By Nasim Ahmed
Last year, Palestinian citizens of Israel suffered two major set-backs in their ongoing fight for equality. The first was the Nation-State Law, which basically turned non-Jews into second class citizens. The second, which is related to the first, was a slump in Palestinian and Arab representation within the Israeli Knesset (parliament).
For the 2 million Palestinians who make up almost 22 per cent of the population of Israel, discrimination and institutional racism has been a reality since the Nakba of 1948. Even though “the right to equality is not yet enshrined in law regarding most aspects of life,” no previous decree with constitutional status has relegated non-Jewish Israeli citizens to an inferior status resembling the apartheid laws in White-ruled South Africa rather than the equal rights and democracy celebrated in the West.
To discuss the implications of the Nation-State Law and the reasons why growing numbers of Palestinian citizens of Israel feel disillusioned and alienated, I sat with Yousef Jabareen. The Palestinian academic born in Umm Al-Fahm in northern Israel was elected for a second time to the Israeli Knesset in April.
This law, he told me, “deepens discrimination” and “excludes” the Arab Palestinian community within Israel. It also “enshrines the purity of the Jewish citizen in Israel and of the Jewish people in general.” Because of this, he added, “it’s important to explain to the international community the dangers of this law, and how it will lead to greater conflict in the region.”
But haven’t the Palestinian citizens of Israel been subjected to racist and discriminatory policies ever since the creation of the state in 1948? Is this law any different? “The Nation-State Law did not create discrimination, which has been ever-present,” Jabareen replied. “Dozens of laws have been adopted by Israel which discriminate against its Arab citizens, relegating them to second or even third class citizens.” What this law does, he explained, is to deepen the discrimination and the exclusion. “It goes one step further by denying Palestinians in Israel and Palestinians in general any right that would be equal to the rights granted to the Jewish people.”
The parliamentarian shed light on the racist ideological origins of the law. “It reflects the extreme right-wing ideology of Jewish supremacy in Israel, as well as the ongoing process of strengthening the occupation and expanding settlements. So it’s basically part of the ongoing process of the Judaisation of the land.” This term is often used to explain the constant erasure of Palestinian connection to the land and supplanting it with a new narrative.
The process has also been likened to apartheid in South Africa by the MK’s namesake, Hassan Jabareen, head of Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. “Apartheid in South Africa was a process,” he pointed out. “It was a system that took years to develop and was built on the work of academics and theologians who had to create justifications for white supremacy. It was a system of hierarchy, in which there is one group with all the power and another without any power.”
According to Yousef Jabareen, as far as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned the law is basically saying that there is no right for the Palestinians to have an independent state alongside Israel. “The right for self-determination in Netanyahu’s view is only for the Jewish people.” Such an extreme position, he said, puts Netanyahu in a position diametrically opposed to international consensus about the need to establish a Palestinian state as part of the two-state solution. He finds this bewildering.
“Ironically, while the international community speaks about peace and justice and equality and equal citizenship, we see that Israel is going in the opposite direction by passing discriminatory legislation, perpetuating Jewish control over millions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.” Jabareen fears that the Nation-State Law has been designed to pave the way for Israel to annex the illegal settlements in the West Bank and basically put an end to any hope for a Palestinian state.
Our focus turned to last month’s General Election in Israel and the low voter turnout which has been blamed partially on Netanyahu’s intimidation of Palestinian voters by installing security cameras in polling stations. For the Palestinian-Israeli MK, this was a “clearly racist act” by the Prime Minister himself to instil fear in the Palestinian community and keep them away from polling stations. A criminal complaint has been filed by Jabareen’s party with the Attorney General.
There were other factors at play, though, as Netanyahu’s intimidation alone could not explain the low turnout which stood at 50 per cent, a 13 per cent drop on 2015. Many Palestinians boycotted the election because of the Nation-State Law and Netanyahu’s openly racist statements, including his claim that, “Israel isn’t a state of all its citizens… Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and it alone.”
The disillusionment of Palestinians was reflected in the election results. Only 10 Arab representatives were elected to the Knesset compared to 13 in 2015. Jabareen put it down to the “frustration and despair” that exists amongst Palestinian citizens in Israel. “The Arab community, especially the new generation, are very concerned about their basic needs, future, jobs, housing and the economic situation, and are also definitely concerned by such discriminatory and anti-democratic laws.”
Jabareen’s message to his community is for them to engage with politics. He is disappointed that they have very little influence, especially under what he calls “a dangerous and extreme right-wing government in Israel.” The solution, he insisted, is not to abandon Arab representatives but to go out and vote so that more Arab politicians will stand a greater chance of being elected to the Knesset.
While encouraging his constituency to back their MKs he noted that the work of the Arab members of the Knesset goes beyond Israel. As well as leading demonstrations and protests inside the country they are involved in international advocacy on behalf of the overall Palestinian cause. Being in the Knesset, he pointed out eagerly, enables him and his colleagues to reach out to the international community and to participate in international meetings and conferences, meeting influential figures at the EU and the UN along the way.
“We don’t have the luxury of not trying to use our political power in parliament,” he concluded. If he and those like him can be more effective, perhaps his prediction of an end to any hope for a Palestinian state will be misplaced.