Saturday, February 17, 2007

Inside Israel’s apartheid state

Israel's mistreatment of its Arab minorities is part of a state program to combat what is perceived as an internal existential threat

By Reed Eurchuk

Israel's government recently appointed Avigdor Lieberman its Minister of External Threats, more accurately known as its Minister of Fear. Like countless authoritarian politicians before him, Lieberman employs the rhetoric of violent racist fantasies, blood identification, and fear of a threatening "other." Lieberman has called upon Israel to bomb the Aswan Dam to punish Egypt for supporting the PLO; he has called for the drowning of Palestinian prisoners held in the Israeli gulag; and he has suggested Arab-Israeli politicians should be shot if they speak with representatives of the governing Palestinian party, Hamas. How does such a throwback to brutish coarse fascism find a powerful place within Israel's government? How does a country portrayed in our media as a democratic, tolerant, open society throw up such a barbarian? As renowned Israeli historian Ilan Pappe recently said, "The problem with Avigdor Lieberman is not his own views, but the fact that he reflects what most Israeli Jews think."

What’s it like inside?

Israeli violence in Gaza, the West Bank, and southern Lebanon diverts our attention from life within Israel itself. The violence Israel imposes upon its neighbours originates from a society that defines itself on the basis of blood, religion, and military might. In Toward An Open Tomb, Michel Warschawski writes, "Systematic dehumanization of a colonized people inevitably leads to dehumanization of the colonizers and their society.” Warshawski points to rising intolerance, racism and violence within Israel as symptomatic of the violence Israel inflicts on its neighbours, especially the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. His is one of a number of recent books written by Israelis that expose religious and race-based policies within Israel itself.

Susan Nathan moved to Israel from England under the ''right of return” guaranteed all Jews regardless of their place of birth. Shocked by the depth of segregation and discrimination within Israel, she set to work for the civil rights of the Israeli Arab population. In her book, The Other Side of Israel, she investigates and documents the structures in place within Israel that ensure Israeli Arabs do not have the same resources and opportunities available for them that Israeli Jews have.

The Israeli state does not serve all its citizens equally. Israel calls itself a "Jewish and democratic state," and its Jewish majority population receives services, opportunities, and privileges not available to its Palestinian, Druze, and Bedouin minorities, who comprise about 17% of the population living within Israel's pre-1967 boundaries. Israel appears more eager to help a Jew from North America to relocate to Israel than it is to attend to the medical, educational, water, or housing needs of its Arab populations. As Bernard Avishai wrote in an article in Harper's Magazine, when he immigrated to Israel in 1972, "All I had to do was prove myself a Jew by birth," and "I was given a virtually interest-free mortgage to buy an apartment" in occupied Palestine.

Land development: in the details

Avishai benefitted from a complicated land system unique to Israel. Much of the land within Israel is owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a private organization whose charter explicitly forbids leasing or renting land to Israeli Arabs. Most of the rest of the land is managed by the Israel Lands Authority (ILA), but as Nathan explains, "even here the JNF is really pulling the strings. The [JNF] nominates half the members of the ILA's governing council, thereby determining the policies of the ILA too." So explicit ethnic and religious criteria limit Arab-Israeli access to land within Israel. Try to imagine a Canada where such criteria determined the right to purchase or use land. Is there any other word for such an arrangement other than racist?

And while a Jewish North American will get a lot of assistance to relocate to Israel, an Israeli of Arab descent, whose family could trace their lineage within Palestine to the distant past, finds roadblocks in his or her path to simply build a new addition on their own home. Nathan, who lives in an Arab village in Israel, gives a number of illustrations of how this discriminatory practice plays out. One of her neighbours "tried to get a building permit to build on family owned land. Planning authorities refused him, so he built a place anyway. Now to ward off demolition he is forced to pay heavy fines."

From the beginning

Again, this discrimination is legal under Israeli law; it is structured into the Israeli state. Nathan explains that, under the 1965 Planning and Building Law, "a master plan for all of Israel," "the state decided that . . . 123 Arab communities" and towns not on the list ceased to exist as far as the government was concerned. Nathan goes on, "In the case of every community they listed, Jewish and Arab, they set down a border for its development, what they called blue lines. In the case of Arab communities, these were drawn tightly around the houses, so there was no room left for development. In the case of Jewish communities, they were drawn loosely, so there was plenty of space for them to expand and develop." In 1967, the Knesset passed the Law of Agricultural Settlement that prohibited the subletting of the Jewish-owned land of the JNF to non-Jews. In his new book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Ilan Pappe gives a statistical measure of the results of these racist policies: "The Palestinian minority in Israel, seventeen per cent of the total population after ethnic cleansing, has been forced to make do with just three per cent of the land. They are allowed to build and live on only two per cent of the land; the remaining one per cent was defined as agricultural land which cannot be built upon. In other words, today 1.3 million people live on that two per cent."

Nathan cites statistics regarding educational funding for Arab versus Jewish students in Israel. In 2004, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics published figures from 2001, which show that "[e]ach Arab student in Israel received resources (after teachers' salaries had been excluded) of 105 pounds a year, less than a quarter of the 485 pounds spent on Jewish pupils in secular state schools." Students at Jewish religious schools get even more money from the state. Some social welfare services are also prejudiced against Arab-Israelis because some of them are predicated on service in the military, which most Arab-Israelis are not allowed to join. Water resources are also monopolized for the Jewish majority to the detriment of the Arab minority.

In Blood and Religion, Jonathan Cook focuses on the mistreatment of Arab people living within Israel, but he emphasizes what he calls the "Battle of the Numbers." According to Cook, Israel's fear of its growing Arab population motivates much of its policy making. For example, a recent amendment to its Nationality Law of 1952, known as the Nationality and Entry into Israel Law, "discriminated against hundreds of Arab citizens recently married or preparing to marry a Palestinian from the occupied territories" as it effectively "banned marriages between Israelis and Palestinians." And Cook follows many others in saying Israel's recent evacuation of its colonists from Gaza had more to do with "disposing of an unwanted Palestinian population estimated at about 1.3 million, more than a quarter of all the Palestinians who fell under its rule." Demographic considerations, not a search for peace, led to the decision.


Warschawski sees the root of Israel's racist society in its Zionist ideology. "For Zionists . . . the only normal society is an ethnically homogeneous society. Excluding those who are different [and] racism. . . are natural phenomena that express society's need to expel any alien element." Pappe would agree, and he locates this race-based ideology at the root of Zionism. He quotes a passage from the diary of Theodor Herzl, a father of Zionism, which states, "We shall endeavour to expel the poor population across the border unnoticed, procuring employment for it in the transit countries, but denying it any employment in our own country." And he quotes a public speech made by Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion: "If the Arabs in Israel form 40 per cent of the population, this is the end of the Jewish state. . . . But 20 per cent is also a problem. If the relationship with these 20 per cent becomes problematic, the state is entitled to employ extreme measures."

The cancer

The Israeli establishment's fear of its Palestinian minority continues to this day. Writing in the well-known Israeli liberal daily, Ha'aretz in 2002, and quoted in Cook's book, Israel's Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's military chief of staff during much of the second intifada, wrote that, "When you are attacked externally, you can see the attack, you are wounded. Cancer, on the other hand, is something internal. Therefore, I find it more disturbing, because here the diagnosis is critical . . . . My professional diagnosis is that there is a phenomenon here that constitutes an existential threat." So, for Ya'alon, the Israeli-Palestinian population is a threat, a “cancer” imperiling Israel's existence. It is in this context that Lieberman's threats of “voluntary transfer,” i.e., the further ethnic cleansing of Palestinians within Israel, must be taken seriously.

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