Middle East: State of Denial

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Discrimination against Palestinians runs through the state of Israel. Sabby Sagall traces its origins.

Apologists for Israel frequently boast that it is a cut above all other states in the Middle East on the grounds that it is a democracy. By this they mean that the Palestinian minority (nearly 20 percent of the total population) have the right to vote, unlike the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories or, indeed, the Arabs in the rest of the region. Moreover, since the late 1970s they have enjoyed the right to form political parties.

However, the concept of 'democracy' surely includes some notion of inclusiveness, of equality before the law and of opportunity regardless of class, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity. Israel fails this test on two grounds. Firstly, its Jewish four to one majority was achieved by the military expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. Secondly, for over 50 years the Israeli state has pursued a policy of systematic discrimination against its Palestinian minority, one rooted in a profound institutionalised racism.

According to the United Nations partition plan of 1947, Palestine was to be divided into a Jewish and an Arab state. Although the Jews numbered 600,000--some 30 percent of the total population, owning only 8 percent or so of the land, they were granted 55 percent of historical Palestine. The Palestinians, numbering some 1,100,000, were awarded 45 percent. Nearly 400,000 Arabs, a number nearly equal to that of the Jews, were to live in the Jewish state.

But for the Zionists this wasn't enough. In the course of 1948 militias drove the majority of the Palestinians, around 700,000 people, out of Palestine. The massacre at Deir Yassin and other villages caused the Palestinians to flee in terror in what was the first postwar example of ethnic cleansing, the only case of a majority being expelled. The Zionists extended the boundaries of the Jewish state, ending up with 72 percent of Palestine. Israel's racism is enshrined in the law of return by which any Jew born anywhere in the world has the right to emigrate to Israel and acquire automatic citizenship, whereas the Palestinians expelled in 1948 are denied the right of return.

Palestinians became a minority, strangers in their own land. From 1948 until 1966 they were treated like a fifth column and were under strict military government. Palestinian areas were subject to closure, restricting freedom of movement, to unlimited detention without charge, and to expulsion from the country. The military government was empowered to destroy a person's home if it was suspected that a shot had been fired from there. An individual who broke these and other laws was subject to trial by a military court. Palestinians were also refused the right to join Zionist parties.

An important reason for the establishment of military government can be seen in the way the Israeli authorities set about expropriating Palestinian land after 1948. Six laws were adopted for the specific purpose of confiscating over two thirds of the Palestinians' land, who ceased to be private agricultural landowners and were forced to become labourers in Israeli farms and industries. Indeed, until the year 2000 Palestinians were legally barred form buying land and building homes in Israel. In addition, Palestinians have suffered from two distinct types of discrimination under the state of Israel. The first concerns the huge differences in the amount of state funds allocated to Jewish and Arab development and welfare. For many years Palestinian municipalities received less than half of the government subsidies granted to Jewish ones. Since 1948 no new Palestinian town has been built. Their existing towns are crowded and dirty.

Budgetary discrimination in health, education, housing and culture results in Palestinians being relegated to third or fourth class citizens compared to Sephardic (of eastern origin) or Russian Jews. For example, former premier Barak's minister of trade and industry, Ran Cohen, admitted that only 0.5 percent of his budget went to Palestinians. The state spends only half as much on the education of a Palestinian as on that of a Jewish child. Despite greater need within the Palestinian community, the Ministry of Social Welfare and Labour spends a total of 12.5 percent of its budget on the Palestinian population. As a result of these policies one out of every two Israeli Palestinian children lives below the poverty line, with half of all the children in poverty being Palestinian.

The figures for state spending on Palestinian education don't tell the whole story. The school curriculum is set by the Israeli ministry of education, with Palestinian teachers forbidden to teach their pupils the truth about Palestinian history.

Discrimination against Palestinians is also rife in employment. The ministry of trade and industry employs four Palestinians out of a total of 540 employees. Only 5 percent of civil servants come from the Palestinian (and Druze and Circassian) sections of the population (who make up 20 percent). Localities with over 10 percent unemployment are overwhemingly Palestinian.

The second type of discrimination involves the denial of Palestinian identity. For most of the 20th century Zionists refused to admit that there was an indigenous people living in Palestine. Hence in the early days of the movement the slogan was 'A land without a people for a people without a land.' Palestinians were simply deemed to be part of the wider Arab population. So the systematic confiscation of land wasn't just for economic reasons, but also had an ideological motive--a refusal to recognise the historical relationship of Palestinians to the land. And finally, since 1967 Israel has subjected the one a half million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to a brutal occupation. Occupation and democracy are not exactly harmonious bedfellows.

The conclusion is inescapable: Israel is a democracy for its Jews, but not for its Palestinians.