Underclass Citizens: Palestinians in Israel

You are visiting the old website of The Institute for Palestine Studies

Please visit our new websiteClick Here


VOL. 35


No. 3
P. 62
Open Forum
Underclass Citizens: Palestinians in Israel

Since its establishment in 1948, Israel’s official policy toward its Palestinian citizens has shifted from full control and repression through military rule imposed for the first 18 years of Israel’s existence, to a post-1966 policy of institutional containment that deals with the Palestinians as a security and demographic threat to the Zionist character of the state and to Jewish majority rule. While formally citizens, the Palestinians have been treated, at best, as second-class citizens allowed to enjoy leftover scraps of Jewish democracy. Yet despite this inferior status, Israel presents its treatment of the Palestinian minority as being exemplary by comparing their situation to that of other minorities in the Middle East.

The Palestinians in Israel have always considered themselves an integral part of the Palestinian people and have struggled politically to achieve two main goals: full and equal citizenship in the supremacist Zionist state established on the ruins of their homeland; and a just solution to the Palestinian question in the form of the creation of an independent, viable, and democratic Palestinian state in the territories Israel occupied in 1967.

Recent political developments and the unfolding reality on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories and inside Israel demand closer attention to a significant but ignored segment of the Palestinian people who were not included in the Oslo negotiations and the agreements signed between Israel and the PLO in the early and mid-1990s. This essay will discuss the present and future challenges facing the Palestinians in Israel and their status and role in any future bilateral agreement or unilateral arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians.

Oslo and the Vulnerability of the Palestinian Minority

There is no doubt that the Oslo political process not only failed to realize the Palestinian dream of liberation and self-determination, but has also further fragmented the Palestinians both territorially and politically. For the Palestinians in Israel, Oslo exposed the fragility of their status as conditional citizens to be treated equally when it is in the Jewish majority’s self-interest. Moreover, over the last decade—and especially since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000—the Palestinians in Israel have come to realize that they are caught between the hammer of Israeli political and security plans in the occupied territories and the anvil of institutional racism and Jewish supremacy inside the Green Line. In fact, Israeli policies over the last five years have in many ways equated Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line by subjecting them to the same security rationale, albeit differing in scope and viciousness. Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens as enemies, more explicit in recent years, further underscores their vulnerability as citizens and raises many questions regarding their future within the Jewish state.

The Oslo agreements directly concern only the Palestinians of the occupied territories; in principle, any political bargain or settlement between Israel and the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza has no bearing on the future political and legal status of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. In fact, however, there is no doubt that their situation is very much affected by whatever deal is reached (or—what would be worse—by whatever “solution” is imposed by unilateral Israeli steps). Their vulnerability as citizens in the Jewish state, and the potential consequences that any arrangements concerning the occupied territories would have for their future rights, are exemplified by U.S. President George W. Bush’s 14 April 2004 letter of assurances to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon concerning the Gaza disengagement plan. The main purpose of Bush’s letter was to reiterate the U.S. government’s strong commitment to Israel’s security and well-being, and more directly its support for Sharon’s unilateral actions in the occupied territories. But unlike in the case of the Oslo accords, the Bush letter includes almost unconditional American support for several explicit and implicit Israeli plans that directly affect the Palestinians in Israel.

First, the president, on behalf of the United States, expresses strong commitment to “Israel's security and well-being as a Jewish state”; the explicit reference to Israel “as a Jewish state” in effect confirms the second-class citizenship of the Palestinians. Second, the president endorses Israel’s plans to “bring new opportunities to the Negev and the Galilee,” which means pressing forward with Israel’s longtime policies of breaking up “Arab concentrations” in those areas. Third, the president’s letter does not rule out the option of an exchange of populations and lands involving the “triangle,” a heavily Arab populated area in the center of Israel and close to the 1967 Green Line, and Jewish settlement areas on the other side of the Green Line, an idea that has been endorsed by Likud and Labor leaders alike. That such an idea could even be contemplated provides an additional example of just how disenfranchised the Palestinians in Israel are.

Thus, the Palestinians in Israel are not officially part of the political bargain, but they continue to be part of the overall Palestinian security and demographic “problem.” They are citizens with a right to vote and economic benefits, which suits Israel’s diplomatic and international reputation, but they are treated as subjects without recourse or defenses when their land is required for “security” reasons or when their family units are considered a threat to Israel’s Jewish majority. In this regard, the three above-mentioned elements implicit in the Bush-Sharon exchanges of April 2004 are indivisible and closely intertwined, because land and demography have always been crucial elements to the success of the Zionist movement and ultimately to the creation of Israel. A simple formula has guided Zionists over the years and continues to drive many Israeli policies: achieving and maintaining Jewish dominance over Palestine requires actions and policies aimed at pushing the maximum number of Palestinians into the minimum amount of territory (preferably not under direct Israeli control). This is why the agricultural lands of the Palestinians who remained in Israel have been systematically confiscated, hemming them into their villages; this is also why Palestinian lands in the West Bank have been and continue to be expropriated, their villages cut off from each other by settlements and imprisoned behind walls and barriers. Palestinian existence anywhere in Mandatory Palestine, it seems, is a threat to Israel’s security as a Jewish state.

Ever since the founders of Israel called upon the “Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State,” those citizens have witnessed the establishment only of Jewish towns built, along with modern industrial zones, parks, and universities, largely on their own confiscated lands. They have also witnessed numerous “development plans” which aim at further “Judaization” of the Galilee in order to secure a Jewish majority in a region where Palestinians have predominated; the idea, apparently, is to forestall any possibility of calls for self-government as has been the case with the Albanians in Kosovo or the Kurds in northern Iraq. And while countless Israeli towns have been created, not a single new Palestinian locality has been authorized or built, except for the so-called Bedouin townships in the Negev whose primary purpose is to corral the Bedouin population into small areas so as to dispossess them of their lands. These confiscated lands are made available for Jewish towns and cities as well as industrial zones and military practice areas, including the Dimona nuclear plant.

Ever since Israel granted citizenship to the Palestinian minority and promised to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all [Israel’s] inhabitants,” it has treated them as a fifth column and constantly questioned their loyalty, as if it were the Palestinians who had uprooted Jews from their lands, forced them to live in “unrecognized villages,” or positioned snipers to shoot at them during street demonstrations. One can even say that official racism toward the Palestinian citizens has worsened and become more institutionalized over the years. While the position of Special Advisor for Arab Affairs, which up to the 1970s assisted the General Security Services in monitoring and controlling the native Palestinian community, was eliminated, this role has been taken over by the National Security Council, which advises the government on how to coopt Arab Palestinians and how to control their natural birth and political behavior. The enactment of several pieces of discriminatory and racist legislation in the last few years has further undermined the Palestinians’ legal status as citizens and placed them in a gray area of “conditional citizenship,” making the possibility of the above mentioned population exchange between Palestinian citizens of Israel in the triangle and Jewish settlers in the occupied territories easier to justify and implement. Discussion of the population exchange underscores the fact that the Palestinian minority should no longer be regarded as an internal Israeli affair but rather as a significant cause closely tied to any future solution between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Struggling on Two Fronts

While Israel’s policies toward its Palestinian citizens have to some extent succeeded in fragmenting and disenfranchising the community, the policies have utterly failed to distort the Palestinian sense of national belonging and political goals. But notwithstanding consensus on core issues, and at a time when the Palestinians in general feel increasingly vulnerable, they are more divided than ever on how to proceed and lack any semblance of a proactive plan of action. Meanwhile, Israel stands as one coherent political entity with a clear affirmative political vision based on a broad consensus. This consensus can be summed up by the term “new Zionism,” embodied in the former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated and led the Oslo process, and more recently in Ariel Sharon’s new political party Kadima and his Gaza disengagement plan. This essentially hawkish consensus is based on physical separation from the Palestinians in order to maintain a Jewish democracy and supremacy on close to 90 percent of historical Palestine.

Yet despite political subordination and internal divisions, the Palestinians in Israel do have the potential to seriously challenge the “new Zionism.” In order to do so, however, they need a clear vision, an effective political strategy, and unified leadership. In recent years, Palestinian political activism has revolved mainly around parliamentary representation in the Knesset. This has been significantly curtailed by recent amendments to Israel’s Basic Laws, further deepening the political marginalization of Palestinian citizens and their elected leadership. Nevertheless, and despite increasing misgivings regarding the effectiveness of Arab MKs, Palestinian representation in the Knesset remains one of the most prominent venues for political mobilization. Perhaps more important, it remains the only major source of financial support for Arab political parties.

Palestinian efforts to reframe and reorganize their political agenda in Israel in light of the new realities of the Oslo era began more than a decade ago. Indeed, Oslo, by making clear that their political fate was to be separate from that of their brothers across the Green Line, forced the Palestinians in Israel to develop an inward-looking political strategy centered on the struggle for equal rights within the confines of Israel itself. The demand for national collective rights and for the transformation of Israel from an ethnically defined state into a state for all of its citizens has become a mainstream political platform within the community. The only way the existing undemocratic and xenophobic Israeli centers of power can be challenged is by offering a new model of binational coexistence built on the premises of equality, peace, and justice. This model has the potential of gaining international support because it provides the necessary basic human rights protections for everyone. This is the de facto political project that guides most Palestinians in Israel, but it has not yet gained significant support among Jewish Israelis, notwithstanding lip service paid even by political parties such as Labor and Kadima to their own version of “equality” within the framework of a Zionist state. In fact, the majority of Israelis still prefer the Zionist nature of the state and are not willing to give up their privileges in exchange for long-lasting peace and true coexistence. Still, a successful struggle for authentic equal rights—essentially binationalism—requires mobilizing Israeli society and creating space for Palestinian-Israeli cooperation and reconciliation. Palestinian civil society in Israel should spearhead this effort and create more opportunities for joint work to benefit both communities in various ways. Such efforts in and of themselves would stand against Israel’s racist structure.

But the Palestinian citizens, as mentioned, are not concerned solely about their status within Israel. They are also part of the Palestinian people as a whole. And given the new reality in the occupied territories, what role, if any, should they play in an effort to influence a future Israeli-Palestinian settlement, negotiated or imposed? Do they constitute a separate polity, and how can they, as Palestinians, exercise their fundamental right to self-determination? It is clear that the Palestinian citizens should be part of any rebuilding and restructuring of the overall Palestinian polity through strengthening Palestinian civil society. For example, the mandates of NGOs should not be limited by political boundaries unilaterally drawn by Israel or western donors. Political and social movements, which under Israeli law are less restricted than Palestinian parties, should be able to resist political fragmentation and offer a cohesive agenda on common issues like the wall/barrier in the West Bank, restrictions on movement, and the rights of Palestinian refugees and the internally displaced.

Even if the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza one day achieve some form of political independence in what will be called a Palestinian state, it will still be vital to maintain and strengthen the political, economic, and cultural relationship and coordination between Palestinian communities. Given the new political reality after Hamas’s recent electoral victory, it is essential to reorganize and institutionalize relations among all segments of the Palestinian people in order to block attempts to compromise Palestinian rights and stand against Israeli and U.S. pressures to delegitimize the elected institutions of the Palestinians. The elected political leadership of the Palestinians in Israel should play an active role in assisting the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza to overcome future political disputes and crises. Appropriate forums need to be created to respond to the new Middle East order that will ultimately affect the Palestinian question overall, including the Palestinians in Israel. In this regard, no legitimate final status agreements can be reached without the consent of all affected Palestinian communities through a democratic process of referendum.

The parallel struggles of the Palestinians in Israel—for their own rights and for the rights of their brothers in the territories—are closely intertwined. In struggling for equal rights, they are not merely a bridge for peace, but the hope for peace, because their successful struggle for equal citizenship would be the only guarantee for a sustainable future reconciliation and peaceful coexistence between the two peoples. If a binational model of equal rights can be achieved within Israel itself, it could ultimately serve as the pilot model for any prospective binational solution between the Israelis and Palestinians in the territories. This would not be possible without moral, political, and financial support from other nations and from foreign governments interested in the success of this model. In fact, there are already a few initiatives that foreshadow this model, such as the nonviolent civil mobilization against the construction of the wall on Palestinian lands in West Bank villages such as in Bil`in and the mobilization in the Negev against Israel’s longstanding policy of uprooting Arab Bedouins from their traditional lands.


Jamil Dakwar, a lawyer formerly with Adalah, is currently working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York.