Skip to main content

Israel’s nation-state law is an opportunity for Palestinians

Israel will now have a much harder time convincing the world that its apartheid regime is democratic

Israel's new nation-state law has been decried as "controversial" and "racist," causing an uproar among some Palestinians and Israeli opponents alike when it was adopted last month.

The headlines, however, should have read: "Israel finally admits to apartheid," as the law merely affirms the status quo.   

If anything, all the new law will achieve is to allow Israel's right-wing government to override the "democratic" Supreme Court when implementing more racist policies. 

Jews first, 'democracy' second

Unlike the Declaration of Independence, in which Israel defines itself as Jewish and democratic, the new law does not refer to Israel being a democratic state. The message to the Supreme Court, and to the world, is clear: in Israel, Jews come first, and "democracy" second. 

In essence, the new law codifies Jewish supremacy and apartheid, an institutionalised regime of domination by one racial group over another. 

Significantly, it also peels back the facade of Israeli democracy, long used by Zionists and their bedfellows to legitimise actions of the state since its inception in 1948.

It is no coincidence that Palestinian political parties have been denied inclusion in every government coalition and decision-making body in Israel's history

But, contrary to popular opinion, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The move presents a unique opportunity for Palestinians in our long-term struggle for liberation. 

Consider white-ruled apartheid South Africa, where racial segregation was enshrined and explicit, both constitutionally and administratively.

The global movement to isolate South Africa would not have been successful if discrimination hadn't been so clearly spelled out in law: segregation in state facilities and public transport, inter-racial marriage banned, and non-whites barred from voting, to name a few examples. 

Equal rights?

In Israel, however, racist state policies are intentionally hidden under a veneer of "democracy," where "Arabs" - the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel - are entitled to have Israeli citizenship, to vote and run for office, to study at Israeli universities and to work in Israeli businesses.  

To many on the outside, Palestinians are integrated into Israeli society; Jews and Palestinians are seen to have equal rights. Never mind that under this pretense of individual equality, Palestinian citizens as a group are not entitled to the same collective rights as Jews - or that not a single Palestinian, out of 750,000 born in the country and expelled by Zionist militias in 1948, or their descendants have been allowed to return.

Meanwhile, Israeli law allows any Jew in the world to obtain Israeli citizenship despite having no birthright connection to the land. 

Israeli policemen stand guard as bulldozers demolish homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran on 18 January 2017 (AFP)

Public spending and land allocation also disproportionately favour Jews over non-Jews; since 1948, around 600 new Jewish municipalities have been built, but not a single Palestinian town or village.

Israel routinely steals Palestinian land on both sides of the Green Line boundary between Israel and the West Bank to benefit its Jewish citizens, demonstrated most recently with preparations to demolish the Palestinian village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev to make room for a Jewish-only town.  

It is no coincidence that Palestinian political parties have been denied inclusion in every government coalition and decision-making body in Israel's history. 

Zionist apologists

For decades, Zionist apologists and pro-Israel groups have denounced criticism that Israel is an apartheid state, claiming that Israel does not discriminate between Palestinians and Jews in the same manner as apartheid South Africa discriminated between whites and people of colour.  

That apartheid manifests in various ways is a separate and obvious argument. But the advent of the nation-state law, which gives the right of self-determination only to Jews and protects them as a superior group, changes everything.

'Jewish nation state': How Israel enshrines apartheid into law
Ben White
Read More »

Israel already treats its citizens differently based on race and ethnicity. As a colonial state built for one group at the expense of another, it offers privileges to its Jewish citizens that Palestinians can only dream of. There need not be segregated benches and buses for one to recognise that this is apartheid. 

Particularly since the Oslo peace process in the mid-1990s, which envisioned a two-state solution, the problematic status quo of Palestinian citizens of Israel has been neglected. Much of the discussion in mainstream media and the international community has surrounded the Palestinian territories Israel occupied in 1967 - East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza - where a future Palestinian state was meant to be established. 

While campaigning for a two-state solution, the international community ignored the plight of the 1.8 million Palestinians inside Israel, whose fate was hardly discussed. This law brings their suffering and status back into the equation.

International pressure

Some may argue the nation-state law is not enough to effectively mobilise the international community, but let’s remember that apartheid is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. 

Racism existed in South Africa long before the National Party made apartheid an official policy in 1948. It was decades before apartheid was acknowledged as an international crime in 1973, and not until 1986 did the United States impose sanctions on the country.  

This law unmasks Israel's true intentions towards its Palestinian citizens: to cement their inferior status to Jews as long as it remains in existence

While international pressure was not the sole factor leading to the end of apartheid South Africa, it played a significant role in forcing the government to engage in negotiations with the African National Congress. 

For Palestinians, the nation-state law is a step in a series of more challenges, or victories, to come. Israel will now have a much harder time trying to convince the world that its apartheid regime is democratic. 

And just as the US recently owned up to its love affair with Israel after decades of pretending to be an "honest broker" in the failed peace process, this law unmasks Israel's true intentions towards its Palestinian citizens: to cement their inferior status to Jews as long as it remains in existence.  

- Zena Tahhan is a freelance journalist based in the occupied Palestinian territories. Follow her on Twitter: @zenatahhan

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Palestinian demonstrator wearing a Guy Fawkes mask holds his national flag during a demonstration in Gaza on 27 July 2018 (AFP)

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.