Opinion: Against Israel’s ‘ethnic democracy’

The Dome of the Rock (Getty Images)

By Pablo Santos, an anonymous contributor

Yesterday, half of the world was scandalized by Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Don’t be. Don’t even bother. It would save you both time and energy. The most respected mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the President of the United States, just buried in one speech the hope for Palestinians to have a state with Jerusalem as their capital.Today, around 500,000 settlers live in the West Bank, while the Israeli army occupies 82% of the territory. The Palestinian Authority only exercises sovereignty over insignificant islands of land drowned in occupation. Thanks to Donald Trump, Israel’s presence in Jerusalem and Palestine is now official and almost legitimized. He most likely did not made this decision public out of sincere honesty; nevertheless, he actually did us a favor. Everyone still hoping for the ideal of a Palestinian state had seemed more and more naive as Israel was making the project less and less plausible. However, what concerns me today is not the current situation, but rather the future for the Arab populations living on both sides of the border. I would like you to take a step back with me, and enjoy the enlightening story of a community that was the first to be occupied by Israel in 1948: that of the Arab Israelis.

When it comes to reflecting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is very common that the Arab Israeli case is left out of the conversation. Understandably, the major concerns of most internationals scholars, specialists, journalists, and politicians are that of the Palestinians of the West Bank, the Gaza strip, or of the refugees displaced from historical Palestine. Most of these experts and officials rightfully condemn the Israeli illegal occupation of the West Bank, a prominent issue since 1967, and pressure the international community to solve the problematic question of UN refugees. However, the country which has often been presented as the “first democracy of the Middle East” rarely faces accusations concerning the segregation in their country against their own citizens: the Arab Israeli minority dating from the creation of Israel in 1948. “The world will judge the Jewish State on its approach to deal with its Arabs citizens,” said Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel in 1949, in reference to the 160,000 Arabs that would become Israeli citizens in 1952. Surprisingly, there have been few cases of documentation and research on the discrimination of Arabs the “second-class citizens” of Israel and the international community has not taken a closer look at the ethnic character of Israel’s so-called democracy.

Let’s not lie and say we still had confidence in that dream. The belief in a two-state solution has been gone for a while now, as the occupation policy is implemented every year with more and more settlements units in the West Bank, growing at an average of 6% growth per year.

Specialists agree that before the beginning of the war, in 1947,  approximately 820,000 Arabs lived in what was to become only a year later the state of Israel. During the war, most of these Arabs were forced into exile, directly thrown out by the Haganah, but many also deliberately chose to leave their houses until the end of the war for security reasons  a temporary decision, without knowing whether they could return. This category of people, often forgotten, would be named the “present-absent”. Indeed, the Law of Citizenship, discussed at the Knesset between 1949 and 1952, stipulates that only the Arabs who were continuously present between the beginning of the war, on May 14th of 1948, and the promulgation of the law in 1952, would be granted Israeli nationality. Therefore, only the 160,000 Arabs who remained in Israel in 1949 (mostly in the regions of the North, the Galilea, and the Naqab) would earn Israeli nationality in 1952. It seems important to mention that this “present-absent” category of people would remain without nationality until 1980, due to the enactment of the Absentee Property Law of 1950.

We can hardly imagine in what state of shock the 160,000 Arabs present in Israel would be at the end of the war in 1949; freshly realizing the consequences of the Nakba. They had seen their land colonized by a newly-born Jewish state; they had witnessed the departure of around 600,000 Arabs who could not return, and the arrival of a huge amount of Jewish immigrants newly-made citizens (approximately 800,000 arrivals between 1948 and 1954). They had lost their intellectual, political and economic elite, who had fled to neighboring countries; last but not least, they would be subject to martial law until 1966. Indeed, ever since the state’s inception, Israeli officials were afraid of and suspicious toward the Arab community, seen them as the enemy. Although the Law of Citizenship provided universal citizen vote for the Arabs, the military administration allowed the government to restrict the civil rights granted to this ‘suspicious’ Arab community.

Moreover — and I will dive into this further — the fundamental basis of the Israeli state as stipulated in their declaration of independence, mentions three very distinct principles: First, the right for the Jewish people to create their state, which implies, for example, absolute freedom of immigration for the Jewish people (provided by the Law of return, in 1950). Second, the assurance of complete social and political equality for all their inhabitants, regardless of their religion, race, or sex. And finally, the guarantee of liberty of cult, conscience, race and sex. This is what the scholar Alain Dieckhoff calls a triple-identity. It is fundamental to acknowledge these principles if we want to reflect on Israel’s ethnic character. Israel has institutionalized ethnic-national and religious distinctions, and makes an important statement on what is preferable in the eyes of the state: that is to say a preference for the Jewish people, and a discrimination against the Arabs. These are very unique and bizarre fundamentals for a democracy, to create what Sammy Smooha called an “ethnic-democracy.” I will come back to these specific characteristics of Israel, that are in practice non-viable and non-democratic. .

From 1948 to 1967, the Arab Israeli community was living at the margins of the other Arab states and societies. It was under military administration consisting of espionage and surveillance, while on the other side of the border the Jordanian administration prevented it from maintaining ties with the Arab Palestinians. Some people endangered themselves by crossing the Green Line to visit family and friends, but most Arab Israelis remained in the Israeli state, and had to integrate. We previously stated that the Arab Israeli community was devoid of an intellectual elite capable of constructing an intellectual constructive protest at the end of the war. The majority of the Arab Israelis were low educated classes, confined to factory work, agriculture, while being deprived of their land. For instance, since 1948, the state engaged in a massive campaign of land ownership transfers that would, in time, lead to the full acquisition of the land by the state. The Arab Israelis were losing their land, still traumatized from the Nakba, and in addition to not being implicated in any kind of political and intellectual activism. This helps us to explain why it took time for Arab Israelis to recover from the Nakba, and to become political awake. The majority of the Arabs chose to adapt to the Israeli society and fit in, without making dangerous or contradictory moves that could endanger them or get them sent to jail. However, it would be wrong not to mention the political initiative by Arabs in the late 1950’s : the creation of Al-‘Ard (“The Land”) in 1959, which symbolized the awakening. This new party, which would represent for the first time the voice of the Arab Israelis, would, among many other things, ask the Israeli government to revise their Zionism and colonialism, to rethink their ethnic dimension, and to they would address the right to return of Palestinian refugees. This political party neither intended to engage in terrorist activities, nor asked for the destruction of Israel, it simply formulated political demands to the Israeli government. In 1965, Al-‘Ard was banned by the state for security reasons and its officials were jailed, or forced to exile. A compelling proof here of the limitations of Israel’s democracy. Arabs were allowed to vote, and participate to the system, but they could never challenge the foundations of the state. Another lesson drawn from the  Al-‘Ard project teaches us that the Arab community in Israel had processed the Nakba, and started to raise consciousness of their Palestinian identity. Al-‘Ard was, to thinkers like Edward Said, “the first resurgence of Palestinian national consciousness after 1948”.

At this stage, we start to acknowledge the difficult position in which the Arab minority is trapped. They are caught in between their Arab identity, that makes them experience daily political and civic segregation, and their Israeli identity, that encourages them to fit in a society that doesn’t seem to want them. But until the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the community did not have the opportunity to reconnect intellectually to the Arab side of the Green Line, which partially explains why the 1948-1967 period for the Arab Israeli community has been less politically active; They had to work to survive, and most of them were not fully concerned and aware of the Palestinian fight.

They would at times neglect their identity by trying to avoid speaking Arabic in public spaces, or avoiding speaking about politics at all to fit in Israeli  society. Simultaneously, they realized that this society would never truly treat them as equals.

One contemporary case that needs to be mentioned for this purpose is the example of the Bedouin community living in the Naqab, the desert of the Negev. The Bedouins are ethnically Arab, even though they identify themselves as Bedouin. The state, as Rhoda Kanaaneh explains, has highlighted the Bedouins alongside the Druze and Christians Arabs as “good Arabs”. With this label, people would understand that they represent allies to the army, among the community of Arabs. Kanaaneh shows us how the state convinced a lot of young Bedouin individuals to serve in the military service, by giving certain additional privileges as an incentive. Indeed, until 1997, every home that possessed a member of the family serving in the IDF received complementary allocations by the state. Arabs, as they would more generally not send their son to the military service, would then perceive lower allocations than the Jewish families. By granting those privileges to specific members of the Arab community like the Bedouins, the state replicated the very old British formula  of “divide and rule”; dividing the Arab community to better rule over the whole Arab community. Certain Bedouins interviewed by Kanaaneh confess having completely forgot their Arabism in order to fit perfectly in the society. A lot of them also confess regretting their choice, as they acknowledge that after serving, the privileges ceased, and they felt like returning to their status of “second-class citizens”.

After the 1967 war, Arabs could finally discover what the other side of the Green Line had become. The 1980s would become the years of a growing awareness in Arab Israeli consciousness that the Palestinian fight was the fight of their brothers, and that perhaps it was their fight too. They were surprised by the evolution of the West Bank, which was much more politicized than their community and much more intellectually influenced by both the Ba’ath Party ideology and pan-arabism. If only few of them left Israel to join the forces of the PLO like Mahmoud Darwish or Sabri Jiryis many identified with the Palestinian struggle, and played a role in the promotion of Arab civil rights in Israel. During the 1970s Rakah the Israeli Communist Party and the only non-zionist party at the time heavily supported by the Arabs, joined the Arab Democratic Party in 1980 to embody the growing politicization of Arab Israelis. At the beginning of the 1980s and especially in 1982, after the massacre of Sabra and Chatila, one could say that a “Palestinization”of Arab Israelis had begun. These massacres issued massive strikes in the Arab industries. Suha Sibany, an Arab of Nazareth, explains that these massacres “have strongly influenced in questioning her identity, and her roots”. Later on, the events of 1987 increased this link between Arab Israelis and Palestinians, and Arabs were for example sending goods, and furniture following the first Intifada.

The second Intifada, in 2000, was provoked by the visit of Ariel Sharon to Al-Aqsa, which was perceived by Arab Israelis and Palestinians as a provocation to Islam, and to Arabs in general. During the revolts that occurred in October 2000 in Israel and the West Bank, 13 Arab Israelis were killed by the state police, figuring as the first Arab Israeli martyrs. From there, many Arab Israelis related their existence to the existence of Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza. The second Intifada continued the “Palestinization” of Arab Israelis. In fact, a lot of them no longer answer to the term “Arab Israelis” and simply claim to be “Palestinians”. The second Intifada also invited Arab Israeli artists to share their belonging to the Palestinian people. DAM, for instance, was the first Arab rap group in Israel to be a part of this movement. They decided to write in Arabic and released their first album in 2006, accompanied by texts strongly opposing the Israeli state and songs destined for the refugees in West Bank. Their song “Min Irhabi?” (“Who Is the Terrorist?”) stills embodies to this day the Palestinian youth folklore.

On the political scene, Palestinian and Arab Israeli concerns would also align for the first time. In fact, Ahmad Tibi, a former political advisor of Yasser Arafat, would leave his functions in 1999 to run for the Knesset. He is a political figure both in Israel for the Arabs, and in West Bank for the Palestinians, and is one of only three representatives of the Arab community in the Israeli parliament today. He is the embodiment of the political reconciliation between the Arab Israeli parties and the Fatah, ruling over the Palestinian Authority. As a direct consequence, his travels to West Bank have been restricted by the past by the Israeli government, under the pretext that he helped the Palestinian resistance. The Supreme court has evidently canceled this illegal restriction, but the will of the state to divide the Palestinian Arab community over historical Palestine is pretty clear.

Today, the situation of the Arab Israeli minority remains problematic. They face segregation on the job market, which is one of the causes of their massive unemployment. They are still left out of the decisionmaking process, and largely under represented at the Knesset. They are considered and treated in all ways “second-class citizens”. In parallel, they have relinked their existence and identity with the Palestinians of West Bank and Gaza. Both Arab Israelis and Palestinians experiences have certainly been different since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, or the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which caused different issues for the populations. Clearly, Arab Israelis and Palestinians do not face the same daily issues or concerns. However, today, one could rightfully target Israel’s ethnic character as one main cause of both discrimination of the Arab population in Israel, and occupation the Palestinians in West Bank.

Finally, I would like to engage myself in a more personal argument against the unfair ethnic lines on which Israel is built, as I believe this fight could become the next struggle for Arabs on both sides of the Green Line, the next chapter of the Palestinian struggle, and the struggle for a single, non-zionist, binational Jewish and Arab state.

David Ben Gurion said on October, the 5th, 1937 : “If I support the creation of a Jewish state now, even though we’d have to share the land, it is because I am convinced that the creation of a partial Jewish state is not the end, but the beginning (…) Any increase of strength takes us closer to the acquisition of the whole country.” I think there is no doubt on Israel’s intentions, ever since the beginning, to colonize the entirety of Palestine, “from the river to the sea”. I, at least, don’t doubt it. I don’t doubt either that what is currently at stake in the West Bank is a slow ethnical cleaning. I strongly believe that in 20 years there will be no such thing as the West Bank or Palestine. The entire land will be under Israeli military control, then state control, and the one-state solution will be realized. The fight for Palestinians to have a state has been lost for a while, and to be honest and a little provocative : the Palestinian authority over the West Bank is a joke.

And when the one-state solution will be fulfilled, as Chaim Weizmann warned, the world will judge how Israelis treat their Arab citizens.

There will no longer be anything to distract us from one of the very deep problems of the Israeli state, the ethnic dimension on which it’s built. I will judge how Israel will perform ethnical segregation among its citizens, as they have been quietly doing for the past 70 years with the Arab Israelis.

So yes, as hard as it can be, I ask that all of us rethink our ‘pro-Palestinian’ tendencies, in a constructive way. Think about whether the one-state solution could be the best solution for Palestinians in the long term after all. Can we ask this question? Here where I live, in the West Bank, asking this question is essentially like dropping a huge bomb. Understandably, the one-state solution requires Palestinians to give up on their historical dignity, their pride, and their dream… However, some have confessed to me that, given the current situation and likely future development, a non-zionist, binational state could be the only “reasonable” solution, and therefore the reasonable fight that Palestinians and Arab Israelis would have to lead is a fight for equal rights in Israel. Asking for a state in which equity, freedom, political representation are guaranteed for all; a state in which being a Jewish citizen would not make you superior to an Arab citizen, a state in which there would be no wall, no checkpoints; a state with binational reconciliation; a state where Jews and Arabs live together… Call it “Israel” or any other name … I don’t care, because what is happening down here in the West Bank is probably not worth holding on to that ancient dignity.

From Bethlehem, with love…

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the editorial staff and the newspaper Le Zadig.

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