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Israel’s second-class citizens


Jerusalem is becoming more racially divided than ever. Emmanuel Dyan under a Creative Commons Licence

At the end of November, arsonists set fire to two first-grade classrooms at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem. ‘Death to Arabs’, ‘There is no coexistence with a cancer’ and other anti-Arab slogans were spray-painted on the walls. 

One of five schools in the Hand in Hand network, the Jerusalem Arab-Jewish one is a place of equality and co-existence, and a place where there is a belief in an achievable peace in Israel.

Three members of the radical rightwing racist group, Lehava, were arrested for the attack. One of the arsonists is from Jerusalem; the other two are brothers from Beitar Illit, a West Bank settlement. 

They claimed that they decided to burn the place down after learning that the school had held a memorial ceremony for former Palestinian Authority (PA) chair Yasser Arafat on the anniversary of his death, several weeks prior to the attack.

Lehava’s main goal is to stop assimilation, especially in the form of marriages between Jews and Muslim or Christian Arabs. However, their provocations against Arabs have often gone in other directions.

They have encouraged Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers to shoot Arabs in the head if they feel threatened, and they have convinced the government to ban Jewish women doing their national service from volunteering in hospitals past nine in the evening, to limit their contact with Palestinian doctors to daytime hours only.

On Saturday 13 December, approximately 250 Israeli Jews and Arabs protested in Jerusalem against the increasing racism in Israel, and called for Lehava to be outlawed.  Signs in Hebrew and Arabic read ‘Stop the racism’, ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’, and ‘Lehava’s racism begins in the government’.

In November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet voted in favour of a ‘Jewish State Law’ legislation. 

President Reuven Rivlin, who opposed the bill, said that it specifies ‘the right to realization of national self-determination in Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people’.

Other critics of the bill, many of whom are high level rightwing politicians, believe that if the bill becomes a reality, it would allow for the discrimination of the 1.7 million Christian and Muslim Arab citizens who make up 20 per cent of the population.

Majd Kayyal of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said that this law would mean ‘the institutionalization of racism, which is already a reality on the street, in both law and at the heart of the political system’. 

The proposed legislation caused an uproar in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), and although the first draft was accepted by Netanyahu’s cabinet, the Knesset has since been dissolved, partly due to opposition to the bill, thus temporarily shelving the legislation. 

Elections for the Knesset will be held in March 2015, and although it is not certain that this legislation will be brought forth again, the fact that it was drafted with a clear discriminatory intent sets a precedent, increasing the mistrust which has been growing since Operation Protective Edge, the war on Gaza in July 2014. 

The government took discrimination a step further when the mayor of Ashkelon, Itamar Shimoni, announced last month that he was cancelling the employment of Israeli-Arab construction workers, banning them from working on bomb shelters in kindergartens in his city. His comments were widely criticized by political leaders. 

A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 40 per cent of Israeli Jews believe that a Jewish state law would damage the interests of the country, while 31 per cent say that it would promote the country’s interests. The poll showed that 52 per cent of Israeli Jews were against the idea of banning Arab workers, while 43 per cent support it. 

Much of the current frustration and unrest in Israel’s Arab sector began during Operation Protective Edge. As the death toll in Gaza climbed, demonstrations in Arab towns in Israel intensified, and many demonstrators were arrested.

Currently, there are more than 50 Israeli laws which discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures. 

In an unrelated incident, on 7 November, Kheir Hamdan, a 22-year-old Israeli-Palestinian citizen of Kfar Kana, Israel, was killed by Israeli police, sparking demonstrations in Arab towns around the country.

His death was reminiscent of the killing of 13 Arab youths by police in 2000, during demonstrations. The investigation into their death was closed based on what the police called ‘insufficient information’. Arabs’ belief that they are second-class citizens in Israel is thus solidified. 

Last month, Yousef Ramouni, a Palestinian bus driver from Jerusalem, was found hanged in his bus, and although police say it was a suicide, signs of violence on his body convinced his family that he was the victim of Jewish extremists. 

Ramouni’s death has caused approximately 100 Arab bus drivers in Jerusalem to quit their jobs in fear. They claim that at least one violent attack has taken place against them almost every day in the past few months.

In turn, Arab citizens of Israel have also committed acts of violence against Jews, although to a lesser extent. Cars have been burned and one man was close to being lynched – he was saved by another Arab. 

Inevitably, events in Gaza and the West Bank indirectly affect Israeli-Palestinian citizens. A humane declaration of sympathy might be interpreted as a threat to the security of Israel, intimidating many and leading some Palestinian citizens of Israel to stay silent about discrimination and racism.

Arabs and Jews have lived as neighbours for years – even before Israel came into existence. The security of children – whether Jewish or Arab – should not be compromised. And a democracy should promote equality and understanding between all citizens.  

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