Targeting Israel’s Palestinians

 By Ben White
Palestinian Israelis watch as Sheikh Raed Salah is brought before magistrates for participating in the Gaza aid flotilla [GALLO/GETTY] 

Israel’s Palestinian minority has always been subject to discriminatory policies, but some now say that a more open conflict between the Israeli establishment and its Palestinian citizens appears to be brewing.

In May, Ameer Makhoul, the director of Ittijah, a network for Palestinian NGOs, was taken from his home in the middle of the night by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.

Once the media gag was lifted, it emerged that Makhoul and another Palestinian citizen, Omar Said, a natural medicine expert and Balad party activist, were facing serious security-related charges.

Both men were denied access to lawyers for approximately a fortnight.

Makhoul’s wife, Janan Abdu, says she feels that her husband is being made an example of.”He’s in a key position in within the community here, has a high profile internationally and he has been speaking clearly about discrimination and encouraging [a] boycott [of Israel].”

“They have done what they threatened to do,” she says, referring to a warning Shin Bet agents gave Ameer in January 2009 that the “next time” he would have to say goodbye to his family for a long time.

‘Political dead-end’
In 2007, Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, made it clear that the agency would “thwart” any activities that challenge the Jewish character of the state, regardless of whether those activities are legal.

Hussein Abu Hussein, a lawyer on the legal teams representing Makhoul and Said, says he feels that some within the Israeli establishment are looking for a confrontation with the Palestinians inside Israel.

“The state has reached a political dead-end, with worldwide condemnation of Israel’s actions, and calls for the prosecution of leaders in international courts.

“They don’t know what they want – with regards to the nature of the state, what to do with Palestinians in the West Bank, in Gaza. Attacking a minority is a way of avoiding the real issues.”

In recent weeks, it has been elected Arab members of the knesset (MKs) who have been subjected to such attacks – in particular, Haneen Zoubi, from the Balad party, after she returned from participating in the Gaza aid flotilla.

One knesset debate descended into farce, threats and the physical intimidation of Zoubi, with the chamber echoing to cries like “Go to Gaza, traitor”.

“The appalling behaviour of many Jewish MKs in the debate – including some from the so-called centrist Kadima – signals just how endangered this venue for debate and interaction between the Palestinian minority and Jewish majority has become,” says Israeli journalist and commentator Dmitry Reider.

‘Aggressive political punch’

Some Palestinian Israelis believe they are entering a difficult phase [GALLO/GETTY]

Across Israel, Zoubi has been the object of hate: Netanya’s mayor supported her expulsion from the country, while a Facebook group calling for her murder quickly gained hundreds of members. Zoubi is not alone – MKs Ahmad Tibi and Taleb el-Sana, have also received death threats.

Post-flotilla, the knesset’s house committee voted 7-1 in favour of revoking some of the privileges enjoyed by Zoubi as an MK – a decision which may well not be ratified.

That same morning, MK Michael Ben-Ari had sent an email to Arab MKs boasting that “after we take care of her [Zoubi], it will be your turn”. Ben-Ari would later describe the vote as “an aggressive political punch” and the “first step” toward “the expulsion of Israel’s enemies from the knesset”.

During the committee’s debate, the chairman MK Yariv Levin’s own ‘evidence’ included the fact that Zoubi identifies as a Palestinian.

Back in February, Levin expressed his belief that “a serious decision” must be made about “whether or not these parties [Arab MKs] can continue to sit in the Israeli parliament, even while they operate against the country”.

When the vote successfully passed, some of those present opened a bottle of wine in celebration.

There are also disturbing developments regarding proposed legislation, with the ministerial committee approving for consideration two bills targeting Arab MKs.

One is intended to more easily facilitate the dismissal of an MK for violating Article 7a of the ‘Basic Law: The Knesset’, whose prohibitions include opposing the Jewish character of the state.

The second would require MKs to swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish, Zionist and democratic state, to its values and symbols”.

Palestinians targeted

Meanwhile, Eli Yishai, the interior minister, has declared his support for a proposed bill that would mean stripping citizenship from anyone deemed to have taken actions that help a “state or terror organisation against the state of Israel”.

Post-flotilla, Yishai also announced that he approached Israel’s attorney general regarding removing Zoubi’s parliamentary immunity, in order to then revoke her citizenship.

Other Palestinian leaders continue to be targeted. The four Palestinian citizens (aside from Zoubi) who participated in the flotilla – including Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement – were detained and then subjected to house arrest.

Their detention was condemned as “illegal” and based on “political considerations” by Adalah, a legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel.

Incitement against the Palestinian minority is an increasingly mainstream phenomenon. As finance minister in 2003, Binyamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli prime minister, described Palestinian citizens as a “demographic problem”.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, used campaign slogans like “only Lieberman understands Arabic” and in 2006 advocated the execution of Arab MKs who “collaborated” with the “enemy”.

As a recent Haaretz editorial put it, this trend “is surfacing in most of the parties in the knesset, with the enthusiastic encouragement of most ministers”.

A new identity

Hillel Cohen noted in his book Good Arabs that historically the Israeli state has tried to “change the consciousness” of the Palestinian minority with the aim of creating a “new Israeli Arab identity”.

It is the failure of this effort – as evidenced by an assertion of Palestinian identity, solidarity with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and increasing links to the global solidarity movement – that has provoked the anger of the political and security establishment.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappe describes the current attack as “a link in a long chain that goes back to the foundation of the state of Israel” and a result of “the consensual Zionist mindset” which “could never accept Palestinians as equal citizens”. 

As Zoubi remarked to The Guardian newspaper, this “is not something that started yesterday” but it has got “harder and harsher”.

This assessment is shared by Makhoul’s wife Janan.

“They are afraid of us, of our identity, and how the youth are proud to be Palestinian. I think we are entering a tough period and the people will pay the price.”

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