Delegitimizing discrimination: struggle of Palestinians in Israel focus of new book

Cover of Palestinians in Israel book

Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination, and Democracy by British investigative journalist and The Electronic Intifada contributor Ben White links the struggle of Palestinians within Israel, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population, with those in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and the global diaspora.

With a foreword by Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), the book provides current and well-documented information on the systematic discrimination facing Palestinian citizens of Israel, the increasingly repressive measures being taken against both Palestinian and Jewish dissenters in Israel, and the ongoing Judaization within Israel, particularly in Galilee and the Negev (Naqab) desert, that is intended to further segregate and isolate Palestinians from Israeli Jews.

But perhaps the book’s greatest contribution is its dissection of political Zionism, providing a framework to understand why a state that defines itself as Jewish cannot be democratic. A state that defines itself as belonging to one ethnic group, White shows, is inherently wedded to discrimination and inequality, combining elements of both an ethnocracy and a theocracy, but not the kind of pluralistic democracy that guarantees equal rights for all and protections for national minorities.

In her foreword, Zoabi seizes on this very message, noting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be viewed not through “the lens” of Israel’s illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but rather through the lens of equal rights.

“The argument that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is one of a conflict with a racist settler project that was founded on notions of ethnic purity,” Zoabi writes, “is understood implicitly by all Palestinians. We Palestinians were quick to comprehend the relationship between ourselves - as indigenous inhabitants of this land - and those who came to take our place (in every sense) without even considering a common life with or alongside us, and without acknowledging that which had gone before them.”

Zoabi herself is part of the movement within Israel to redefine the state as a “state for all its citizens.” She notes that the dominant Zionist political parties within Israel diametrically oppose this notion and thus expose their project as essentially antidemocratic.

“The ‘state of all its citizens’ project has forced the ‘Jewish state’ to admit the primacy that it grants to Jewish-Zionist values over democratic values,” she writes, “and to recognize the impossibility of coexistence between the two … After all, what is the recent ‘legislation’ pertaining to the Jewishness of the state, and the escalation of the process of Judaization from the level of policy, if not a direct acknowledgment of the conflict between democracy and Zionism, and the privileging of the latter over the former?”

For White, the insistence of the Zionist parties on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is not a tactic merely to block negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, nor is it solely about the Palestinians within Israel. Instead, as he succinctly puts it, “Israel’s definition as ‘Jewish and democratic’ is the contradiction at the heart of the conflict.” He devotes the first chapter, “Jewish and Democratic?,” to framing the discussion that will follow, showing how this definition of a state inherently results in the privileging of Jews at the expense of non-Jewish citizens of Israel.

Discriminatory patterns

White then carefully documents the discriminatory patterns resulting from this definition. For example, in the chapter titled “The Land Regime,” he notes that the Palestinian population within Israel is six times greater than it was in 1948, yet land privately owned by Palestinians has declined to a mere 3.5 percent of total available land. Furthermore, successive Israeli governments have helped finance and support the creation of more than 700 new Jewish communities since 1948, as compared with none for the Palestinian minority “except for seven townships in the Negev intended to ‘concentrate’ the Bedouin population.”

For this reviewer, White’s chapters on “Judaization and the Demographic Threat” and “Systematic Discrimination” were among the strongest, providing extensive background information on topics that are rarely mentioned in mainstream media coverage in the United States.

White reveals that among Israeli officials there is a preoccupation with the “demographic threat” posed by Palestinian citizens of Israel, a preoccupation that might best be described as the secret discontent underlying every supremacist regime. It has led Israeli governments to colonize largely Palestinian areas within Israel itself — including by demolishing Palestinian homes, a practice that takes place not just in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, but also within Israel itself. Part of countering the “demographic threat” is to make sure there is a Jewish presence in every part of Israel, which White refers to as the “Judaization of space.”

A case in point is Nazareth and Upper Nazareth in the Galilee. White explains that after 1948 the remaining Palestinians within Israel — who numbered slightly more than 100,000 out of a previous population of more than 850,000 — were concentrated largely within the Galilee and the Negev (Naqab). The city of Nazareth was almost entirely Palestinian and was the largest Palestinian city controlled by Israel before it occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.

To “ ‘assert a Jewish presence in the area,’ in the words of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli government created Upper Nazareth as a Jewish settlement. This settlement was allowed to expand and flourish, eventually growing to 50,000 residents and occupying 42,000 dunams [a dunam is a quarter of an acre], whereas in Nazareth, 70,000 Palestinians were “forced into just 14,000 dunams: four times as crowded.” The mayor of Upper Nazareth still regards Palestinians as a “demographic threat” and announced in June 2009 the creation of a new ultra-Orthodox neighborhood “ ‘to counter Arabs moving in.’”

A spate of recent books has documented the impact of discrimination against Palestinians within Israel, among them Saree Makdisi’s Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, Ilan Pappe’s The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel, and Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within by Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman. All provide valuable information on inequalities and discrimination.

However, White’s figures are among the most current available. For example, he notes that in 2010, Palestinian citizens accounted for a third of all poor people in Israel and of the 30 communities with the highest unemployment, 27 of them were Arab. Whole sectors of employment are off limits to Palestinians. Israeli government data from 2011 showed that of the more than 2.3 million people employed by 170,000 Jewish-owned businesses, less than 86,000, or only 3.7 percent, were Palestinian citizens. A survey of almost 200 industrial firms in 2010 showed that 41 percent did not “ ‘employ any Arab college graduates.’”

Discrimination in education

On the topic of education, this reviewer wished that White had provided more background information to explain Israel’s de facto system of segregated education from kindergarten through the 12th grade. White acknowledges that Israel does not have a legally-segregated K-12 school system.

Nevertheless, the system of de facto segregation in education resulted from a deliberate policy. Military rule fenced off Palestinian rural villages from Jewish settlements and rigidly controlled Palestinians’ ability to move freely with a permit system not unlike apartheid South Africa’s notorious passbooks. Military rule ensured a system of segregated schools in rural areas. What is often not appreciated is what happened in the so-called “mixed cities” where Palestinians and Jews lived together, such as Haifa.

There, in 1948, the Haganah (an armed Zionist organization) forcibly removed Palestinians from the Carmel Ridge and “German Colony” areas to concentrate them in a single neighborhood, the Wadi Nisnas, despite objections from Palestinian members of the Knesset (MKs) who noted that the purpose was to create a “ghetto.” As one MK put it at the time, “It’s described as a military action. But in fact it’s a political one. It’s racism!”

Despite the MKs’ objections, the Haganah commander who implemented the forcible creation of a ghetto noted that he wasn’t interested in their views. They were simply to do as they were told, as recounted in the Israeli historian Tom Segev’s 1949: The First Israelis.

Of course, so-called “separate but equal” school systems are anything but. White documents a study conducted in association with the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics which found that for each Jewish student, schools have a budget of around $1,100 a year, compared with a figure of just $191 for each Palestinian student, almost six times less.

Rethinking our approach to Israel

In his concluding chapter, White returns to his theme of why the political Zionist dream of a Jewish state is central to the conflict. “There is an urgent need to rethink our approach to Israel, consistent with the reality on the ground in the West Bank, the reasons for the failure of the ‘peace process,’ and the situation for the Palestinian minority in a Jewish state. It means moving beyond the ‘occupation’ discourse that limits the conflict to policies and phenomena specific to the territories conquered by Israel in 1967. It is time to re-integrate the different elements of the historic conflict, and see the ‘Question of Palestine’ holistically.”

He adds, “it is necessary to see how, as a result of Israeli policies and legislation, one in seven Palestinians is a second-class citizen, a third are under military rule without citizenship, and half of all Palestinians are outside the borders, dispossessed and forbidden from returning. This latter reality is central to the contradiction of the ‘Jewish and democratic’ state, an identification that was only established and can only be maintained, by the expulsion and forcible exclusion of half the Palestinian people.”

By placing the emphasis on human rights and equality, White argues that the struggle must be redirected toward genuine “democratization and de-colonization, based upon the recognition of both Palestinian and Jewish rights.

“Freed from the imperative of maintaining an exclusivist ethno-religious state, issues like water rights or the status of Jerusalem are transformed from the stumbling blocks of tortuous negotiations into opportunities for celebratory affirmations of a common homeland and the mutual protection of both communities’ rights.”

This perspective surely must be taken up by those engaged in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, a global nonviolent movement confronting Israeli apartheid. The great theorist of nonviolence, Gene Sharp, argued that its effectiveness lies in the “delegitimization” of the policies of oppression. Its power comes not from pressuring the powerful or from disrupting the status quo but from making the policies of oppression illegitimate in the eyes of the nation’s citizens and the world.

Thus, the Birmingham, Alabama civil rights protesters who were water-hosed by Bull Connor’s firemen, as seen on nationwide TV, were part of the process of delegitimizing the US South’s system of segregation. Once that occurred, the resulting victories in civil rights legislation became inevitable. So, it is not Israel itself that is being made illegitimate, but rather the policies of privileging one ethnic group over another as summed up in the phrase “the Jewish state.”

Rod Such is a freelance writer and former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is a member of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign and Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights.