Rethinking ‘Democracy’: Israeli Exposure Week – Day 5

On Friday morning we left Haifa and journeyed to Nazareth for our final exposure week activity, a meeting with Muhammad Zeidan, Director of the Arab Association for Human Rights. There we learned about the situation of the more than one million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, who make up approximately 20% of that population. They hold Israeli ID cards and passports, can vote in elections and be elected, and yet they are not equal .

For generations, prior to the war in 1948, they farmed the lands in historic Palestine. During the war they became refugees and internally displaced persons, and afterward those living within the borders of what is now the State of Israel became Israeli citizens. However, Israel emerged from the 1948 War as a Jewish state and its citizens are designated as Jewish or non-Jewish. This means that non-Jews are a minority not only in numbers, but in identity. And a number of laws and practices maintain separation and discrimination.

The Absentee Property Law passed in 1950 decreed that land not occupied for three years would become the property of the State. Since Palestinians were not granted the right of return to their homes following the war, as stipulated in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of Dec. 1948, they were termed absentee and their land was confiscated. Mr. Zeidan remarked wryly that Palestinians are “present absentees…present in matters of the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, but absent in the rights of citizenship”. They are not free to live anywhere in the State, but are confined to one of seven ‘recognized townships’ (ghettoes with inferior services). The Planning and Construction Law of 1965 created something known as “unrecognized villages”. A list of villages was drawn up, but if a village didn’t appear on the list it didn’t exist, was therefore illegal and also not eligible for any services.

From 1948 to 1966, Palestinians were under martial law based on the British Mandatory Law concerning ’emergency regulations’. This created two separate legal systems and severely restricted all basic freedoms. And though the military regime was theoretically abolished in 1966 and a single court system put in place, nothing has really changed. Discrimination continues in the following ways:
(1) Direct legal discrimination – the language of many laws contains the words “for Jews” (i.e. land taken under the Absentee Property Law and given to the State is now reserved for Jews).
(2) Indirect legal discrimination – the language is hidden. Some basic rights, as well as job opportunities, etc., are linked to military service. The ‘Catch 22’ is that the Minister of Defense has the sole authority to reject people and Palestinians are virtually always rejected (there are a small number accepted into noncombat units). Orthodox Jews are ordered to appear but are automatically exempted on religious grounds…however, enjoy all the rights of those who have served. Palestinians don’t begrudge the ‘perks’ for those who have served actively in the armed forces (similar to our “GI benefits” of college tuition, health care, etc.), but resent the fact that basic rights are denied.
(3) Institutional discrimination – involves policy, not law. The decisions of the ministers of all departments are final and can’t be contested in court. The impact of this is seen in the budget for example, where funding for repair and maintenance of infrastructure, health care and education are vastly unequal.
(4) Public sphere – stereotypes still exist on both sides and our own country’s history has shown that these are most difficult to modify or eradicate.

While there is not a universally accepted definition of democracy and many forms of democratic government exist, there are elements that are considered fundamental. These include (1) power is held directly or indirectly by the citizens under a free electoral system, and (2) the will of the majority is recognized but there is legal protection of individual and minority rights. In the United States, Israel is frequently described as our “democratic partner/friend/ally in the Middle East”. As usual, I am left with more questions than answers.

The remainder of the day was spent sightseeing in Nazareth. We then returned to Jerusalem and the following morning to our placement sites.

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