Israel’s Shrinking Minority Rights

The Knesset at nightThe world is no stranger to Israel’s litany of misdeeds against the Palestinian people. But the situation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is not the only arena in which Palestinians face daily oppression.

Palestinian Arab citizens are a sizable minority in Israel who make up 20 percent of the country’s population. They experience institutionalized discrimination in their daily lives much like the African-American community before and during the U.S. civil rights movement. But consistent, trustworthy information about the problems and specific concerns of this community is in short supply.

Israeli Palestinians have been directly affected by such infamous initiatives as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s loyalty oath bill and home demolitions. The loyalty oath – not yet law but approved by Netanyahu’s cabinet – requires new, non-Jewish citizens to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. This oath would adversely affect Palestinian citizens who are more likely to marry non-Jewish foreign nationals and would feel alienated by their spouses pledging allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state. Home demolitions, meanwhile, have made clear the government’s policy to Judaize the country by forcibly evicting Arab residents and destroying their homes, from the Naqab to East Jerusalem.

But this community also faces subtler and less well-known political assaults from the majority. For instance, community activists must grapple with a wide range of restrictions and repression. And the Israeli government marginalizes and punishes Palestinian members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, for serving the interests of the communities that elected them.

Latest Abuses

Recently, bills have been brought before the Knesset to restrict legitimate political activity and to penalize Palestinian representatives. For instance, a member of the Knesset who travels to Syria or Lebanon (or other “enemy states”) – a diplomatic right that has been criminalized – may face loss of salary and pension. The Knesset voted to strip the parliamentary privileges of Haneen Zoabi, a Knesset member who participated in the Free Gaza flotilla last spring. The Knesset House Committee instituted the proceedings to relieve her of the rights to exit the country, to hold a diplomatic passport, and to receive restitution from the Knesset for legal expenses. She has also faced fierce harassment from her peers and has been labeled a traitor and an enemy of the state for voicing and acting upon her views.

Palestinian parliamentarians, of course, have little power to begin with. Bills they propose fail to pass in vastly disproportionate numbers when compared with those proposed by members of the parties of the majority. Without effective representation in the Knesset, and with the absence of legal protection for this minority, Israel’s Palestinian citizens are subject to the tyranny of a majority that is rarely benign.

Non-profit and non-governmental organizations serving the Palestinian community inside Israel face excessive scrutiny, regulation, and harassment from Israeli authorities. A recent bill submitted for Knesset review proposed an explicit prohibition of the Islamic Movement–Northern Branch, headed by Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, a well-respected activist and influential leader. Knesset member Ophir Akunis claims he penned the bill because Sheikh Salah “took part in the violent terrorist flotilla that tried to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip,” although the flotilla was neither violent nor terrorist. Another bill proposes denying registration permits for Israeli NGOs that might provide international organizations with information that could lead to investigations and charges against Israeli officials or military officers. This particular bill was initiated in reaction to NGOs providing critical documents and information for the Goldstone Report on the Gaza invasion of 2008. A community whose community organizations cannot support it, compounded with the absence of functional political representation, is a disadvantaged community indeed.

Second-Class Opportunities

Most disturbing is the discrimination Palestinian citizens face directly as a result of government policies. Numerous benefits are accorded to discharged soldiers, a segment of society that, with the exception of the Druze draftees, largely does not include Palestinian citizens. Discharged soldiers are eligible for university tuition assistance, preference for on-campus housing, and financial assistance for buying a home, among other benefits. A new bill also proposes giving preference to discharged soldiers for civil service jobs when qualifications are otherwise equal. Such a bill could decrease the participation rate of Palestinians in the civil service from its already low level. Such systemic forms of discrimination help enforce Palestinian marginalization.

Reliable information on legislative and policy initiatives that adversely affect Palestinian citizens in Israel – less sensational than Israel’s military acts but certainly relevant to the country’s democratic aspirations – is sparse. Still, it is essential that the U.S. public and policy makers educate themselves about this minority population of this close ally.

The United States needs to recognize and acknowledge the discrimination, alienation, and dispossession that take place inside Israel and raise questions about minority rights and the obligation to protect these rights. Israel does not follow the U.S. model of democracy. Perhaps the United States should demand that it does and make U.S. aid contingent on human rights improvements in the Occupied Territory and within Israel itself. George Mitchell has yet to meet with any Palestinian citizens of Israel. If the Obama administration aims for a comprehensive approach to the Middle East, it must rectify this omission. A lasting peace can only be achieved if the needs, rights, and aspirations of this sizable and growing minority inside Israel are taken into account.

Audrey Farber is interning at Mada al-Carmel–Arab Center for Applied Social Research, a Haifa-based think tank dedicated in part to researching the conditions of and giving voice to Palestinians in Israel. Mada al-Carmel publishes a bi-monthly Political Monitoring Report (PMR) that summarizes and analyzes political developments in Israel involving discrimination and incitement against its Arab Palestinian citizens. More information on the bills discussed in this article can be found in the most recent PMR, and past developments can be found in previous issues.