions.

In the same week, the Knesset prohibited Palestinians from appealing to the Supreme Court against land disputes in the West Bank arising out of Israel’s occupation policies.

Speaking immediately after the Nation-State Law Bill was passed, Netanyahu waxed eloquent about “the defining moment” the country had witnessed. He continued to insist that Israel was the only democracy in the region and the only state in the region that respected human rights. Thousands of Israelis marched in protest on the streets of Tel Aviv to express their anger at the passage of the law, which states that a “united Jerusalem” is the capital of the Jewish state and that Hebrew would be the only official language. Arabic has been enjoying the status of an official language until now.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the vote on the Nation-State Law Bill on July 18.   -  MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/AFP

The Arab minority, comprising the original residents of the land, constitutes 21 per cent of the population. The new law also gives the go-ahead for rapid settlement building in the occupied territories by explicitly stating that “the state sees the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation”.

Even before the law was passed, Palestinians were not allowed to live in three-quarters of Israel’s urban areas. They were confined to less-developed areas lacking health, educational and housing facilities. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had warned the Netanyahu government against the legislation, saying that the law would “discredit Israel”.

Arab protest

Before the vote was taken, Arab legislators symbolically tore up the draft of the Bill and scattered the pieces on the floor of the Knesset. Arab legislators told Netanyahu to his face that he was responsible for passing “an apartheid law, a racist law”.

The “Joint List”, a coalition of Arab and other minority legislators, is the third biggest bloc in the 120-member Israeli parliament. The 13 Arab members of parliament function as a united bloc in the Knesset. Yousef Jabareen, a prominent Palestinian parliamentarian belonging to the group, had introduced a Bill in the Knesset to coincide with the vote on the Nation-State Law Bill. His Bill called for the granting of full democratic rights to all citizens of Israel regardless of their religion or race, but the Knesset did not even take it up for debate.

Jabareen said: “The Bill that I introduced called for the country to become a democracy that will guarantee complete civil and national equality to all those who live within its borders. It would have ensured that Israeli laws are based on universal values that recognise both Jewish and Arab ethnic groups. The state would have been required to invest the wealth of the land for the benefit of all its citizens, not just a privileged majority.”

The critics of the new law, which has constitutional status, include opposition lawmakers belonging to centrist and Left parties. They have said that with its passage, Israel has become an undemocratic and racist state. The de facto apartheid policies that the current government has been implementing will now be backed by the force of law. The new “basic law” that has been approved by the Israeli parliament does not have any mention of “democracy” or “the principle of equality”.

Israeli lawmakers and commentators critical of the Bill have termed it a “betrayal” of Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which had guaranteed “complete equality of social and political rights” for all its inhabitants, irrespective of their religion, race or sex.

Ahmad Tibi, an Arab parliamentarian, said that the passage of the law was the “beginning of fascism and apartheid”. Omar Barghouti of the Palestine BDS National Committee said that with the passage of the law, Israel “is effectively declaring itself an apartheid state and dropping its worn out mask of democracy”.

Barghouti claimed that Israel already had many racist laws, including some that strikingly fit the United Nation’s definition of apartheid. “From now on, it will not just be legally justifiable to discriminate against the indigenous Palestinian citizens of the state. It will be constitutionally mandated and required. This should stir people, institutions and governments to take effective action,” Barghouti said.

Dan Yakir, the chief legal counsel for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, was of the view that the law would give more special privileges, subsidies and rights to Jewish citizens. In that regard, it was a “racist” law, he said.

According to Adalah, a legal centre for minority rights in Israel, the law “entrenches the privileges enjoyed by Jewish citizens, while simultaneously anchoring discrimination against Palestinian citizens and legitimising exclusion, racism and systemic inequality”. Adalah said that there are already 65 Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinians. More than half of these were promulgated after 2000. A Basic Law passed in 1980 severely inhibits Palestinians from buying land owned by the state. Ninety-three per cent of the land in Israel is owned by the Jewish state, the Jewish National Fund and the state-controlled Development Authority. Around 80 per cent of the land is not accessible for purchase by the non-Jewish citizens of Israel.

The Absentees’ Property Law enacted in 1950 prohibits Palestinians forcibly expelled from Israel from claiming any rights over their property. Their properties, along with their houses and bank accounts, were confiscated by the state. In the same year, another law was enacted which gave Jews from all over the world the right to come to Israel and automatically become its citizens. Palestinian residents in Jerusalem, on the other hand, are subjected to arbitrary displacement. Their “permanent residency” status, according to Palestinian human rights groups, is “a revocable privilege, instead of an inherent right”.

Since 1967, more than 15,000 Palestinians residing in Jerusalem have had their residency rights revoked by the state of Israel. In March 2018, the Israeli parliament passed a law allowing the Interior Ministry to revoke the residency rights of Palestinians on grounds of “breach of loyalty” to the Jewish state. Another law, passed in 2011, prohibits Palestinians from commemorating the “Naqba” (catastrophe) day. Palestinians hold protest rallies and other events on that day which, not surprisingly, coincides with the day Israel declared its independence.

The apartheid law promulgated in July makes little difference on the ground for Palestinians. Apartheid policies have been in vogue in Israel as well as the occupied territories for a long time now.

The Israeli government would not have dared to take this new and dangerous step if it did not have the support of the Donald Trump administration in the United States. Trump is frequently described as “Israel’s useful idiot”. Under him, the U.S. has not only recognised Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state but also moved its embassy there.

The Israeli army has been massacring Palestinian protesters in Gaza with impunity since March this year and seems to be on the verge of planning yet another invasion in the Strip.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is threatening to present a peace plan formulated under the leadership of Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. Kushner’s family is avowedly Zionist. The Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas has rejected any American role in the peace process after Trump announced the shifting of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is supposed to be the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

The Palestinian state which Kushner and company want to carve out will be a pock-marked West Bank in which the Israelis have already taken over the best land and resources. Barack Obama was shown the map of the West Bank in 2015, when he was the U.S. President, and he was shocked to see the extent of Israeli aggrandisement.

It showed that Israeli settlements had grown so big that Palestinian communities on the West Bank were cut off from each other. Through cartographic sleight of hand, Israel had hidden the extent of its gargantuan land grab. Almost 60 per cent of the West Bank is under the control of illegal Jewish settlers. Under these circumstances, there is no way in which a viable Palestinian state could be set up.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had said way back in 1973 that he would make a “pastrami sandwich” out of the Palestinians by inserting strips of Jewish settlements in between Palestinian-populated areas in the occupied West Bank. His vision has been realised by his right-wing ideological heirs such as Netanyahu. The new law will give the Israeli state a constitutional basis to claim Palestinian land.

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