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Palestinian Citizenship in Israel

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Palestinian Citizenship in Israel
An Unwanted Minority Asserts Its Narrative and Identity

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After the 1948 war, Palestinians who remained in their homeland found themselves under the control of a new regime: Israel. As a newly created state, and one that is designated exclusively as a Jewish state, Israel had to determine the nature of its relationship with the Palestinians under its control and to define their status, rights, and duties. The Palestinians had to adjust to the devastating upheaval and try to define their place within the new regime. The history of the mutual relationship between Israel and the Palestinians under its control will be viewed here through the prism of citizenship, both in the sense of political membership in the state and in the sense of enjoying a number of rights, or “the right to have rights.” 

The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, issued on 14 May 1948, offered “the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel … full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” This ostensibly universal provision was no more, at this delicate moment, than necessary lip-service paid to the international community by the signatories of the Declaration: “the representatives of the Jewish Community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist Movement.” Right from the beginning, Israel’s leaders took measures and adopted policies that rendered the idea of citizenship empty and meaningless insofar as the indigenous Palestinians were concerned. Even though the majority of the Palestinians were expelled in 1948 (only 160,000 remained in 1949, about 18 percent of the pre-1948 total), the leaders of the state saw the mere presence of the remaining Palestinians as a threat to the “Jewishness” of the state, a security threat, and a barrier to taking over the land.

As an expression of the “Jewishness” of the state and as a tool to secure a Jewish majority, Israel enacted in 1950 the Law of Return which gave Jews anywhere in the world an absolute right to immigrate and acquire automatic citizenship. At the same time, Israel was adamant to reduce as much as possible the Palestinians’ access to citizenship. It enacted the Nationality Law in 1952, which restricted eligibility to citizenship by imposing onerous requirements on Palestinians (i.e. meeting all the following conditions: to have been Palestinian before the establishment of the state; to have stayed in or entered Israel legally; to be resident in Israel up to 1 July 1952; and to be an inhabitant of the state on the date of entry into force of the law). Many who “infiltrated” to their villages between 1948 and 1950, and had avoided forcible expulsion across the borders, had to be naturalized to stay in their homeland.

Such restrictions on citizenship were complemented by the Entry into Israel Law of 1952 and the Prevention of Infiltration (Offenses and Jurisdiction) Law of 1954. The inferior status of the Palestinians was further cemented by the adoption of a number of laws and policies that made access to certain rights and services contingent on military service. Consequently, most Palestinians were denied many rights because they are exempted from conscription (except members of the Druze community who nevertheless have not enjoyed equal rights or treatment as the Jews). In almost all conceivable areas including education, healthcare, housing, employment, budget allocation, social welfare and development, the Palestinian citizens have fared worse and continue to fare worse than the Jewish citizens.

Under the pretext of security, the state put in place a strict and brutal system to control the Palestinian population. Using a mix of Mandate-era legislation and new legislation such as the Emergency Regulations (Security Zones) of 1949, Israel imposed a Military Government on all Palestinians, and controlled every aspect of their life, including movement, employment, education and provision of services. Together with the police and the secret service (the Shabak), the Military Government micromanaged the Palestinians, instilled fear, rewarded collaboration, and made sure they vote, on election day, for the ruling Mapai Party and its associated lists and do not develop their own political parties and institutions. Through denial of movement, the Military Government provided also one of the several legal mechanisms to confiscate Palestinian-owned lands: if farmers could not access their land, the land remained uncultivated, and uncultivated land could be confiscated by the state.

In such a colonial environment with different categories of citizenship based on ethnic/religious belonging, the Palestinians’ access to the bundle of rights that citizenship provides (partial and defective as they were) was critical for their very survival in their homeland. This was a paradoxical situation: this group, which was under the constant threat of expulsion, had no other guarantee against expulsion than citizenship in the very state that was trying to expel them. The daily life for members of this group was a form of constant negotiation of a political existence in the shadow of this paradox.

Despite the environment of fear and severe state repression, resistance against discriminatory policies was not uncommon. Since 1948, Palestinians living in what became Israel have been resisting their state-imposed inferior status and have been in a constant struggle to maintain their existence as individuals and as a collective in their homeland. Resistance took several forms: disobeying Military Government orders (that led to thousands of judicial and administrative sanctions each year); skirting Israeli prohibition of Arab independent political activity through affiliation to the Communist Party, which was formally “an Arab-Jewish party”; and establishing nationalist groups, such as the Arab Front in 1958 and Land Movement in 1959 (though these were very quickly and brutally repressed).

After the removal of the Military Government in 1966 and the 1967 war, the struggle of the Palestinians in Israel entered a new stage. All Palestinians living in Mandate Palestine were under Israel’s control, which had the effect of raising the sense of identity and unity. The nature of the conflict was clearly that between a settler-state and a native population, and so resistance centered around land and the importance of staying on the land as a cohesive Palestinian community. Strikes, demonstrations, and petitions were the most common forms of resistance.

In the 1970s, these forms of resistance coalesced in the setting up of the National Committee for the Defense of Arab Lands in Israel, which led the massive strike on Land Day (30 March 1976) that the Israeli police repressed by killing 6 Palestinians, wounding more than 100, and detaining hundreds. Another step toward organizing a de-facto representative body of the Palestinians in Israel was the founding of the National Committee of Arab Mayors, and the Higher Follow-Up Committee for the Arab Citizens in Israel in 1982, though these groups have had uneven histories since their establishment. The trend toward the deepening of the Palestinian identity among the majority of the Palestinians in Israel was clearly visible in a new generation born after the Nakba, which established national organizations such as the National Union of Arab University Students and political parties. This trend is clear in the changes in the voting patterns since the mid-1980s, which indicate a mass desertion of Zionist parties in favor of Arab parties.

To counter this relative success, Israel undertook significant efforts to suppress the Palestinian identity and political organizing around it. This is clear in the attempts to impose the “Israeli Arab” as an identity so as to eliminate any affinity between Palestinians in Israel and Palestinians elsewhere, or to promote narrower sectarian identities recasting the Palestinians as “the minorities”: an amalgam of Muslim, Christian, Druze and Bedouin communities with no uniting identity. At the same time, Israel intensified the emphasis on Jewish identity, and highlighted this identity by declaring the state’s constitutional definition as “Jewish and democratic” in a number of constitutional basic laws.

Despite these attempts, a new discourse of citizenship has emerged at the turn of the century that puts Palestinian identity at the center and highlights the fact that Palestinians in Israel (who today number more than 1.5 million, excluding East Jerusalem) are part of the broader Palestinian people. This discourse goes beyond demanding equal and full citizenship rights in the state, and seeks to redefine political membership in a manner that takes account of Palestinians as an indigenous nation. It seeks to redefine the state and eliminate the colonial privileges that Jewish citizens enjoy. It insists that as an indigenous population, equal citizenship for the Palestinians also extends to the right to define themselves as an equal political group that has its own culture, history, narrative, and historical claims that the state has to acknowledge. This discourse is clear in the four “vision” documents that Palestinian civil society issued in 2006-2007, which reject Israel’s constitutional definition as a Jewish state and call for transforming the state into a democratic and multicultural state based on equality.

The state has reacted to this new discourse with more repression and more emphasis on its Jewish character, intensifying settler-colonial policies and further curtailing the rights that Palestinians have. Since the early 2000s, the Knesset has adopted a range of new laws (Adalah, a Palestinian human rights organization, counts over 50 discriminatory laws) that target Palestinian citizens in areas of basic freedoms and political participation. The Nationality and Entry into Israel Law-2003, which restricts family reunification between Palestinians in Israel and spouses in the West Bank and Gaza and other countries, and the 2011 law, which restricts the freedom to commemorate the Nakba, are examples of this trend. More extreme ideas are floated and discussed periodically, including transfer to the West Bank, or ideas to encourage emigration. This trend signals that the gap, in many respects, is widening between the State of Israel and “its” Palestinian citizens.

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Selected Bibliography

Adalah (The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel). “Discriminatory Laws in Israel,” at adalah.org

Jiryis, Sabri. The Arabs in Israel. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976.

Masri, Mazen. The Dynamics of Exclusionary Constitutionalism: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State. Oxford: Hart, 2017.

Robinson, Shira. Citizen Strangers, Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Rouhana, Nadim, and Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, eds. The Palestinians in Israel: Readings in History, Politics and Society. Haifa: Mada al-Carmel, 2011.

Rouhana, Nadim, and Nimer Sultany. “Redrawing the Boundaries of Citizenship: Israel’s New Hegemony.Journal of Palestine Studies 33, no.1 (Fall 2003): 5–22.