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There is a saying in Arabic: “When the judge is your enemy, to whom should you complain?” This conundrum, which sums up the daily lived experience of the 1.5 million Palestinians living within Israel, is the subject of Ben White’s latest book, Palestinians in Israel.
Throughout the book, White refuses to use the term Israeli Arabs to refer to those Palestinians who had remained within Israel’s borders in 1948, while 700,000 others were expelled during the nakba (the catastrophe). This label is, he argues, a deliberate formulation, the language of the oppressor that at once portrays Israel as multicultural and glosses over the memory of the ethnic cleansing of 1948.
Palestinians in Israel: Discrimination, Segregation and Democracy employs the same tactic White used in his first book Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, focusing on discriminatory legislation – the on-paper evidence of unequal treatment that cannot be refuted. He quotes heavily, weaving together the evidence to support his arguments, in particular citing illustrative statements made by top Israeli politicians throughout history. Many of these leaders, White demonstrates, grasped – and were often not afraid to admit – that Israel’s self-definition as “Jewish and democratic” was deeply problematic.
The ideology of Zionism on which Israel is founded – Israel’s raison d’être – is held up to scrutiny and its internal contradiction laid bare. As far as the rights of the non-Jewish population are concerned, Israel’s two professed traits are conflicting rather than compatible. White argues that whenever tensions have arisen, pitting Israel’s Jewishness against its democratic nature, Zionist principles have always prevailed.
White emphasizes the need to go back to the beginning – to the Nakba and the creation of Israel – in order to understand the key dimensions of today’s political landscape. The British politicians who helped bring about the creation of Israel frequently had little or no respect for basic principles of human equality or self-determination. Winston Churchill, for instance, believed some races were stronger and “higher grade,” while Arthur Balfour bluntly admitted: “In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.”
From this historical vantage point it is clear that Israel did not cease to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” only after the people-powered Arab Spring. Israel was founded at the expense of Palestinians’ right to self-determination and has never granted equal rights or equal treatment to them. Instead Israel has passed a long series of antidemocratic laws. Reflecting on the theocractic character of the Israeli legal system, White borrows the term “ethnocracy” from Israeli scholar Oren Yiftachel to describe the nature of a state that elevates one ethnicity over others.
A contrast drawn by Ariel Sharon, that Palestinians have rights in the land, whereas Israeli Jews have rights to and over the land, is illustrative. In the wake of Israel’s creation, a flurry of legislation swiftly took control of the land for one group and dispossessed the other. In White’s narrative, the Law of Return, the Absentee Property Law, and the Citizenship Law, among others, drew the parameters of belonging and entitlement very early on and consolidated and enhanced the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba.
A very important feature of this book is the attention it pays to the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in entrenching the state’s control on the land on behalf of only some of its citizens. The Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Agency both have statutory powers to administer land, perhaps because the Israeli government realized that at least appearing to be at arm’s length from blatant ethnic favoritism would bring benefits. While states should, in theory at least, treat citizens equally, private civil society groups fall outside these expectations.
These NGOs, and the enormously powerful Jewish National Fund too, enjoy huge influence and act not only in the interests of one subset of citizens but actively against the interest of another: the Palestinians. The JNF, for instance, has been instrumental in legislating the confiscation of land and has established picnic sites and forests on the sites of ethnically cleansed villages. That this organization considers itself “the caretaker of the land of Israel on behalf of its owners – Jewish people everywhere” is, according to White, a fundamental point about Israel’s self-image. Unlike any other state in the world, Israel believes people who don’t live inside its borders are its citizens by virtue of their ethnicity. In contrast the Palestinians who do live within its border are not citizens but merely “residents” of Israel – all they can ever be as non-Jews.
For Zionists, Palestinians living in Israel are the enemy within and constitute a demographic threat. A recent example of a discriminatory law designed to force them out is the Nationality and Entry into Israel Law, which renders it impossible for Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank married to Palestinians living in Israel to move to Israel and exercise their right to family life.
Since being rendered “present absentees” in the Nakba, Palestinians driven from their homes who settled elsewhere in Israel have been the subject of “internal colonialism … Judaizing the Negev and Galilee – the unfinished war of 1948.” A demonstration of this, White argues, is the new plan to develop the Negev region, which would entail the forced relocation of more than 30,000 Bedouin Palestinians. Evidence that is also hard to ignore is the plight of the 40-plus unrecognized villages in Israel – Al Araqib, Dahmash and others – which the government refuses to provide infrastructure links to or services for and instead frequently targets for demolition.
The crucial point is that these villages are only illegal because the state refuses to allow them to become legal. Israeli law is stacked against Palestinians at every level, and the Bedouins’ plight is the same as the East Jerusalemites’ in that when planning permission is almost always refused there is little option left but to build illegally and risk demolition. White points out that where the state has categorized a Palestinian village as agricultural land or forest land despite residents living there, a handful have fought for and won recognition through the courts. But these are the exception to the rule. The Judaization of land that Zionists see as their own is relentless, and the courts, enforcing laws made by Zionist legislators, inevitably back up the colonists.
White is keen to stress, and to back up the claim, that Zionist ideology necessarily, logically and inevitably leads to antidemocratic practices. Israel’s self-definition is “the contradiction at the heart of the conflict” and it is not only hardcore settlers or extreme right-wingers but all Zionists who are inherently against multiculturalism and coexistence and who are thus anti-Palestinian.
He asks us to imagine, instead of this, a future of equals, free from the inexorably hierarchical logic of Zionism. Though prospects are grim and he is under no illusions about the present dire situation, cynicism is avoided in favor of an idealistic but not impossible hope of a peace based on justice and human rights.
As member of the Knesset Haneen Zoabi points out in her foreword, the book seeks a “shift away from the paradigm of occupation as the lens through which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed.” As such,Palestinians in Israel is a very valuable contribution to an often internecine Palestinian solidarity movement. As highlighted by the controversy caused in February when Norman Finkelstein effectively endorsed a two-state solution, increasing numbers of people are refusing to settle only for an end to the conflict and a Palestinian state – those apparently innocuous and uncontroversial goals which the official peace process has nonetheless long failed to deliver.
A rights-based approach grounded in a vision of equality and justice for all may not sound radical but its implications are sizable. The book is, in its totality, an argument for putting the two-state solution to bed, for it illustrates how many problems would be left unsolved even if Israel ever did allow a Palestinian state. Not only would such a thing entail abandoning the right of return for refugees, but it would leave intact a whole gamut of legislation that makes Palestinians in Israel permanent second-class citizens.
Moving beyond the two-states-for-two-people paradigm, a paradigm which may sound reasonable but is, in essence, the logic of separation, means the solidarity movement should move beyond “occupation discourse.” For White, the civil society Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, in Palestine, internationally and in Israel where possible, focuses attention on the right goals: democratization and decolonization.
And with his choice of poetic epigraph, White seems to say that a lasting just peace must involve Israelis in a transformative process of liberation as much as it must grant Palestinians their freedom and equality:
“From the windows of my small cell /
I can see your large cell.”
from End of a Discussion with a Jailer by Samih al-Qasim
Hilary Aked is a trainee journalist and writer based in London. She has lived and worked in Palestine. This is a slightly edited version of a piece first published inCeasefire Magazine.
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