At the demonstrations for saving Israel’s democracy, I carry a sign that says, “There is no democracy with occupation.” It is not very popular, and at every demonstration, some people feel compelled to tell me that it is not in the right place. My answer is that those words are central to the struggle for Israel’s democracy and if they don’t like it, they should deal with it. For me, that is the essence of what I am protesting.
I know that the majority of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets are not there because of the occupation. Most Israelis still accept the anomaly of the concept of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. I also once believed that it was possible for Israel to be the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people.
I don’t believe that anymore. There have been too many years of systemic discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens; too many years of Israel occupying and controlling millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; too many years of talking about the Palestinians as a “demographic threat.” Israel is not, and cannot be democratic based on Jewish superiority – meaning preference for Israel’s Jewish citizens.
The unfortunate reality is that for 75 years we have kept a façade of democracy. We can even convince a majority of Israelis that there is genuine democracy. We can even get a majority of the member states of the OECD countries to believe that Israel is a democracy. But if we are truly honest with ourselves, we all know that democracy and inequality cannot exist together.
There is no equality for all of its citizens
No honest Israeli citizen can claim that the Palestinian citizens of Israel live as equal citizens in the State of Israel. Israel has never even seriously considered passing a Basic Law for the equality of all of its citizens. No honest Israeli can claim that the military control over millions of Palestinians, without the most basic civil, human and political rights, can really be called a democracy.
No one on the right wing of Israeli politics has any plan for the future of the occupied territories (even if they call them liberated Judea and Samaria) that includes equality and democracy for the Palestinians living there. Most left-wingers still hold onto to the probably unviable two-state solution for the territories and do not consider any genuine democratic option, including equality.
SINCE THE founding of Israel in 1948, more than 900 communities (villages, towns, cities) have been built for Jewish Israelis, but none for Palestinian citizens of Israel except for a small number of government-planned towns intended to house Palestinians displaced from their original communities by Israel.
There are also dozens of Palestinian villages and communities in Israel, some of which predate the establishment of the state, that are unrecognized by the government, they receive no government services, and are not even listed on official maps. Only about 3% of all land in Israel is under the jurisdiction of Palestinian municipalities, even though Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 21% of the population.
The Israeli government directly controls 93% of the land in Israel and systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel in its allocation through official agencies, such as the Israel Lands Authority and the quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund. Combined with the discriminatory Admissions Committee Law, approximately 80% of state lands are off-limits to Palestinian citizens of Israel, who face significant legal obstacles in gaining access to this land for residential, agricultural or commercial development.
Just drive by Palestinian towns and cities in Israel and bear witness to the huge overcrowding. For example, it is so strikingly obvious that something is very wrong when traveling from beautiful and spacious Zichron Ya’acov, south of Haifa, to Fureidis which resembles a Brazilian favela (a densely populated slum) more than a place that anyone would like to live in.
The Nationality and Entry into Israel prevents Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza (including those who were expelled from towns and villages that became Israel in 1948) who are married to Palestinian citizens of Israel from gaining residency or citizenship status. The law forces thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel to either leave Israel or live apart from their spouses and families.
This law has been renewed every few years since the Second Intifada in 2000 even though there is no real security justification for its renewal. It’s all about demographics – which means it is all about racism and discrimination.
The Law of Return allows Jews from anywhere in the world to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship, regardless of their family origin, while denying indigenous Palestinians the right to return to the lands they were expelled from during Israel’s establishment, preventing the reunification of many Palestinian families. This also applies to Palestinians living abroad who want to reside in the West Bank or Gaza, not only in Israel.
There are also many attempts to systematically erase and deny Palestinian identity and history. This applies to the many readers of my articles in Israeli newspapers who claim that I should use the paternalistic term “Israeli Arabs” and not the term that I use – “Palestinian citizens of Israel.” Sorry, but the Arab citizens of Israel are 100% Palestinian, no different from their brothers and sisters in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza.
The so-called “Nakba Bill,” passed in 2011, bans public funding for institutions and groups involved in activities commemorating the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians during Israel’s establishment as a Jewish-majority state in 1948.
WHILE HUNDREDS of thousands of Israelis are out on the streets feeling that a rope is about to choke their basic freedoms and destroy their democracy, perhaps we have finally reached a “wake-up moment.”
The current Israeli government’s ultimate goal of the anti-democracy agenda is not to weaken the Supreme Court, so that it can rule without any interference. The government’s goal is to allow it to annex the West Bank, and implement policies that have the power to lead to another Nakba – first against the Palestinians in the West Bank, and then, or in parallel to, the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The current laws being legislated will give the government the power to pass additional laws that will make it almost impossible for Palestinians to be elected to the Knesset unless they accept the basic fundamentals of Zionism – that the Land of Israel is for the Jewish people and that the Palestinians have no right for collective national identity – not only in Israel proper but even in the West Bank and of course in east Jerusalem.
While so many Israelis have finally awakened to the distortions of our democracy and the threats to all of us, perhaps they will now also wake up to the need to confront the central core of our existence as a modern liberal society in which there must be full equality for all of those who live under the same regime.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and its neighbors. He is now directing The Holy Land Bond and is the Middle East director for ICO – the International Communities Organization.