Land, citizenship and exclusion in Israel

A new law that "formalizes the establishment of admission committees to review potential residents of Negev and Galilee communities that have fewer than 400 families" seems set to entrench Arab exclusion and challenges the meaning of citizenship and the basis of democracy
Ben White
30 March 2011

This 30 March, the Palestinian minority inside Israel will mark ‘Land Day’, 35 years after Israeli security forces killed six Arab citizens protesting against the expropriation of land by the state. Land Day has become a global day of commemoration and protest for Palestinians, but its significance is that its origins are in the struggle of the Palestinians in Israel.

This year there is an added resonance, as the Israeli parliament has only recently passed discriminatory new legislation targeting the Palestinian minority (around 20 per cent of the population). In fact, in recent years, Israeli Members of Knesset have been proposing and passing a whole raft of disturbing proposals, a trend that did not begin with, but was boosted by, the current Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition (see summaries by Adalah and ACRI).

Just last week, however, two new laws were passed on the same day. One, dubbed the ‘Nakba Law’, enables “the withholding of funds to public institutions deemed to be involved in publicly challenging the founding of Israel as a Jewish state or any activity ‘denying the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’. A law, in the words of an editorial in Ha’aretz, “designed to shut people up”.

But it is the other new law that is worthier of discussion on Land Day, a bill that “formalizes the establishment of admission committees to review potential residents of Negev and Galilee communities that have fewer than 400 families”. Potential residents’ applications are considered by a committee (including representatives of the community and the Jewish Agency or World Zionist Organization) who can reject candidates “if they do not meet certain criteria” such as not suiting the community’s “social and cultural character”.

According to Adalah, the law will apply to around 42% of towns in Israel. Palestinian citizens thus face yet another means of exclusion and institutionalised ethno-religious privilege. One of the bill’s supporters, MK Israel Hasson (from the ‘centrist’ Kadima party), said that the new law is intended to “preserve the ability to realize the Zionist dream in practice”. Another MK, David Rotem (from FM Lieberman’s party Yisrael Beiteinu), said that he was “not ashamed” in wanting “to maintain this country as a Jewish and democratic state”. He continued:

You are worried about democracy, but in your way there would be no state. Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, not a state of all its citizens.

During an earlier stage of the bill’s passage, Rotem – as chair of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee – commented that in his opinion, “every Jewish town needs at least one Arab. What would happen if my refrigerator stopped working on a Saturday?”

It is important to note that in practical terms, this law does not represent a significant shift – selection committees are not new, and, as The Jerusalem Post observed, “have been rejecting applications by Israeli Arabs for several years”. Human Rights Watch has also reported how selection committees “have notoriously been used to exclude Arabs from living in rural Jewish communities.” This new law is therefore a formalisation of their role, as well as an attempt to thwart legal appeals against the long-standing de facto discrimination.

But there is more. Not only have these communities long excluded Palestinian citizens, but many of them were explicitly established in the 1970s and ‘80s “by Zionist organizations” – in cooperation with the Israeli state of course – “for the purpose of ‘Judaizing’ areas like the Negev and the Galilee”. In other words, for decades the Israeli state has pursued policies based on the premise that there are too many of the ‘wrong kind’ of citizen in certain areas. As Dr. Haim Yacobi of Ben Gurion University has put it, “the Judaization project is driven by the Zionist premise that Israel is a territory and a state that ‘belongs’ to, and only to, the Jewish people.”

This is the context in which this new bill on selection committees was said by the Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin to consolidate “priorities that we have lived by for the past 100 years”, specifying, according to Ha’aretz, the "national mission" of populating the Galilee and Negev. This is the context in which Israel’s Housing Minister can declare it a "national duty" to "prevent the spread" of Palestinian citizens in the Galilee, and the chair of the Knesset’s ‘Lobby for Housing Solutions for Young Couples’ can say that ““it is a national interest to encourage Jews to move to” places where “the Arab population is on the rise.”

Israel's treatment of those Palestinians with citizenship raises serious questions about its democratic credentials.

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