Imagine the following situation in the United States:
The US amends the constitution to define itself as a "White Evangelical and democratic state" and leaves "equal protection of the laws" outside the constitution; a federal organ called the White Evangelical National Fund promotes settlement and allocation of land for White Evangelicals only; a federal organ called White Evangelical Agency encourages and helps White Evangelicals all over the world to immigrate to the US since it is the Promised Land for Whites; a federally-funded Center for Demography working to increase the birthrates of White Evangelicals to ensure their status as a majority and discusses ways to "persuade" non-white citizens to have less children; a federal Immigration and Absorption Department dedicated exclusively for White Evangelicals; a law prohibiting mixed marriages inside the US between American citizens and non-White-Evangelical foreigners (the Supreme Court upholds the law since Earl Warren is no longer on the bench); an immigration law providing automatic citizenship and financial government benefits for White Evangelicals only; the administration declares most of the private lands as public domain owned collectively by white people, and non-whites are denied any rights in these lands; the president appoints a Chief Evangelical Priest for the US, the administration funds his office as well as dozens of White Evangelical religious schools and institutions, and the Congress starts its session after the elections by reading Biblical verses; the head of the FBI publicly states that non-white citizens are "strategic threat" and "demographic threat" to the White Evangelical character of the country; some members of the Congress publicly and routinely demand the expulsion of the non-white citizens; 65% of the white majority regularly expresses in public opinion polls its demand from the administration to encourage the emigration of non-whites outside the country; and 60 years of constant official state of emergency with Emergency Regulations invoked occasionally to prevent non-white leaders from leaving the country and to close their newspapers and NGOs.
Unfortunately this is the daily reality of the Palestinian-Arab citizens in Israel (18% of the total population). All the above-mentioned elements, and more, exist in the Israeli law and political culture: Jewish National Fund, Jewish Agency, etc. Yet, many pro-Israelis defy the facts and still argue that Israel is a democracy where Jews and Arabs have equal rights.
Conversely, Israeli NGOs, international human rights organisations and UN committees regularly expose and protest about the situation of the Palestinian citizens in Israel. The UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights, to mention one example, expressed in 1998 and 2003 its concern that the "excessive emphasis upon the state as a 'Jewish State' encourages discrimination and accords a second-class status to its non-Jewish citizens".
A recent study has revealed that the Human Development Index (a measure for standard of living, poverty, and progress) of the Arab minority in Israel ranks in the 66th place out of 177 countries - very similar to Libya, and 43 slots below the general ranking of Israel, which is 23rd. The GDP per capita for the Arab minority is a third of the GDP per capita of the Jewish majority, and is identical to the GDP per capita of Romania and Iran. The level of health amongst the Arab population is lower than countries like Costa Rica and Cuba.
Various studies have shown that: 60% of the Arab families in Israel are poor; 60% of the poor children in Israel are Arab; 90% of the Arab citizens live in communities ranked in the bottom three clusters of local communities in economic terms; 92% live in separate Arab communities; dozens of Arab villages lack any basic services (water, electricity, sewage, health care, education system, etc), and their homes are constantly threatened by demolition and frequently demolished. These villages are unrecognised by Israeli law in spite of the fact that they had existed long before the law was enacted, or even before the state existed.
Six hundred Jewish communities have been established since 1948, but not a single Arab community; 85% of the Arab citizens' lands have been confiscated since 1948; 96% of the land in Israel is owned by the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency. Arab citizens are virtually prohibited from buying, leasing or using these lands.
Sometimes people think that separation walls exist only in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, separation walls exist also inside Israel separating between Arab and Jewish citizens. Here are three examples:
In the city of Led between the Arab neighborhood Pardes Shnir and the Jewish Nir Zvi, Sharon's government and Led's local municipality built a wall more than four metres (13 ft) high and 1.5 km long.
In the city of Ramleh between the Arab Jawarish and the Jewish Ganei Dan, there is a wall 4 meters high and 2 km long.
Between the wealthy Jewish city of Caesarea and the poor Arab village of Jisr Az-zarka a dirt mount six metres (20 ft) high and one kilometre long was built by the Jewish city.
Moreover, routinely in places like Ashkelon, Ashdod, Jerusalem, Led, Migdal, Safed, Ramleh, Karmiel, Yerocham, and Rakefet organised groups call for expelling Arab students, workers or residents or blocking them from residing in Jewish cities. Sometimes this is done with the help of the local municipality or the government. The "arguments" are familiar: they corrupt our women, they contaminate our spiritual life, they bring crime and noise, they are unpleasant, and they lower the value of our apartments.
Sometimes it is argued that the analogy to South African apartheid in false since Arab citizens have the right to vote as well as to be elected to the parliament. However, Coloureds and Indians were able to vote in South Africa after the constitutional reforms in 1983, and nobody claimed that this stopped the apartheid from being apartheid. The same goes for Israel.
In sum, the Palestinian-Arab citizens are granted an inferior citizenship and face a separate and unequal reality. Hence the false argument that "Arabs and Jews are equal citizens" amounts to either ignorance or ideological blindness (or both). The fact that most of the Jewish citizens perceive Israel as a democratic state is unsurprising. In fact, this is another similarity between Israel and South Africa under apartheid: the privileged whites argued all the time - until the collapse of the regime - that it was a "democratic" system.
Nimer Sultany is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and currently a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School.He has worked as a human rights lawyer in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and as the head of the political monitoring project
at Mada al-Carmel (the Arab centre for applied social research).