Israel Cracks Down on Minority Rights

RAMALLAH – Three bills recently making the rounds in the Israeli parliament have caused outrage among Israel’s Arab minority.

"They reveal an obscene and dangerous targeting of the individual and collective rights of Palestinian citizens," the independent BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights in Israel said in a press release.

One bill sought to prohibit marking the day Israel declared its independence as a day of mourning. A second prohibits negating the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

The third bill would have required Israeli citizens, including Arabs of Palestinian descent, to sign oaths of loyalty to the state, the flag, and the national anthem, and to perform military or civil service.

The first bill passed its first sitting by the ministerial committee of the Knesset but was ultimately watered down. This bill would have outlawed Israeli Arabs commemorating the Nakba, or catastrophe, with a day of mourning. The punishment would be three years imprisonment.

Nakba day, May 15, is the day after the British mandate over Palestine ended in 1948 and the day Israel was established. During the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were driven out of their homes and villages by Israel’s military. Over 500 Palestinian villages were razed to make way for Jewish towns and settlements.

On Nakba day Palestinians in the occupied territories, and their Israeli-Arab brethren in Israel proper, march through destroyed villages in remembrance of the ethnic expulsion.

The anti-Nakba bill was formulated by extremist Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party. Lieberman has been criticized as a choice of foreign minister for advocating the expulsion of some Israeli Arabs from villages in northern Israel to the Palestinian territories.

After legal considerations were taken into account, the bill was softened to ban any Nakba events being supported by state funds.

The fact that the bill passed its first sitting before ultimately being watered down drew outrage from the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, an independent political organization comprising Arab Knesset members, local council heads, and representatives of the Arab sector in Israel.

The committee, which coordinates the political actions of various Israeli-Arab bodies, held an emergency meeting and stated that had the bill passed, it and the other bills submitted "would infringe on freedom of expression and increase extremism and division between Israeli citizens of Jewish and Arabic descent."

Israel’s Knesset plenum has also given initial approval to a bill that would make it a crime to publicly deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, punishable by up to a year in prison.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls the West Bank, Israel’s Arab citizens, and the Arab League have recognized Israel’s right to exist. But they argue that recognizing the Jewish character of the state would infringe on the rights of the country’s non-Jewish minorities as well as the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Another bill, which would have required anyone seeking Israeli citizenship to take an oath of loyalty to Israel and its Zionist values, was scrapped by the Knesset’s ministerial committee.

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee called the spate of bills "racist and fascist proposals aimed against the Arab public in Israel."

"The bills require the Arab minority to deny its history and Arab-Palestinian identity on one hand, and to identify with Zionist values that negate its national identity on the other," wrote committee chairman Mohammad Zeidan in a letter of protest to the Israeli government.

Moreover, efforts to pass these discriminatory bills through the Knesset come against a contextual background of an escalating campaign by Israeli right-wingers to portray Israel’s Arab community as a "demographic time bomb" and "a fifth column."

Yuval Diskin, director of Israel’s General Security Service, has described Palestinian citizens’ demands for equality as constituting "a strategic danger to the state" that must be thwarted "even if their activity is conducted through democratic means."

Meanwhile, Israel has also been cracking down on Palestinian cultural and political events in East Jerusalem, where it forbids the PA from operating. The PA hopes to establish its future capital in the eastern part of the city.

A Palestinian theater in East Jerusalem holding an international literature festival was forced to close down recently when police raided the venue. A Palestinian media center set up for Pope Benedict’s visit last month was also closed down by the Israeli authorities.

Since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came into power in February, the Israeli authorities have also banned events marking Jerusalem as the Arab League’s Capital of Arab Culture for 2009.

The Israeli authorities have repeatedly stated that the entire city, contrary to international law, is and always will be its capital.

In an attempt to establish facts on the ground and make it harder for Jerusalem to be divided, Israeli has been carrying out a policy of Judaizing East Jerusalem.

This has involved moving several hundred thousand Israeli settlers into the area illegally while accelerating the building of settlements there, despite numerous UN Security Council resolutions.

Simultaneously, Israel has limited Palestinian building in East Jerusalem by severely restricting the number of building permits issued, thereby creating a severe housing shortage and forcing many Palestinians to build without permits.

Consequently hundreds of buildings have been demolished, leaving many Palestinians homeless, a policy both the Europeans and the current U.S. administration are seeking to halt.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.