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For Palestinians, Israel’s ‘Fight To Protect Democracy’ Is Bitterly Surreal

You simply cannot call a state 'democratic' that legalizes privileges for Jews and denies equality and right to self-determination for the other half of the population under its control – the Palestinians

A protester waves a 'bloodied' Israeli flag during a pro-democracy protest in Herzliya, on Saturday.,Credit: Shir Torem

To any Palestinian, the upheaval within Israel and among Western commentators over threats to Israel’s democracy by its new governing coalition is surreal.

Palestinians know that Israel has only ever been a democracy for its Jewish citizens, and never for us. What we are witnessing today is an internal Israeli Jewish struggle over who will administer an apartheid regime over the Palestinians, not a genuine fight for democracy for all.

There’s no doubt the latest governing coalition, with its openly bigoted ministers and plans to weaken the Israeli judiciary, is far worse than its predecessors. Yet since Israel’s founding, its legal system has regularly approved laws and policies enforcing Jewish supremacy.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s statement this week that there was “no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as Palestinian people,” though clearly racist, is fully consistent with Israeli laws and policies, like the 2018 Basic Law: Israel — The Nation State of the Jewish People, which pointedly excludes the right to equality for all the country’s citizens.

The Supreme Court has rarely seen a seizure of Palestinian land it didn’t like. While it expanded legal standing to hear cases of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, it has typically approved Israel’s land seizures.

Once, in 1979, it struck down one legal justification for a Jewish settlement. In response, the military administration that has ruled over occupied West Bank Palestinians for nearly 56 years simply switched legal tactics, and settlement activity resumed with barely a hiccup. And while in 2004 the International Court of Justice found the construction of sections of Israel’s separation wall built on Palestinian land unlawful, the Supreme Court authorized a major segment of it.

The Court has also, in effect, given its blessing to state sanctioned violence and tools of repression against Palestinians. In 1999, it barred several abusive interrogation techniques that amount to torture – but did not absolutely ban torture itself.

Moreover, the Supreme Court has approved targeted killings (with some constraints), the demolition of family homes as collective punishment, imprisonment without trial based on secret evidence, forced removal and deportations as well as bans on political expression and freedom of movement.

The separation barrier, as seen from Abu Dis in the West Bank, in September.

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The separation barrier, as seen from Abu Dis in the West Bank, in September.Credit: Emil Salman

At any time now, the Israeli army plans to bulldoze two Palestinian villages in the West Bank, Masafer Yatta and Khan al-Ahmar. The Court ruled the army could use the land for military training, despite warnings from the International Criminal Court prosecutor that “extensive destruction of property, without military necessity and population transfers, in an occupied territory constitute war crimes.”

Overnight, more than 1,000 residents of Masafer Yatta will be made homeless. 180 residents of Khan al-Ahmar will suffer the same fate. Destroying the two villages will create a dangerous precedent, with catastrophic implications for dozens of similarly situated Palestinian communities.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has also consistently upheld laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens, approving racist legislative measures banning Palestinian family unification and empowering Jewish community councils to disapprove Palestinian residency applications under the pretext of “social unsuitability”—thus greenlighting the housing segregation that is typical of Israel’s smaller communities.

An independent Israeli judiciary? Maybe, if you’re Jewish. Today, some Supreme Court judges, such as Noam Sohlberg and David Mintz, live in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. They, like other Israeli settlers, use Jewish-only roads to speed along, while Palestinians use inferior roads and get herded through military checkpoints like cattle through a stockyard. Many other judges were formerly prosecutors or otherwise served the state, and now systemically uphold oppressive policies that violate international human rights and humanitarian law.

True, the Supreme Court has had one Palestinian Arab judge since 2004. To most Palestinian citizens of Israel, however, this is merely tokenism supporting the illusion that we enjoy equal citizenship.

Palestinian women gather beside the rubble of their house that was demolished by Israeli authorities at Khirbet Ma'in in the area of Masafer Yatta, south of the West Bank city of Hebron, in January.

Palestinian women gather beside the rubble of their house that was demolished by Israeli authorities at Khirbet Ma'in in the area of Masafer Yatta, south of the West Bank city of Hebron, in January.Credit: Majdi Mohammed /AP

Israel and its supporters in the West have labored to construct the myth of a Jewish democracy. But “Jewish and democratic state” is a contradiction in terms, just as “Christian democracy” is in describing the United States. You simply cannot call a state “democratic” that legalizes privileges for Jews and denies equality and right to self-determination for the other half of the population under its control.

Palestinians have never accepted, and will never accept, that Jewish people should have superior rights over us – particularly not in our own homeland – regardless of the decades of illegal policies and practices that the 2018 Basic Law attempts to legitimize.

Nor will we ever stop fighting for freedom or opposing Israeli theft of our lands through use of military force and legal machinations. We will continually resist by all means available under international law what an emerging consensus of major local and international human rights organizations sees as apartheid and Jewish supremacy laws from the river to the sea.

While we applaud newly awakened concerns over Israel’s increasingly illiberal and anti-democratic policies, blocking Netanyahu’s assault on the judiciary will not end the decades long subjugation of Palestinians. This explains the indifference and lack of participation of Palestinian citizens in the Israeli Jewish-led massive protest movement. Without centering equality and human rights for all, the call to protect Israeli democracy will remain exclusionary and hollow.

A small, but encouraging sign is the growing group of Jewish Israelis who gather together at the weekly mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv against the government holding signs like “Democracy and Occupation Cannot Coexist.” They are right, but do not go far enough.

Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews are destined to live together in the same land. Our shared future will become more just, secure, and peaceful when Palestinian rights and lives are valued as much as Jewish ones. Ending occupation is a start, but full democratization will end only when the structures of Jewish supremacy in Israel are also thoroughly dismantled. We are worthy to be counted as human beings entitled to full equality and democratic rights, not as colonized subjects.

George Bisharat is the Honorable Raymond L. Sullivan Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of California School of Law, San Francisco.

Jamil Dakwar is the Director of the ACLU Human Rights Program, and former senior lawyer with Adalah. He is an adjunct lecturer at Hunter College and New York University. This piece is submitted in his personal capacity and not as an ACLU staff member.