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Israel's High Court avoids calls to nullify or amend nation-state law

Court hints that law could be interpreted but avoided discussing it during hearing, following 15 legal petitions
Israeli protesters carry national flags as they watch Supreme Court deliberations broadcast live in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on 3 May 2020 (AFP)

The Israeli High Court on Tuesday avoided addressing the call of 15 legal petitions to nullify the controversial nation-state law or expunge some of its clauses to ensure equality to Palestinian and Druze citizens inside Israel and residents who are not Jews.

The nation-state law, which passed amid Palestinian outcry in 2018, states that Israel is the "nation-state of the Jewish people" and that "the right to self-determination therein is exclusive to the Jewish people".

The law gives Jews supremacy over all non-Jewish Israeli citizens, and critics have warned that it pushes Israel to be an apartheid state through its Clause 7b, which seeks to enshrine Israel's Jewish identity in the Basic Law - Israel's equivalent of a constitution - superseding its democratic identity.

'In discussing this law, there is an attempt to crown the worldview of the High Court's judges as if they were lords of the land'

- Yariv Levin, Knesset speaker

Clause 7b says the "state can allow a community composed of people of the same faith or nationality to maintain an exclusive community".

Some of the petitioners opposing the nation-state law were the Adalah legal centre, representing Palestinians inside Israel, Israel's Association for Civil Rights, and legal representatives of the Druze community.

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Israel's High Court hinted that the nation-state law could be interpreted but avoided discussing it during the hearing.

Yousef Jabareen, a Knesset member, said on Tuesday that "the nation-state law anchors Jewish supremacy and entrenches discrimination against Arab citizens. Its place is in the trash heap of history with the apartheid laws of South Africa."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset speaker Yariv Levin have lambasted the petitioners and the High Court for accepting the legal petitions, heard by an expanded panel of 11 justices on Tuesday.

"The High Court has no authority to judge the authority of Basic Laws, as Basic Laws enacted by the Knesset are the supreme law of the land," Netanyahu said in a statement.

In a rare move, Levin warned the High Court in a letter that he would deem the court's decision "illegitimate" if it struck down the nation-state law. 

"In discussing this law, there is an attempt to crown the worldview of the High Court's judges as if they were lords of the land," Levin said.

'Threats to democracy'

Netanyahu and Levin's statements met with condemnation from politicians who are opponents of the Likud party.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, the present defence minister, tweeted that Netanyahu and Levin's "threats" against the court "are threats to democracy and seek to dismantle the separation of powers".

Tzipi Livni, a former justice minister, said that "the difference between a stance against the High Court's intervention to cancel the nation-state law and the announcement by Knesset head Yariv Levin is the difference between a legitimate discussion and the destruction of the basis of Israeli democracy".

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit weighed in against the High Court, opposing its decision to hear the case of petitions in the first place. 

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"The position of the attorney-general is that the petitioners have not articulated a factual and legal basis that can ground the unprecedented intervention of striking down a Basic Law," Mandelblit's office said in a statement.

The nation-state law is becoming a de facto standard in the Israeli legal system that is affecting the civil rights of Palestinian citizens in Israel. 

On 1 December, an Israeli court ruled in favour of an Israeli municipality that has refused to fund the commute of two young Palestinian citizens of Israel to attend a nearby school, arguing that the nation-state law justified the decision on the grounds of reinforcing the "Jewish character" of the town.

However, under Israel's education law, municipalities have to pay for the commute of students who live in their towns or otherwise organise a safe journey for them to their schools. But as a Basic Law, which has the status of a constitutional article, the nation-state law will overpower other laws and regulations. 

Israeli activists from the right-wing group Im Tirtzu have protested outside the High Court, shouting anti-court slogans, and tried to assault Knesset member Yousef Jabareen, according to Arab48.

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