Definitions of citizenship and what it means to be a citizen of a particular nation has been used to justify discrimination against various groups of people for centuries. These people are generally in the minority in a particular region and are seen as an underclass, and/or something to be dealt with in whatever manner those in the majority deem appropriate. History is full of examples where this thinking has led to egregious levels of discrimination and violence aimed at the minority or undesirables; from the Catholics in Northern Ireland to the Tutsi in Rwanda, where in both cases discrimination and ostracisation eventually led to full-blown violence. This is also the case when it comes to the Palestinians in what was historic Palestine and is now, for the most part, considered the modern state of Israel.
Even before the founding of Israel, the Palestinians were considered a nuisance, a demographic problem and something to be dealt with. This nationalistic thinking of Zionism came to take over Judaism and the political thinking of Israel’s founding figures, such as David Ben-Gurion. Over the following paragraphs we will look at how this thinking came into being, how it was then elaborated upon and put into action, and finally, what this means for the Palestinians today who are living not only within the Occupied Territories, but also within Israel itself.
Modern Zionism emerged in the late 19th century as a reaction to growing anti-Semitism that was rife in Europe in at the time. There was also pressure on Jews in Europe to assimilate into whichever society they were currently living in, or face further discrimination (Pappe, 2008). What Zionism did was to revive nationalism within Judaism and secularise it. Its aims were clear: the colonisation of Palestine that would then serve as a safe haven of sorts for Jews from all over the world. As Pappe notes, “the Zionist thinkers claimed the biblical territory and recreated, indeed reinvented, it as the cradle of their new nationalist movement. As they saw it, Palestine was occupied by “strangers” and had to be repossessed. “Strangers” here meant everyone not Jewish who had been living in Palestine since the Roman period” (Pappe, 2008, p. 11). Whilst the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was ambivalent towards the notion of the colonisation of Palestine, after his death in 1904 however, such ambivalence no longer existed and the colonisation of Palestine was inevitable. The Zionist movement held a great deal of sway with the British Government and eventually managed to convince them to “secure a homeland for the Jews in Palestine” (Pappe, 2008, p. 30). Despite two uprisings against the British Mandate in Palestine at the time, in 1929 and 1936, the Zionist plan continued along its path of total domination and subjugation of the area. An exclusively Jewish area was the goal of the Zionists, a goal that still exists to a greater or lesser degree today. The Zionist leaders were pragmatic at first, by accepting a relatively “modest” portion of the land granted to them by the British in 1937, but the end goal was always the same; later as they grew bolder, they demanded all of historic Palestine. Their justification was as follows:
“The geographical space it coveted may have changed with time and according to circumstances and opportunities, but the principle objective remained the same. The Zionist project could only be realised through the creation in Palestine of a purely Jewish state, both as a safe haven for Jews from persecution and a cradle for a new Jewish nationalism. And such a state had to be exclusively Jewish not only in its socio-political structure but also in its ethnic composition” (Pappe, 2008, p. 15).
This thinking dominates Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. Even in 1947, on the eve of Israeli independence, future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was aware of what the future held for an Israeli state, writing that “there can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60 per cent”, warning that in order to deal with the issue they will need “a new approach in due course””; a prophecy which continues to ring true today (Pappe, 2008, p. 250). Two authors have taken the discussion of Zionism further however, and have argued that Israel is an “ethnocratic” state, a term which they coined.
The term, coined by Yiftachel and As’ad, is a reaction to what they see as how the majority of discourse when it comes to the study of international politics is dominated by a democracy – non-democracy dichotomy. They believe that it causes many social scientists to overlook the issue of ethnocracy, something which they describe as being “neither democratic nor authoritarian. It is a regime designed for, and by, a dominant ethnic majority, which has appropriated the state apparatus to advance its control over a contested territory and power apparatus” (Yiftachel & As’ad, 2004, p. 179). An ethnocratic state, they argue, has all the appearances of a properly functioning free and democratic society, something which Israel claims to be on a regular basis. However, this is only on the surface and despite a free media, civil rights, etc, etc, they are generally not so stretched and universal that they interfere with the project of ethnically cleansing and colonising an area. It is closely related to how Zionism changed Judaism in order to suit its own ends, as already mentioned, by secularising it and conflating it with a sense of nationalism.
The results of this were seen in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War/Israeli War of Independence when the goal of the Zionists was realised with the ethnic cleansing and forced relocation of around 800,000 Palestinians from the land that they coveted (Pappe, 2008). In the direct aftermath, the new Zionist colonisers quickly filled the demographic gaps that were left by the fleeing Palestinians. In the first ten years after the aforementioned Nakba, “Israel built 350 Jewish settlements, and during the following four decades added a similar amount”, whilst at the same time ensuring that the number of Arab localities remained unchanged despite a five-fold increase in their population (Yiftachel & As’ad, 2004, p. 182). Also, 160,000 Palestinians stayed within the new borders of Israel and were granted citizenship however, over the coming decades, 2.7 million Jewish refugees and immigrants were accepted into the country all the while Palestinian refugees were prevented from doing precisely the same thing (Yiftachel & As’ad, 2004). These are precisely the type of features one sees in an ethnocratic state where one group is treated preferentially over another group or groups. It has an immigration policy that favours Jews, its legal and constitutional framework further enshrines this “Jewish character” with even the state itself being referred to as the “Jewish state” from the very beginning. Yiftachel and As’ad argue that this is not merely semantics but instead is itself an obstacle to true democracy.
They illustrate this further by noting the fact that “the state prohibits any candidate to compete in elections who advocates a change to the Jewish character of the state. This clearly impinges on the basic right of non-Jewish groups to campaign by democratic means for their political goals” (Yiftachel & As’ad, 2004, p. 186). This ethno-conflict also extends to other “undesirables” within Israeli borders, such as Mizrahi Jews, who traditionally come from the East, as opposed to Ashkenazi Jews, who come from the West and who are the dominant group within Israeli society and culture. The ethnocratic state therefore encourages stratification within society as long as it suits their own ends and ensures that their particular dominant ideology continues unchallenged. Noam Chomsky has also commented on this particular issue regarding the Mizrahi, writing “In many ways they’re more repressed than the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel – literally… The Mizrahim are poor members of the working class” (Chomsky & Achar, 2008, p. 162). Chomsky also goes further and relates the following story which took place whilst he was visiting a kibbutz in 1953:
“One day there was an altercation between some teenagers, and I later asked the person in charge what had happened. She told me that the kibbutz kids had thought that those with whom they had been fighting were Moroccan Jews; but she explained to them that the other teenagers were visiting Arabs; invited as part of our outreach program to the Arab community, and therefore they’d have to be nice to them. That really expressed the attitude: The Moroccan Jews were considered worse than Arabs. It was very striking” (Chomsky & Achar, 2008, p. 163).
Whilst only anecdotal, it serves as a good example of what goes on within an ethnocratic state, in this case, Israel. The Mizrahi are considered an “internal” minority with the Palestinians being considered an “external” minority, with varying levels of threat being attributed to either group. Regardless, the key issue is that “immigration and citizenship are chiefly determined by affiliation with the dominant ethnic-nation”, in this case Zionist Ashkenazi Judaism. (Yiftachel & As’ad, 2004, p. 191). How this affects the Palestinians currently in Israel and the Occupied Territories is what needs to be looked at next.
Israel is a consistent flouter of international law and UN Resolutions, as can been seen with regards to their actions in the Occupied Territories and their illegal annexation of Palestinian land. One of the most egregious examples of this is the so-called separation barrier which Israel erected, ostensibly for security reasons. What the barrier does in actuality is wind around and secure Israeli settlements/colonies in the West Bank, that contain 320,000 settlers, which are illegal under international law (Finkelstein, 2008). It also enables the Israeli government to secure vital land and resources, such as water, all the while demolishing newly built Palestinian houses due to their lack of a building permit; something that is effectively impossible to get. Even though the Israeli Supreme Court in March 2000 ruled that the state couldn’t dictate who is allocated land on the basis of religion or nationality, it is still next to impossible for Palestinians to acquire building permits, and as a result, they are forced to build “illegal” dwellings, which then are demolished or threatened with demolition by the Israeli government, due to their “illegality” (Finkelstein, 2008). The issue of water is also worth further expansion upon as it shows the precarious situation that the Palestinians find themselves in, in what little remains of their historic homeland. Harvard political economist, Sara Roy, has studied the economy of the Occupied Territories at length and has found that “Annual per capita water consumption hovers around 2,240 cubic meters for Jewish settlers as against 140 cubic meters for Gaza’s Palestinians, a ratio of 16:1” (Finkelstein, 2008, p. 182). In general though, Roy’s report is that the Israeli government is engaged in a policy of dispossessing the Palestinians of as much of their land in the Occupied Territories as they can, in order to make way for more Israeli settlements/colonies.
There is a consistent pattern in the actions of the Israeli government and by extension, and as a result, in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), when it comes to the treatment of the Palestinians. To put it simply, there is a complete disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians, regardless of their age or sex. B’Tselem (Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) reported that between September 29th 2000 and September 15th 2006, “Israeli security forces killed 764 children seventeen years of age and younger” (Friel & Falk, 2007, p. 47). This lack of accountability is at odds with the apparent liberal democracy which exists in Israel, but one can explain this away when one considers the aspects of an ethnocratic country, as already mentioned. The disregard for Palestinian lives pervades Israeli society all the way to the highest echelons of the government. In June 2006 for example, it was reported that the then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, expressed regret for the deaths of Palestinians civilians in Gaza that were caused by military operations but stated that the lives of Israeli citizens threatened by Quassam attacks were “even more important” (Friel & Falk, 2007, p. 65). Five years previous, when Olmert was Mayor of Jerusalem, he referred to “illegal” Arab homes in East Jerusalem as “a cancer and plague” (Friel & Falk, 2007, p. 65).
A further example of the level of racism directed at Palestinians that exists in the Israeli parliament comes in the form of Avigdor Lieberman, the current Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister. He previously said that Palestinian prisoners should be drowned in the Dead Sea and in 2006, his party “called for denying Arab and other non-Jewish Israeli citizens the right to live in Israel on the grounds of religion and race, as well as proposing the transfer of Arab Israelis to Palestinian territory” (Friel & Falk, 2007, p. 69). The fact that Lieberman continues to hold such a position of authority in the Israeli parliament despite the above statements speaks volumes about the attitude towards the Palestinians that pervades Israeli society, from the highest echelons of power, all the way down to the average soldier or person on the street. As already intimated, this attitude is far from recent. In Pity the Nation, Robert Fisk related the following encounter with an Israeli soldier following the bombing of Beirut during the first Lebanon War in 1982:
“It is not the difference between one dead and a thousand dead”, he said. “It hurts as much. Seeing dead children and women here is not really nice but everyone is involved in this kind of war – the women too – so we can’t always punish exactly the right people because otherwise it would cost us a lot of deaths. And for us, I guess – I hope you understand this – the death of one Israeli soldier is more important than the death of even several hundred Palestinians. We don’t play football. I mean it’s not quantity of deaths – it’s what we are trying to do. I hope there is going to be peace in Lebanon and if it costs a lot of lives, well that’s it” (pp. 239 -240).
When it comes to the “demographic problem” within Israel, the government and judiciary have attempted to counter this problem with the appropriate legislation. For example, on July 31st 2003, the Knesset “passed a law prohibiting Palestinians from obtaining citizenship, permanent residency or even temporary residency when they marry Israeli citizens” (Pappe, 2008, p. 249). The initiator of the legislation, Avraham Poraz, stated at the time that Palestinians “already married to Israeli citizens and with families will have to go back to the West Bank, regardless of how long they have been living in Israel”; the Supreme Court later turned down an appeal of the legislation that was brought by a number of Arab members of the Knesset (Pappe, 2008, p. 249). Another appeal of the legislation was again turned down in recent months with many on the right delighting in the ruling of the court. Zeev Elkin, current chairman of the ruling government coalition, praised the court’s “common sense” and further noted “that almost half of the Supreme Court judges thought it was possible to open the gates of Israel to tens of thousands of Palestinians” who were trying “to implement the right of return by stealth through marriages of convenience” (Al Jazeera, 2012). Right-wing student group Tirtzu also commented on the ruling, stating that the decision of the court meant that it would “prevent the state of Israel from being flooded by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians” (Al Jazeera, 2012).
When one refers to Israel as an apartheid regime, they should not do so lightly but the facts speak for themselves. The Palestinians, since the very beginning, have been seen as at most, a nuisance to be dealt with in an appropriate manner. They are treated as second-class citizens or not as citizens at all, whilst at the same time the Israeli government continues to grab more and more Palestinian land in contravention of international law and multiple UN Resolutions. Zionism and its proponents have managed to hijack the Jewish faith for their own nefarious ends; the ends being the ownership of the region known to them as Eretz Israel. Israel has been an ethnocratic state from its very foundations with the Nakba and the lead up to it setting the tone which would come to dominate the Israeli policy towards the Palestinians for the next 70 years. What we see in the case of Israel is a zero sum dichotomy in terms of citizenship; you are either an Israeli citizen, or you are nothing at all. This is what it means to be Palestinian in the eyes of the Israeli government and its supporters.