Israeli Arabs, who represent a fifth of the country’s population, have grown jittery as nationalist elements in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition have questioned their loyalty to the state.
They are ethnically Palestinian, but enjoy equal rights under Israeli law, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Still, they often endure discrimination and are statistically poorer and less well educated than Israeli Jews. Tensions run deep.
While the AP does include the caveat that Palestinian citizens of Israel “often endure discrimination,” it’s simply inaccurate to say that they enjoy equal rights under Israeli law. The AP is boosting the conventional narrative of Israel as a “democracy,” while ignoring the legalized, entrenched and systematic discrimination Palestinian citizens of Israel face.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence (1948) states two principles important for understanding the legal status of Palestinian citizens of Israel. First, the Declaration refers specifically to Israel as a “Jewish state” committed to the “ingathering of the exiles.” While such references to the Jewish nature of the state permeate the Declaration, it contains only one reference to the maintenance of complete equality of political and social rights for all its citizens, irrespective of race, religion, or sex. There is a tension between these two principles, in that the first emphasizes the Zionist character of the state, which privileges one group, the Jewish people, and the second mentions the universal status of each citizen in a democracy.
Adalah’s report to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, issued August/September 2001 and entitled Institutionalized Discrimination Against Palestinian Citizens of Israel, identifies more than 20 laws that discriminate against the Palestinian minority in Israel. The report shows that the Jewish character of the state is evident in numerous Israeli laws. The most important immigration laws, The Law of Return (1950) and The Citizenship Law (1952), allow Jews to freely immigrate to Israel and gain citizenship, but excludes Arabs who were forced to flee their homes in 1947 and 1967. Israeli law also confers special quasi-governmental standing on the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund and other Zionist bodies, which by their own charters cater only to Jews. Various other laws such as The Chief Rabbinate of Israel Law (1980), The Flag and Emblem Law (1949), and The State Education Law (1953) and its 2000 amendment give recognition to Jewish educational, religious, and cultural practices and institutions, and define their aims and objectives strictly in Jewish terms.
Further, the discretionary powers entrusted to various government ministries and institutions – including budget policies, the allocation of resources, and the implementation of laws – results in significant de facto discrimination between Jewish and Palestinian citizens. For example, a report issued by the Ministry of Interior confirmed that Arab municipalities received a fraction of the total funds allocated by the national government per resident to Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and to development towns populated exclusively by Jews. Moreover, the Ministry of Religious Affairs affords a small percentage of its budget to the Arab Muslim, Christian, and Druze religious communities. Funds for special projects such as the renewal and development of neighborhoods and improvements in educational programs, services, and facilities are also disproportionately allocated to Jewish communities. To date, Israeli authorities have rarely used their discretionary powers to benefit the Palestinians minority.
Most importantly, the Israeli government has maintained an aggressive policy of land expropriation, adversely affecting Palestinian land and housing rights. For example, the National Planning and Building Law (1965), retroactively re-zoned the lands on which many Arab villages sit as “non-residential.” The consequence of this is that despite the existence of these villages prior to the establishment of the state, they have been afforded no official status. These “unrecognized Arab villages” receive no government services, and residents are denied the ability to build homes and other public buildings. The authorities use a combination of house demolitions, land confiscation, denial of basic services, and restrictions on infrastructure development to dislodge residents from these villages. The situation is severely acute for the Arab Bedouin community living in these unrecognized villages in the Naqab.
The laws and practice detailed above by Adalah are a long cry from enjoying “equal rights under Israeli law.”