Israel’s Legislative Campaign Against Democracy

On Tuesday March 1st, Arab Center Washington DC hosted a talk by Haneen Zoabi, Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset since 2009 and the first woman elected to an Arab party list since 1948. Zoabi is a member of the Joint Arab List, which holds the third largest block of seats in the Knesset.
In her talk, Zoabi focused on a list of 80 discriminatory and anti-democratic Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens and discussed specific cases in which Palestinian citizens of Israel are demonized and treated as security threats and obstacles instead of equal citizens. Among the many examples, Zoabi highlighted Land Administration and Land Acquisition Laws and Absentees Property Laws that allow the state to arbitrarily confiscate Palestinian-owned land. She also mentioned “family reunification laws” that prevent Palestinian citizens of Israel from uniting with their Palestinian spouses and other family members who are not Israeli citizens, and the Admissions Committees Law which grants Zionist committees full discretion to filter out and reject housing applications by Palestinians.

With regard to recent developments in Israel, Zoabi described in detail the Bedouin Settlement in the Negev law that is used as a tool to maximize Jewish presence in the Negev and “save” the land from Arab Bedouin communities. The law, according to Zoabi, is used today to expel 30,000 Palestinians from five Palestinian villages in the Negev and replace them with five Jewish villages bearing the same name, as in the case of Arab Um al-Hiran which is planned to be renamed Hiran.

According to Zoabi, these Israeli laws do not only aim to physically restrict Palestinian existence, but also to “tame” Palestinians inside Israel. Several Israeli policies are designed to eliminate Palestinian identity, history, and even Palestinian reactions to such discrimination. For example, the anti-boycott and Nakba laws prevent Palestinians from commemorating the Nakba or learning about their own history, and prohibit any activism against discriminatory policies whether through boycott or rejection of the ‘Jewishness’ of the state. “The Nakba is not only a Palestinian history it is also Israel’s history and world history” Zoabi said, “Israel wants to control even Palestinian emotions.”

In light of such discriminatory laws that contradict the very basic notion of democracy, Zoabi emphasized the need to question Israel’s claim as a Jewish and democratic state. One need not look further than Israeli laws and official statements to understand the extent of Israeli apartheid not only in the West Bank but more importantly inside Israel. “Palestinian citizens of Israel are the real test of Israeli democracy” said Zoabi, “we can assess whether Israel is a democracy or not by examining how it treats its citizens.” Zoabi explained that any state that considers one million (20%) of its citizens as obstacles (to Jewish statehood) and labels its native population as “invaders” and “crusaders” cannot be democratic. “There is no democratic way to be a Jewish state or a Muslim state, a state must be a state for all its citizens” she said. Israel is only willing to tolerate Palestinians if they accept its colonialist project and racist agenda, and when Palestinian citizens of Israel demand equality for all citizens they are considered a strategic threat. Hereby, Zoabi explained, “the biggest threat to Israel is not Hamas or Da’esh, it is democracy.”

One of the most recent legal exemplifications of Israeli anti-democratic measures is the “Suspension of Knesset Members” law, which allows a majority of “90 Jewish Zionist Knesset members” to suspend serving Palestinian members that have been elected by half a million citizens. These laws have targeted Haneen Zoabi herself, as member of Knesset. Even this minimum democratic right to be elected and represent the voice of their people is being taken away from Palestinians; “the meaning of democracy in Israel is the tyranny of majority.”

Zoabi warned that Israeli policies are taking an even more dangerous turn. What was not condoned only few years ago, is now the mainstream in Israeli public and political discourse. Although Israel is going through a rapid shift to the extreme right, in a society that publicly demonizes and legally discriminates against its Palestinian citizens, the international community unfortunately remains unmoved. According to Zoabi, “Israel has shifted form liberal racism and colonialism to fascist racism,” and any analysis of the situation or response must account for these changes.

In conclusion, Zoabi urged US officials and the American media to examine the facts and hold Israel accountable for its “fascist” policies, noting that now is the time to act because “something very dangerous is taking place” and will only get worse as Israel continues to unilaterally define the rules of the game.

Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501 (c)(3) research organization founded in 2014 in Washington, DC. Its research activities focus on the Arab World and US foreign policy in the Middle East.