by Sawsan Khalife’
In a much-discussed video message to Palestinian citizens of Israel last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu lauded the achievements of Arabs in the arts, business, politics and the legal world. “Israel is strong because of our diversity and pluralism — not in spite of it,” he said, describing a plan to close social gaps in Arab society as aiming “to reach ever higher in the noble pursuit of equality and dignity for all.”
For Palestinian citizens of Israel, however, the speech sounded like nothing more than spin — a liberal democratic wrapper on an illiberal reality of discrimination and selective democracy. On the face of things, Israel does indeed resemble a democracy. But if you scratch a little deeper, there is an uglier layer behind the façade.
For instance, a week before Netanyahu praised the basic fact that there are Arab members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, he pushed through a law (which passed last week) that allows Jewish parliamentarians to reject and eject elected Palestinian representatives not to the majority’s liking.
While Netanyahu outlined a vision in which Arab children “grow up knowing they can achieve anything in Israel as valued and equal citizens in our democracy,” he and his government reject the very notion of Israel being “a state of all its citizens.” Palestinian children, instead of being welcome citizens, are a “demographic threat.”
And few days after the prime minister bragged about investing in Arab municipalities and waxed poetic that Jews and Arabs should be treated “with the same dignity and respect you’d want for your own family,” bulldozers started the process of demolishing the Bedouin village of Umm el-Hiran — in order to build a Jewish town on its ruins.
Roughly 100,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel live in “unrecognized villages” like Umm el-Hiran, where the state refuses to provide electricity, water, paved roads, sewage infrastructure, schools, medical care or economic opportunity.
And while freedom of speech is alive and kicking for Jewish citizens of Israel, the ultimate expression of which is the annual racist parade of hate through Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter under the protection of police, Palestinian citizens are thrown in jail for Facebook statuses and reciting poetry.
For its Palestinian citizens, Israel is a selective democracy at best. Palestinian citizens of Israel have never known what it means to be welcome citizens in the country of their birth, the country of their ancestors. At best, they have conditional citizenship.
Basic democratic and civil rights are not guaranteed for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Dozens of laws, regulations and practices put limits on their political activism, freedom of speech, right to parliament representation, right to live in certain communities, to live in freedom and security.
And Arab citizens of Israel are the “privileged” Palestinians. Palestinians under Israeli control in East Jerusalem do not have the right to vote, are caged in by towering concrete walls, and live under constant fear of home demolitions. In the West Bank, Palestinians live under a regime of segregation, military oppression, and virtually no civil rights. And in Gaza, well, what human rights are there when you live under siege and are subject to bombings and airstrikes every few years.
It would appear that even Netanyahu is aware of the withering state of democracy in Israel, otherwise why would he so shamelessly spin and appropriate the achievements of the country’s Palestinian citizens?
Published, with permission, from +972Magazine. Photo: Israeli soldiers patrolling a market in Hebron.
Sawsan Khalife’ is the executive director of the +972 NGO and the manager of its two websites, +972 Magazine and Local Call. She has worked in production for German television and has directed news packages for Russia Today and Palestine TV.