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Palestinians Under Military Rule in Israel

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Palestinians Under Military Rule in Israel
Governing the Lives of a Confined Population

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The Palestinians who remained in Israel when the state was created lived formally under military rule from 1948 until the end of 1966. Over a two-year period, the military government was dismantled and its repressive powers were transferred to the police and intelligence services. During that transition, Israel launched a war (on 5 June 1967) against neighboring Arab states in which it seized the remaining Palestinian territories (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), as well as the Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan. The Israeli government needed its security forces to manage the newly occupied territories during that period, and this brought domestic military rule to a swifter and effective end. Military rule was a blatant contradiction to claims of democracy in Israel; it revealed the true value of the citizenship offered to the Arab minority. The conclusion of military rule also definitively proved that the security argument for maintaining military rule for nearly two decades was disingenuous.

The Israeli government decided to impose military rule on Palestinians who remained in their homes in Jaffa, Lydda, and Ramla after these cities were occupied in the spring of 1948; they were very few in number and had been rounded up into specific areas (ghettoes). The occupation of Nazareth and nearby villages in mid July 1948 may have been the real beginning of military rule. David Ben-Gurion’s government quickly appointed a military governor for the city and surrounding area: Elisha Soltz. Soltz became responsible for “restoring normalcy” in the city by cooperating with the municipality and its mayor, Youssef al-Fahoum. Military rule extended over all Arab communities, from the Galilee in the north to the Negev in the south, managed by a special unit made up of officers and soldiers in the regular army, as well as others performing their compulsory military service. The military governor reported to the Chief of Staff and the Ministry of Defense. When Jordan ceded the Triangle villages to Israel in May 1949, military rule was imposed on the population of this area as well, despite the armistice agreement guaranteeing the rights of these residents and the establishment of local Arab police forces in the Triangle villages.

Although the Israeli government officially vowed that Palestinians who remained in the state would be treated as citizens with full rights, in fact it treated them as enemies under occupation, and military rule was the primary tool it used to control them. Tactics included strict control of Palestinians’ movements and organization, suppression of any attempts to resist repressive policies, and discrimination against them in all spheres of life. In the first few years after the Nakba, Palestinians who tried to cross the ceasefire lines and return to their homeland were treated as infiltrators who could be shot on sight with impunity. Most Arab villages from which Palestinians were displaced were destroyed, and Jewish settlements were built in their place. Most land belonging to internally displaced persons (referred to in official Israeli parlance as “present absentees”) was expropriated and designated closed military zones, and Palestinians were often prevented from returning to it. The policies of the military government were aimed at “Judaizing” the Galilee and remaining Arab areas in general, reducing the area of land held by Palestinians, and isolating them in their villages and towns.

Military rule, and the way it managed Arab citizens’ civil affairs, had its legal basis in the Emergency Defense Regulations of 1945 and other mandatory and Israeli legislation. Of the 162 Articles in the Emergency Regulations, the military government used only five extensively. Articles 110, 111, and 124 were used to restrict or prevent freedom of movement, and Articles 109 and 125 were used to announce closed zones that Arab citizens were forbidden from entering. Military personnel who worked in the military government issued movement permits to people they liked and denied them to those they did not. Arab citizens were forced to request permission from the military governor if they wanted to do any kind of work or activity beyond the borders of their villages. This included engaging in paid work, commerce, shopping, education, and health care. Military personnel dictated Arab citizens’ livelihoods and every aspect of their lives, and sometimes even intervened in their relationships, including marriage and divorce. Military personnel also encouraged people who cooperated with Zionist settler colonialism; supported political and community leaders who cooperated with the government and Mapai, the ruling party; and banned any independent collective action, whether public, social, or cultural.

In 1958, the Rosen Commission, a parliamentary commission headed by Minister of Justice Pinchas Rosen, was formed to investigate when military rule could be terminated. This committee was active during a period when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the idea of pan-Arab unity between Egypt and Syria, enjoyed increasing support among Arab citizens. Activists in Maki, the Israeli communist party, and Arab nationalists were also growing noticeably close during this period, as was evident in fierce joint demonstrations on 1 May 1958 and in the creation of the Popular Front to defend citizens who were detained during demonstrations and to lead the resistance against military rule and related policies. The government rejected the Rosen Commission’s recommendation that the military government “stop”; it kept the military government in place but transferred a number of powers to the police.

This second phase of government control of Palestinians in Israel was characterized by the easing of military rule over Arab citizens, starting in 1959. This was due to several reasons. The Israeli economy had developed remarkably and needed more cheap labor, which required greater freedom of movement for Arab workers. There was also a shift in Israel’s security considerations. Some of the original goals of military rule had been achieved during that period; the government had successfully prevented refugees from returning across the ceasefire lines, and it controlled villages from which Palestinians were displaced. Moreover, in the wake of the attack on Egypt and the Kafr Qasim massacre in the autumn of 1956, security leaders – including those from Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, and other agencies – were increasingly convinced that Arabs who remained in Israel would not leave the country. Following these developments, security agencies searched for alternative means of control that were compatible with easing the restrictions on the movement of Arabs in the country. Meanwhile, many Jews opposed the continuation of military rule. They argued that continuing the same policies of military rule two decades after Israel was founded was damaging its reputation and that it was possible to monitor the Arab population through the police and intelligence services. Here, it is worth noting that the opposition parties made two attempts in the Knesset to bring down military rule. Their first failed attempt was in 1962. Their second attempt in 1963 failed by one vote, when two Arab representatives (Jabr Muadi and Thiab Ubaid) connected to the ruling party, Mapai, voted with the government, thus prolonging military rule until 1966.

The way these representatives voted reveals that even from the beginning, military rule went beyond civil, social, and economic spheres. It also infiltrated the political sphere, particularly with regards to Arab representation in the Knesset. For diplomatic reasons, the ruling party, under Ben-Gurion’s leadership, was unable to avoid granting Arabs in Israel the right to vote, but it still used this right to its advantage. It used military rule to prevent independent Arab parties from forming, and it put pressure on Arab leaders in villages to persuade and threaten residents and to encourage them to vote for the ruling party and Arab candidates associated with it. In contrast to Mapai’s tactics, other Zionist parties tried to attract Arab voters to increase their share of Knesset seats, using Arab voters as pawns in these parties’ games. Only when it became clear that the military government had no security significance and was simply playing a political role for Mapai, did right-wing parties such as Herut, led by Menachem Begin, join the opposition to military rule. Besides the Zionist parties, the Israeli Communist Party was the best positioned to win large numbers of Arab voters, ultimately making it the second most popular, after Mapai. One reason the Israeli Communist Party was so successful was the prominent role it had played in combatting military rule and repressive policies since the early 1950s. The left-wing Mapam Party also joined the opposition, even if only partially.

Ben-Gurion thwarted all attempts to abolish military rule until 1963, when Levi Eshkol assumed the position of Prime Minister. In late 1963, Eshkol announced that he planned to end military rule and the military government. This eventually occurred in December 1966, when the police, under the supervision of the Chief of Staff, was tasked with implementing the Emergency Regulations. In terms of Israeli legal tools, it was not until late 1968 that military rule was abolished, relevant articles in the Emergency Regulations were suspended, and military commanders’ surveillance of Palestinians in Israel ended.

These developments did not fundamentally change Arab citizens’ lives in the first stage. With the 1967 June War and the occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Sinai, and the Golan Heights, Israel turned its focus from Palestinians in Israel to their brothers in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, imposing military rule without granting citizenship and implementing settler colonialist policies in the newly occupied territories, just as Israel had done domestically in the Galilee and the Negev since 1948. These developments gave Arabs in Israel the sense that their legal and economic situation was improving. Yet it also strengthened their Palestinian identity and intensified their attempts to organize politically. This would later give rise to independent Arab political parties and movements, as well as popular mobilization, as was seen in March 1976, which launched what came to be known as Land Day.

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Selected Bibliography

Bäuml, Yair. “The Military Government.” In Nadim N. Rouhana  and Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, eds., The Palestinians in Israel: Readings in History, Politics and Society. Haifa: Mada al-Carmel, 2011.

Bäuml, Yair. “Israel’s Military Rule over Its Palestinian Citizens (1948–1968).” In Nadim N. Rouhana and Sahar S. Huneidi, eds., Israel and its Palestinian Citizens: Ethnic Privileges in the Jewish State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Jiryis, Sabri. The Arabs in Israel. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1968; also New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.

Sa’di, Ahmad H. “Stifling Surveillance: Israel’s Surveillance and Control of the Palestinians during the Military Government Era.Jerusalem Quarterly, no.68 (Winter 2016): 36–55.