We didn't disappear
- Arabs in Israel call for a "state of all its citizens" to replace
Jewish-only policies, writes Jonathan Cook in Nazareth
We didn't disappear
Jonathan Cook, Nazareth
Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)
14 - 20 December 2006
The official political leadership of Israel's more than one million
Palestinian citizens issued a manifesto in Nazareth last week
demanding a raft of changes to end the systematic discrimination
exercised against non-Jews by the state since its creation nearly six
Included in the manifesto -- the first ever produced by the
community's supreme political body, known as the High Follow-Up
Committee -- are calls for Israel to be reformed from a Jewish state
that privileges its Jewish majority into "a state of all its citizens"
and for sweeping changes to a national system of land control designed
to exclude Palestinian citizens from influence.
The document is likely to further increase tensions between the
Israeli government and the country's Palestinian minority, and has
already been roundly condemned in the Hebrew media.
Although individual Arab political parties have made similar
criticisms of the state before, it is the first time in its history
that the High Follow-Up Committee -- a cautious and conservative body,
mainly comprising the heads of Arab local authorities -- has dared to
speak out. The committee is seen as setting the consensus for Israel's
one in five citizens who are Palestinian.
The most contentious issue raised in the document, called "The Future
Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel", is Israel's status as a
Jewish state. The authors -- leading academics and community activists
-- argue that Israel is not a democracy but an "ethnocracy" similar to
Turkey, Sri Lanka and the Baltic states.
Instead, says the manifesto, Israel must become a "consensual
democracy" enabling Palestinian citizens "to be fully active in the
decision-making process and guarantee our individual and collective
civil, historic and national rights."
An editorial in Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper denounced the
document as "undermining the Jewish character of the state" and argued
that it was likely its publication would "actually weaken the standing
of Arabs in Israel instead of strengthening it".
The campaign among Israel's Arab parties for a state of all its
citizens began in the mid-1990s after it was widely understood that
under the terms of the Oslo Accords Israel's Palestinian population
would remain citizens of the State of Israel. Until then the minority
had kept largely out of the debate about its future, fearing that
expressing a view would prejudice negotiations between Israel and the
The demand for a state of all its citizens has wide backing among the
Palestinian minority: a recent survey by the Mada Al-Carmel Centre
revealed that 90 per cent believed a Jewish state could not guarantee
them equality, and 61 per cent objected to Israel's self-definition.
However, Israeli prime ministers, including Ehud Barak and Ariel
Sharon, have always characterised the call for a state of all its
citizens as tantamount to sedition. In a speech last week, Avigdor
Lieberman, the new minister of strategic threats, repeated a similar
line, telling policy-makers in Washington: "he who is not ready to
recognise Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state cannot be a citizen in
As well as highlighting the various spheres of life in which
Palestinian citizens are discriminated against, the manifesto makes
several key demands that are certain to fall on stony ground.
The High Follow-Up Committee argues that the Palestinian minority must
be given "institutional self-rule in the field of education, culture
and religion". Israeli officials have always refused to countenance
such forms of autonomy. Instead, the separate and grossly under-funded
Arab education system is overseen by Jewish officials; the status of
the Arabic language is at an all-time low; and the government
regularly interferes in the appointment of Muslim and Christian
clerics, as well as controlling the running of their places of worship
and providing almost no budget for non-Jewish religious services.
The manifesto also demands that Israel "acknowledge responsibility for
the Palestinian Nakba " -- the catastrophic dispossession of the
Palestinian people during Israel's establishment in 1948 -- and
"consider paying compensation for its Palestinian citizens".
As many as one in four Palestinian citizens are internal refugees from
the war, and referred to as "present absentees" by the Israeli
authorities. They were stripped of their homes, possessions and bank
accounts inside Israel, even though they remained citizens. Most homes
were either later destroyed by the army or reallocated to Jewish citizens.
An internal government memorandum leaked several years ago showed that
most of the internal refugees' money, supposedly held in trust by a
state official known as the Custodian of Absentee Property, had
disappeared and could no longer be traced.
Another controversial demand is for a radical overhaul of the system
of land policy and planning in Israel, described in the manifesto as
"the most sensitive issue" between Palestinian citizens and their
state. Israel has nationalised 93 per cent of the territory inside its
vague borders, holding it in trust not for its citizens but for the
Jewish people worldwide. The land can be leased, but usually only to Jews.
Israel's Palestinian citizens, on the other hand, are restricted to
about three per cent of the land, although they do not control much of
the area nominally in their possession. Gerrymandering of municipal
boundaries means that Arab local authorities have been stripped of
jurisdiction over half of their areas, which have been effectively
handed over to Jewish regional councils.
The manifesto calls for an end to other discriminatory land practices:
the exclusion of Palestinian citizens from planning committees; the
refusal of such committees to issue house- building permits to
Palestinian citizens; the enforcement of house demolitions only
against Palestinian citizens; and the continuing harmful interference
by international Zionist organisations, particularly the Jewish Agency
and the Jewish National Fund, in Israel's land and planning system.
The chairman of the High Follow-Up Committee, Shawki Khatib, said:
"We've already seen the reality of which the Arab public says to the
Jewish public, 'I want to live together, and I really mean it', but
the Jewish public has still not reached the same conclusion. This
document is a preliminary spark. Its importance is not in its
publishing, but in what happens after it."
The High Follow-Up Committee was established in 1982, in the wake of
Land Day in 1976 when six unarmed Palestinian citizens were shot dead
by Israeli security forces during demonstrations against a wave of
land confiscations by the state to advance its official goal of
"Judaising" the Galilee.
The Follow-Up Committee has lost much of its status over the past
decade, widely seen as too unwieldy a body to represent the
Palestinian minority's needs effectively. Members, drawn from the
heads of local authorities and major Israeli Arab organisations and
parties, do not have to submit to direct election and reach their
decisions through consensus, which has often paralysed the committee
into inaction. The manifesto is viewed as an attempt to reassert the
In recent years Arab political factions have called for direct
elections to the Follow-Up Committee, but the Israeli government has
intimated that it would consider an Arab "parliament" as an attempt at
secession and react harshly.
In a related development, the Mossawa advocacy centre presented a
position paper at a conference in Nazareth this month, arguing that
internal refugees should be allowed to return to villages that existed
before 1948. "The move by refugees of 1948 to their villages will not
change the demographic balance or endanger the Jews," said Jafar
Farah, head of Mossawa. "Unlike the [Palestinian] refugees in Arab
states, we are [already] here."
To read full report in English, Arabic and Hebrew visit:
"The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel"
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