Israel upholds a system of Jewish supremacy over the land, and it doesn’t matter whether those challenging its apartheid rule are Palestinian subjects without rights or ‘Arab’ citizens supposedly with full rights
A short video taken by a family as they picnicked in the West Bank this month may be the best field guide yet to Israel’s complex apartheid system of state-sponsored Jewish supremacy.
In the clip posted to Facebook, armed Jewish settlers arrive unexpectedly to break up the picnic of a Palestinian family – including grandparents and two babies – at a scenic public space on a hillside north of Ramallah.
In the occupied West Bank, the settlers are the lords of the land and used to getting their own way. They assume that this is just another group of Palestinians to be terrorized away so that the illegal Jewish settlement they live in, one of many dozens, can further expand its jurisdiction on to Palestinian land.
For the settlers, this is all in day’s improvised ethnic cleansing.
Not as it appears
But they are in for a surprise. The scene is not exactly as it appears and things don’t go to plan.
Some distance from their homes, Palestinians would usually pack up in a hurry at the first sight of menacing armed settlers. But these Palestinians stand their ground and argue back in fluent Hebrew.
When the settlers cite the Bible as their title deeds to the land, and start grabbing the family’s things to evict the group, the grandmother shouts indignantly: “We are Israelis just like you and we’re allowed to be here.”
She is partly right. They are indeed Israelis. The family are from Nazareth, the largest and most privileged Palestinian community inside Israel. They belong to a minority formally known as “Israel’s Arabs”. But the grandmother’s claim that her family is “just like you” is an error – or more likely a bluff.
A settler corrects her: “You’re not Israelis, you’re Arabs, we did you a favor when we let you stay.”
In Israeli public discourse, “Israel’s Arabs” – or “Israeli Arabs” as the term is usually transcribed into English to make it seem less offensive – have been stripped of their real identity to sever their connection to the larger Palestinian people.
Nonetheless, they are descended from exactly the same Palestinian population that today lives either under occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, or as refugees exiled from their homeland by Israel’s mass ethnic cleansing campaign in 1948, known by Palestinians as the Nakba, or Catastrophe.
“Israel’s Arabs” are marked out from other Palestinians only by an historical anomaly: a small number managed to avoid the ethnic cleansing operations of 1948 and remained on their land in what was about to become Israel.
Eventually, and very reluctantly under international pressure, Israel conferred a very degraded citizenship on these “Arabs”. Today, after decades of higher birth rates than Israeli Jews, “Israel’s Arabs” are a fifth of the population.
Israel proudly tells the world that its “Arab” citizens enjoy entirely equal rights with Jewish citizens. The truth is far uglier, as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu inadvertently conceded when he used Instagram to correct an Israeli TV host who had suggested that Israel was a western-style democracy. “Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and not anyone else,” he wrote.
Some 70 laws explicitly offer differentiated rights depending on whether an Israeli citizen is Jewish or “Arab”.
“Israel’s Arabs” are almost entirely segregated from Israeli Jews in where they can live, where they go to school, and in many cases where they are allowed to work. The citizenship status of Jews and “Arabs” derives from separate laws. These “Arabs” are barred from living in most of Israel’s territory, and planning rules have been systematically skewed to their disadvantage.
In short, most “Israeli Arabs” live in segregated, poor, land-hungry, overcrowded and under-resourced communities.
But by historical accident they have an Israeli citizenship that confers on them – unlike Palestinians under occupation – the right to vote in Israeli elections and basic legal rights protected by Israel’s civilian courts, not its military courts.
“Israel’s Arabs” are also typically dealt with either by the ordinary Israeli police or by a paramilitary force known as the Border Police that operates in both Israel and the occupied territories. The border being policed is the segregated one between Jews and non-Jews.
But dealing with the Border Police is often preferable to being policed by the Israeli army, as is usually the case for Palestinians in the occupied territories.
No price to pay
As the settlers who disrupt the woodland picnic fail to get their way, they look confused and unsure. One says to the family: “You are not Israeli, you are Arabs. We did you a favor by letting you remain [in Israel]. Go back to Nazareth.” But what exactly are their rights in a situation like this?
If these were straightforward “Palestinians”, the settlers could throw rocks at them or shoot over their heads. Should the Palestinians refuse to flee, they could be beaten or the settlers could even consider shooting one in the leg – or worse – to make sure the rest got the message: “We are kings and you are unwelcome serfs”.
There is unlikely to be a price to pay for harming Palestinians under occupation, apart from maybe a story in Haaretz from Amira Hass, the only Israeli reporter living in the West Bank.
But the settlers can always say they had been attacked by Palestinians and were defending themselves. No real questions would be asked. If a video surfaced on YouTube showing otherwise, Israeli officials would act as press officers, claiming the footage was edited to mislead viewers – just another example of Pallywood. And anyone sharing the video could be discounted as an antisemite.
This is a game whose rules the settlers – and the Israeli army and government behind them – know only too well, rules designed to work exclusively for their benefit.
But in the case of “Israeli Arabs” picnicking in the West Bank, the rules have not been properly defined. Can settlers beat with impunity these uppity natives with Israeli citizenship? Can they point their guns at them? If they do, what happens? Might there be an investigation? And if so, who will lead it – the army or the police?
Might these “Arabs” have relatives back in privileged Nazareth who are lawyers versed in the intricacies of the Israeli legal system? There are even some “Arab” judges in the court system. How might such a judge rule in a case like this?
The settlers’ uncertainty is justified. Which apartheid rules apply in the occupied territories when dealing with “Israel’s Arabs”: the occupation version of apartheid or the Israeli democracy version of apartheid? It is a grey area.
Unsure of powers
No longer confident that their powers are limitless, at least in a situation like this one, the settlers decide to delegate. They call the army. After all, soldiers of the Jewish state are there to protect other Jews, even when those Jews are armed, they are living illegally on Palestinian land and they are attacking defenseless Palestinians.
The army will know what to do.
The soldiers are soon there, but they look a little unsure too. They are more used to standing “guard” as settlers attack and terrorize Palestinians, only interfering if it looks like the settlers might be in need of help.
These picnickers aren’t Jewish, so the soldiers are under no duty to protect them. But at the same they are Israeli citizens so the soldiers cannot afford to be filmed pointing their guns at them or watching impassively as the settlers beat them up.
Gentle ethnic cleansing
There is no rule book for this situation, so the soldiers improvise. With the wisdom of Solomon, they cut the baby in half. A soldier concedes that they are indeed in a public space but warns the “Arabs” that, unlike the settlers, they are “not allowed here”. He adds: “I don’t want to use too much force.”
The soldiers prefer that the threat remains implicit. The family will have to leave immediately and cede this land to the masters, the Jews. The “Israeli Arabs” are evicted in an orderly fashion.
What we see, caught on the camera of Lubna Abed el-Hadi, is what might be termed gentle ethnic cleansing.
This short video confirms the lie of the oft-repeated claim of Israeli leaders that “Israel’s Arabs” have equal rights with Israeli Jews. In truth, Jews always have superior rights, whether it is inside “democratic” Israel or in the occupied territories.
Layers of apartheid
The original apartheid state – the one in South Africa – offers a template that can help us to decode this video. As with Israel, there were layers to South African apartheid, although those layers were much less effective than Israel’s at veiling the segregation system.
South Africa had its “Whites” – the masters – and its “Blacks” – the serfs. But it also had a group trapped between them, one that was harder to classify, called the “Coloreds”. In a system that craved clear racial categorizations, the Coloreds were a nuisance – a reminder of times before apartheid when segregation was not so strict and inter-racial relationships possible.
The Coloreds were really Blacks in the sense that they had none of the privileges of the Whites. But they also enjoyed a few exemptions from the worse racist policies faced by the Blacks, such as the requirement to carry passes to move around.
A New York Times article in 1985, in South Africa’s final apartheid years, concluded: “Despite the law that seeks to lock them into a simple group definition, South Africa’s mixed-race people defy such labeling and the ambiguity of their status is acute.”
The comparison is not precise. “Israel’s Arabs” are not the descendants of mixed relationships between Jews and Palestinians. They are as native as other Palestinians, their histories indistinguishable until 1948. Like other Palestinians, “Israeli Arabs” have a relatively unified language and culture that was not true of the Coloreds in South Africa.
But their inferior legal status and ambiguous social position within the dominant apartheid system is similar to that of the Coloreds.
After the fall of South Africa’s apartheid, and in an era of 24-hour rolling news, Israel has eased the most blatant forms of discrimination faced by its “Arabs”. It has been careful to avoid the worst excesses of South Africa’s version of apartheid inside Israel. There are no separate entrances to rest rooms or shops for Israel’s “Coloreds”.
But the core segregation continues. “Israeli Arabs” are expected to live in their own 120 or so segregated neighborhoods, Israel’s version of the notorious Group Areas Act. They are banned not only from accessing the Jewish-only settlements of the West Bank, but from living in all of the territory inside Israel bar the 3% reserved for non-Jews.
The Coloreds had “token representation” in South Africa, according to the Times. “Israeli Arabs” too have the semblance of a vote, but one that makes no impact on the parliamentary system or the shape of the government. Like the Colored counterparts, “Israeli Arab” schools are massively underfunded and under-resourced, and the police force’s policy towards them moves between neglect and open hostility.
As happened in 1966 at District Six, a Colored community near Cape Town, “Israel’s Arabs” can be forced off their lands at the drop of the hat – as is currently happening at Umm al-Hiran in the Negev – if the state deems that the land is needed more by the masters than the serfs.
The New York Times article notes that apartheid South Africa’s policy towards its Coloreds and Blacks was governed by a “security” approach that treated them as an enemy. Just such an official policy towards “Israel’s Arabs” was highlighted nearly 20 years ago by a state commission of inquiry.
Another observation by the Times will echo with “Israeli Arabs”: “Most black townships, for instance, have few entrances and are thus easily sealed.” Similarly, “Arab” communities in Israel typically have one or two ways in or out – a legacy of the military government that in Israel’s first two decades tightly controlled all “Arab” movement.
In recent months those memories were revived in Nazareth, for example, when the police again blockaded the city’s entrances during periods of lockdown.
Desirable or undesirable
Very belatedly it has finally dawned on Jewish human rights groups in Israel that the country’s apartheid system can no more be separated between a “democratic” Israel and a non-democratic occupied territories than South Africa’s could be between its white areas and the so-called black homelands, the Bantustans.
One group, B’Tselem, concluded last month that Israeli apartheid is indivisible, just as South Africa’s was. Its executive director, Hagai El-Ad, observed: “There is not a single square inch in the territory Israel controls where a Palestinian and a Jew are equal. The only first-class people here are Jewish citizens such as myself.”
The division, El-Ad noted, was not primarily between Israelis – Jews and “Arabs” – and Palestinians but between the segregated treatment of people under Israeli rule as either “desirable or undesirable”.
Those picnicking “Arabs” are the undesirables just as much as are the Palestinians living close by in Ramallah. Which is why the settlers were determined to move them off the land, and why the soldiers were only too happy to assist.
Israel upholds a system of Jewish supremacy over the land, and it matters not one jot whether those challenging its apartheid rule are Palestinian subjects without rights or “Arab” citizens supposedly with full rights.
• First published in Mondoweiss