Persuading independent-minded souls of the horrors of enduring military occupation is not hard. The grim reality on the ground, worsening with every passing year, is blisteringly evident in the maze of settlements, barriers and checkpoints. They soon get it. Few, however, climb the learning curve as far as the situation facing the Palestinians within Israel; those who are supposedly full citizens with equal rights. Israel, as politicians in the West are reminded almost daily, is a democracy. This incessant dictum emanating largely from anti-Arab circles is designed to paper over the systematic discrimination that Israel’s “non-Jewish” population faces. The great con is that, even though this minority can vote in elections, they are far from equal.
Not much scratching is required to discover that many of the policies afflicting Palestinians in the West Bank originated from policies that first played out inside Israel, not least in land ownership. In the West Bank, the Israeli occupation is a 53-year-old story of taking land from Palestinians for Israeli settlers and herding the Palestinians into ever more crowded urban centers. In Israel, this process has been going on ever since 1948. From 1948 to 1966, Israel’s Palestinian population was placed under military rule. Israeli authorities developed the policies and practices that they rolled out after 1967, when they started to rule over even larger numbers of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
All of this is portrayed in a first-class report published last week by Human Rights Watch, entitled “Israel: Discriminatory Land Policies Hem in Palestinians.” Omar Shakir, one of the report’s authors, told me: “Israel’s policies of boxing in Palestinians, maximizing land for Jewish communities and segregation extend before the West Bank. Efforts to end Israel’s discriminatory rule will fall short so long as they overlook the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict throws up all sorts of startling statistics. Few, however, stick out more than the issue of land ownership in Israel itself. Remember, more than a fifth of Israel’s population is non-Jewish and they owned most of the land before the conflict. An eye-popping 93 percent of the land of Israel, including illegally annexed East Jerusalem, is now owned by the state of Israel, managed by the Israel Land Authority. Cynics may say that this is for the benefit of all Israel’s citizens. If only. Six out of the 14 members of policy making body the Israel Land Council are representatives of the Jewish National Fund, whose sole purpose is to look after land for Jews only. This might explain why, outside of the Negev, Israel has built no new Palestinian towns since 1948, but has constructed more than 900 Jewish ones.
Less than 3 percent of Israeli land falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian municipalities in Israel. In reality, it is even worse. Within that 3 percent, Palestinian municipalities frequently face further restrictions on land use.
Jewish villages and towns are less dense and tend to appear wealthier and leafier. In certain cases, the difference is drastic, not least among the Palestinian Bedouin communities in the Negev. Thirty-seven of their communities are unrecognized, meaning that their 35,000 inhabitants have zero access to municipal services. And a large proportion of the Bedouin were corralled into seven sterile townships that are consistently ranked among the poorest officially recognized communities in the whole of Israel.
Home demolitions are an almost daily feature of life for Palestinians in the West Bank. As of July 2015, 97 percent of judicial demolition orders in force across Israel were for structures located in Palestinian communities. Reports suggest that 60,000 to 70,000 Palestinian homes in Israel, excluding Jerusalem, are at risk of demolition. Moreover, a new amendment to a law means that such demolitions can now be expedited with fewer safeguards. For the village of Al-Araqib, no safeguards exist at all. This Bedouin village in the Negev has been demolished 173 times and counting since 2010. None of this is to forget the 400-plus Palestinian villages erased from existence after 1948.
Does such systematic discrimination in Israel matter now more than, say, a decade ago?
Firstly, the racism against Israel’s Palestinian population is getting worse. Even the US State Department accuses Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party of promoting hatred against Israel’s Arab citizens in its annual human rights report. It emanates from the very top — a chatbot message on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Facebook page claimed: “The Arabs want to destroy all of us, women, children and men.” This message went to hundreds of thousands of Israelis just ahead of last September’s election. Incidents of racism are rampant. For example, last month, an Israeli town councilman urged fellow Jews not to sell property to Arabs in a WhatsApp group. In March, Israeli police attacked two Arabs in Jaffa in an incident that was caught on camera.
Even the US State Department accuses Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party of promoting hatred against Israel’s Arab citizens.
Secondly, under the Donald Trump plan, a large slice of densely populated Palestinian land inside Israel would be hived off to the new Palestinian state. The plan tries to offload as much of the population with as little land as possible, in part to forestall any possibility that Israel’s Jewish majority could ever be threatened. For many — and not just on the Israeli right — the dangers of this were highlighted in April’s election, when the Joint List, representing mainly the Arab voters, held the balance of power. Having an Arab party inside any Israeli governing coalition is viewed as impermissible. Netanyahu was clear that, for him, only Israeli Jewish votes count. He claimed that, out of 120 Knesset seats, there were 58 for the “Zionist right” and 47 for the “Zionist left.” He simply ignored the Joint List’s 15 seats.
Finally, as the new Israeli coalition government is sworn in, its core goal is to annex much of the West Bank and smash any meaningful hope of a Palestinian state. Palestinians will have little option but to demand equal rights in a single state in a protracted civil rights movement.
When that kicks off, the outside world had better start opening its eyes. This civil rights movement will not be restricted to Palestinians of the West Bank, but will also include the 1 million-plus Palestinian citizens of Israel. They will stand more united than ever in calling for Israel to become a true democracy and to end its systematic discrimination. At that point, Israeli politicians will be desperate for a Palestinian state.
- Chris Doyle