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Arab Israel Conflict
Israel’s Arabs in fear as politics shifts to the right
From the Financial Times of Mon, 01 Dec 2014 13:19:17 GMT
A worker cleans up in a torched classroom in an Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem November 30, 2014. Suspected Jewish extremists set fire to the classroom, police said on Sunday, targeting a symbol of co-existence in a city on edge over a recent surge in violence. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST EDUCATION)©Reuters

A worker cleans up in a torched classroom in the Arab-Jewish Hand in Hand school

“Accusation: Arab” the poster reads, alongside the image of a smiling young man, Kheir Hamdan, who was shot in the back in Kufr Kana in Israel’s northern Galilee region while walking away from police after a night-time clash last month.

The shooting, captured on CCTV, caused days of unrest in Galilee, which is largely Arab, and prompted accusations that police could have used non-lethal methods to subdue the man. “Because he was an Arab, he was executed,” claims Raouf Hamdan, his father. “They would never do this with a Jew.”

Emotions are running high in Galilee, against a backdrop of Israeli-Palestinian violence in Jerusalem, impassioned exchanges between Arab and Jewish lawmakers in the Knesset over a planned “Jewish state” bill, and accusations by Arab politicians that Israeli police and lawmakers are repressing dissent with a heavy hand.

Minority Arabs – who account for more than 20 per cent of Israel’s population – say they are being targeted by rightwing Jewish MPs in a string of proposed laws that they fear will cement their status as second-class citizens in their ancestral homeland.

A bill promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu establishing Israel as a Jewish nation-state and reserving “national rights” and symbols for the Jewish people only, is expected to get its first reading in the Knesset next week.

Yariv Levin, a member of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, is proposing sweeping “anti-terror” legislation targeting Arabs. The bill would allow authorities to strip citizenship and deport anyone throwing firecrackers or petrol bombs, and to shut down publishing houses seen as supporting a terror attack.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s far-right foreign minister, alarmed many in Galilee when he published his Yisrael Beiteinu party’s new platform last week proposing a “territorial and population exchange” that would see people and towns from Galilee transferred to the West Bank.

The push by Israeli lawmakers comes amid a growing mood of distrust voiced by far-right legislators and ordinary Israelis toward Palestinians living both inside and outside Israel’s internationally recognised pre-1967 borders. Mr Levin proposed his bill in response to the upsurge in violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere since July, on the eve of Israel’s 50-day war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Rightwing politicians inside Mr Netanyahu’s Likud are jockeying for position ahead of a party primary planned for January 6, and a possible early election in which rightwing parties are widely expected to make further gains.

Israeli Arab politicians are pushing back with strident warnings that space for dissent – a hallmark of Israel’s 66-year-old democracy – is closing.

“There are a lot of fascist components which are entering the legal system and even mainstream ideology,” says Haneen Zoabi, an outspoken MP who is the target of a proposed law allowing for the expulsion of any Knesset member who voices support for armed combat against Israel. “It is an auction: who can be more racist and get more people voting for him in Israel, get more votes in the Likud primaries.”

Ms Zoabi is vilified by many Israelis for supporting the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation – including by armed groups – and using words such as “fascist” and “apartheid” to describe the rightward lurch in Israeli politics.

She was banned from all Knesset activities except voting in July, after she said that the kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers who were later found dead in the West Bank was not terrorism. Legislators supporting the bill that would see her banned have nicknamed it the “Haneen Zoabi law”.

In other countries, democracy should be the standard and challenging democracy the crime. In Israel it’s 180 degrees the opposite

- Haneen Zoabi

Jamal Zahalka, another Arab MP, was removed from the Knesset plenum last week after a heated debate of the Jewish state bill. In it, he quoted the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, who criticised the idea of a regional homeland for the Jews before Israel’s founding, arguing it would make Arabs second-class citizens.

The nation-state bill and other laws targeting Arabs have been criticised by many Israelis, including President Reuven Rivlin, and could face legal challenges, making them unlikely to become law in their current form.

But they attest to a jingoistic, ultranationalist mood gaining purchase in the Knesset and Israeli society since the Gaza war, which intensified during the recent string of stabbing and drive-over attacks on Israelis by Palestinian assailants in Jerusalem. About two dozen people, Israelis and Palestinians, have died in the violence.


Mr Rivlin last week withdrew an invitation to a concert for Amir Benaoun, an Israeli singer who released a song about an Arab student in Jerusalem who is said to be plotting “to stab you right in the back”.

At the weekend, a Facebook page appeared with fabricated photos of Mr Rivlin and other Israeli politicians who have criticised the “Jewish state” bill, including finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni, wearing Nazi uniforms. Israeli police have opened an investigation.

On Saturday Hand in Hand, a school in Jerusalem where both Jewish and Arab children study, saw one of its classrooms torched, using a pile of bilingual textbooks, and racist graffiti – including the slogan “Death to Arabs” and “There is no coexistence with cancer” painted on its walls. Mr Netanyahu condemned the attack.

Israeli officials have parried criticism from Israeli Arabs by claiming that whatever their leaders say, they are politically and economically better off than their brethren in countries such as Syria. Earlier this month, Mr Netanyahu “invited” Israeli Arabs taking part in protests against Israel to move to Gaza or the West Bank.

Arab leaders have responded by saying that equal citizenship in their native land is a birthright, and not something for Israel to bestow.

“In other countries, democracy should be the standard and challenging democracy the crime,” Ms Zoabi said. “In Israel it’s 180 degrees the opposite.”

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