Close the gap in treatment of Israeli Arabs

Encountering Peace: The United Nations estimated that 711,000 Arabs became refugees following Israel’s establishment, joining in the battle against Israel’s birth.

Israeli Arabs at protest in Jaffa R 390 (photo credit:  REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
Israeli Arabs at protest in Jaffa R 390
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
In 1949, at the end of Israel’s War of Independence, having lost one percent of its citizens in the battle for freedom, the new-born nation found itself with 156,000 Arabs within its borders, about 12 percent of the total population at that time. The United Nations estimated that 711,000 Arabs became refugees following Israel’s establishment, joining in the battle against Israel’s birth.
Those who did not become refugees were granted citizenship by the new state and were placed under a military government until 1966.
At its birth, Israel promised all of its citizens that “it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
At the time of Israel’s founding and during its first decades, it was a poor country.
During its first 10 years its population doubled, and many of those newcomers came from the Middle East and North Africa and arrived with no possessions and no money. But Israel’s Arab citizens were its poorest. They were devoid of almost their entire leadership.
The intellectuals, political and religious leaders, the urban elite, were among those who became refugees. Those who remained were mostly village peasants, 92% of them illiterate. There remained one working secondary school. Israel immediately expropriated most of their land and created security belts around all of their communities. Most of the Arab villages were without electricity, piped water systems and other basic infrastructure.
Today this population numbers more than one million, about 20% of Israel’s total population. They have made remarkable progress in every area of any development scale. There is almost no illiteracy; there are schools in every community.
Tens of thousands of Israel’s Arab citizens attend universities and excel in every subject area. Israel’s hospitals are filled with Arab doctors, pharmacies all over the country employ Arab pharmacists, hi-tech industries are hiring more and more Arab engineers.
Israel’s Arab citizens have a lot to be proud of. All of these achievements belong to them.
TODAY, 65 years after the creation of the state, Israel is no longer a poor country.
Israel leads the world in many fields and it has many achievements to be proud of.
Sixty-five years after the birth of Israel there can no longer be any excuses for not fulfilling the promises of the founding fathers and mothers regarding equality for all of its citizens.
Unfortunately no one can claim that there is equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel. We must be honest with ourselves and admit openly that there is still too much discrimination between Jews and Arabs in this country. The discrimination is systemic, it is not only sociological – discrimination at the level of stereotypes and prejudices between people – it is governmental and it penetrates almost every aspect of life which is under the mandate of the government.
Every single government of Israel since 1948 until now has included in its guidelines the abolition of discrimination. All of them have made promises to close the gaps, to provide more budgets, to hire more Arabs in government, to build more classrooms, to improve the Arab education system, and more. The promises reappear with each new government, just as they are made by all the political parties seeking to get votes from the Arab citizens prior to elections.
We should be embarrassed after 65 years by the continued discrimination. This should not even be a subject for discussion.
We should simply admit it and remove it. The State of Israel has to make a decision that it is no longer tolerable for such deep discrimination to continue to exist. We cannot continue to claim our democracy and at the same time continue to accept the discrimination.
Yes, it is true that those we once called Israeli Arabs now define themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel. Yes, it is true that the majority of those who vote, no longer vote for Zionist political parties.
Yes, it is also true that they feel great empathy and solidarity with their brothers and sisters who are fighting for liberation and independence from Israel’s occupation over them in Palestine. But at the same time, they remain Israeli citizens and they are struggling for full equality within the State of Israel and this struggle is just.
There are those who make the claim that if they paid their dues – served the country – then they would get their equal rights.
But there are several things wrong with that claim (I also believe that they should be called upon to serve in their communities, in hospitals, schools and other social and community services).
STATES PROVIDE their citizens with rights on the basis of their birthright – they were born in the state and the state has certain obligations to all of its citizens – to provide healthcare, education, welfare, to develop the economy, to provide infrastructure, and all of this should be on an equal basis for all citizens. If citizens don’t pay their taxes, or break the laws, the state determines how to punish them.
Israel does not draft its Palestinian citizens into the army. It does not relieve them of the duty of service either. According to law, they are obligated to serve, but the army does not draft them, for obvious and understandable reasons. Yet, the army does draft Israel’s Druse citizens and most of them have serious claims against the discrimination that they face even after serving in the army.
There is no draft of a national or a civilian service and the state cannot link rights and obligations if the obligations do not exist. The state can reward those who choose to volunteer and serve, but not by granting them benefits which are supposed to be within the contract between the state and its citizens.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens are law abiding and are struggling for an equal share in their role of citizenship. More than 50% of the Palestinian citizens will probably not exercise their right to vote in the coming election and that is a grave error on their part. That is a vote of no confidence in Israel’s democracy, and that is a marked failure of Israel’s democracy.
Israel’s first president, Dr. Chaim Weitzman, said, “I am certain the world will judge the Jewish state by how it will treat the Arabs.” It is also appropriate for us to judge our own state by that standard and instead of talking about all of the achievements that Israel has made in closing the gap, it is time to close the gap.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.