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COLUMN

If This Isn’t Racism...

Guest Column
Bilal Zuberi

Donald Neff, author of 50 Years of Israel writes, “Unlike pornography, which often is in the eye of the beholder, racism in nations is self-evident. It comes in the form of a constitution, the laws that a nation adopts, and the behavior of its citizens toward minorities.”

Israel has no constitution, but it has what are called Basic Laws. These laws grant Jews special rights that other people living in the state do not enjoy. One would think that the Jews, who survived and endured the Holocaust, would be among the world’s greatest teachers of tolerance. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.

Israeli Palestinians make up approximately twenty percent of the current population of Israel. Before 1948, approximately 950,000 Palestinians lived in what is now the state of Israel, but 800,000 of them left their homes during the war of 1948-9. Of those remaining, nearly a quarter were displaced from their homes to other locations, thus becoming internally displaced refugees.

The Zionist principles on which the state of Israel is based forced the state to adopt prejudiced laws and practices that, at best, treat Palestinians (officially called non-Jews, miyutim lo yehudim) as second-class citizens, what Neff calls “casualties of a bloody history that left them stranded inside what became Israel.” It comes as no surprise that in a state that wishes to remain specifically Jewish, all non-Jews (be they Palestinians or American Christians) are discouraged from living there. To maintain the country’s Jewish character, the purity of the state of Israel, the Palestinians have been continually depicted and dealt with as a demographic threat. Israel has established policies designed to check that threat. Re-engineering of the population has been accomplished by the denial of building permits to Palestinians, the demolition of homes, ID card confiscations, and residency revocations. For example, any Arab resident living in Jerusalem and wishing to travel abroad must obtain an Israeli re-entry visa, and living abroad for more than seven years will result in a loss of residency. These provisions do not, however, apply to Jewish residents.

A strategy commonly used to achieve Israel’s goal -- the greatest possible territory with a minimal non-Jewish population within its confines -- has been the re-zoning of Palestinian land as green spaces. These areas are officially labeled as public spaces but, in fact, serve as land reserves for the construction of Jewish settlements. Another zoning abuse involves the allocation of land into National Development Areas. Within these regions,the government disburses funding for development and provides tax incentives for industry, as well as education and housing benefits. Development Areas are supposed to be determined according to socioeconomic criteria. Yet the zones are drawn so as to include a disproportionate number of Jewish localities and to exclude nearly all Palestinian ones. For example, in the 1998 classification, out of 429 localities accorded Development Area status, only four were Palestinian, despite the fact that Palestinian towns and villages are consistently at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale in Israel.

All Israeli citizens, including Palestinians, have the right to vote for members of the Knesset and for the Prime Minister, but not all rights are citizenship rights. Some rights are defined as “nationality rights” and are reserved for Jews -- exclusive use of land, privileged access to private and public employment, and special education loans and home mortgages, among other things. Israeli Arabs have repeatedly demanded nationality rights by calling themselves a national minority, but they have thus far been described only as a cultural minority, to keep certain rights away from them. In addition, many other special privileges in the state of Israel are reserved for those who have served in the military. Military service is compulsory for all Jews except for the ultra-orthodox (who still get the same privileges),but Palestinians are banned from joining the Israeli Defense Forces, even though they make up one-fifth of the population -- a considerably larger fraction than blacks in America. Only four percent of government employees are Palestinian, and not a single Palestinian has ever become a cabinet minister in the Israeli government. In the 120-member Knesset, Palestinians hold only ten seats.

Palestinians are subject to discriminatory Israeli licensing and economic policies, which have led to widespread poverty. Let us take the tourism industry as an example. Israeli authorities have refused to issue Palestinians the permits for building new hotels or for the expansion of existing ones, keeping Palestian-owned hotel numbers frozen at 1967 figures. Palestinians need permits for all aspects of their life. They need them in order to move to and from towns and to move their goods and produce; they are not even allowed to dig for new wells or deepen existing wells without long waiting periods, even when the water runs dry or becomes unsuitable for drinking.

The situation in the occupied territories is even worse. Israelis, who were rightly outraged at being denied access to the Wailing Wall when Jerusalem was under Jordanian (not Palestinian) rule from 1948 to 1967, have effectively imposed similar restrictions on the one million Muslims in the Gaza Strip. Since 1993, the Israeli government has denied most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza entrance to Israel and restricted their movements within the occupied territories. The closure of the border has had a devastating impact on the Palestinian economy and is in direct violation of Israel’s obligations under international law; section 43 of the Hague regulations requires Israel to provide for the welfare and orderly life of the residents of the occupied territories.

The Israeli policies of the past and present are the cause of the plight of the Palestinian people: the suffocating economic, social, and political atmosphere that has caused so much frustration among them. This sort of collective punishment of about 2.7 million people, which prevents them from reaching their workplaces and deprives them of access to medical, educational, and economic services, as well as to places of worship, is a crime. Israel presents itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. It is a democracy only if we consider the apartheid regime in South Africa a democracy. If this is not racism, what is?

Bilal Zuberi is a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry.