Why Israel/Palestine needs a new definition of self-determination

The separation and "ethnic purity" currently seen in Israel disturbs even the honest among its advoc

Condoleeza Rice's recently published memoirs contains an interesting passage about Palestine/Israel. Rice relates a conversation she had with Tzipi Livni in March 2004, with the discussion particularly focused on Livni's concerns regarding the Palestinian refugees' right of return.

The Israeli politician's central opposition to the refugees' return -- that it could "change the nature of the State of Israel, which had been founded as a state for the Jews" -- is nothing new. But the former Secretary of State's response is instructive.

I must admit that though I understood the argument intellectually, it struck me as a harsh defense of the ethnic purity of the Israeli state when Tzipi said it. It was one of those conversations that shocked my sensibilities as an American. After all, the very concept of 'American' rejects ethnic or religious definitions of citizenship. Moreover, there were Arab citizens of Israel. Where did they fit in?

These doubts are then duly silenced by an affirmation of the narrative of a "thousands-year-old process" to "reestablish 'the Jewish state'", and thus, "despite the dissonance that it stirred" in her, Rice backs Livni's argument that the Palestinian refugees should not return, in order to "allow the democratic state of Israel to be 'Jewish'".

But this discomfort at Livni's defence of "ethnic purity" is not so easily dismissed, and as Rice hinted, the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel illuminates the "dissonance" of Israel's 'Jewish and democratic' nature.

One long-standing example, now receiving more coverage, is the treatment of Bedouin Palestinians. A striking case study is the village of Atir-Umm al-Hieran in the Naqab (Negev), whose story has been told by the Israeli NGO Adalah in their report 'Nomads Against Their Will'.

Pointing out that the new attempts to expel and dispossess the Bedouin population "perpetuate a policy that was conceived of and initiated more than sixty years ago", Adalah's report details how after 1948 the village residents were repeatedly relocated until "the Israeli military governor in the area finally ordered them to move" to their current location -- a village still "yet to be granted official recognition by the state":

Israel now wants to demolish their homes and expel them yet again, for a fourth time, to a small number of specially-designated reservation-like towns created to "contain" the Bedouin whom it has expelled from their homes. In parallel, the state plans to settle Jewish citizens of Israel on the land, on top of the ruins of their village.

The Israel Land Administration (which manages 93 percent of the land in Israel) described these Bedouin citizens as "a special obstacle" in its plan to 'develop' the area with new Jewish towns. Described in court proceedings as "intruders", the residents of Atir-Umm al-Hieran are being targeted for eviction because of "[the state's] desire to set up a new Jewish community on their lands, by the name of Hiran".

This is one example of routine policies in a state still defended by some as a bastion of progressive democracy, and these stories of discrimination and state-sanctioned ethno-religious privilege are appearing in the western media with greater frequency. Yo Zushi has blogged on the subject for the NS. The Economist recently reported on the Israeli government's plan to remove around an estimated 30-40,000 Bedouin from their villages and "pen...them into cities", while the BBC made the link between this mass-eviction and another one planned in the West Bank.

Rarely, however, will stories like these be framed as policies which are the logical outcome of the state's very identity. The moment of candour in Rice's memoirs is a reminder that the discrimination faced by the Palestinian minority is inherent in the definition of Israel as 'Jewish and democratic'.

Jurist Ruth Gavison was a founding member of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. In her 2003 essay, The Jews' right to statehood, Gavison was honest about the consequence for the Palestinians:

The Jewish state is thus an enterprise in which the Arabs are not equal partners, in which their interests are placed below those of a different national group -- most of whose members are newcomers to the land, and many of whom are not even living in the country.

Gavison goes on to acknowledge that Palestinians in the Jewish state are limited in "their ability to ...exercise their right to self-determination", and that "the needs of Jewish nationalism do, in some cases, justify certain restrictions on the Arab population in Israel".

This is the uncomfortable reality that Rice chose not to dwell on, even though understanding these facts is an essential element of any peace-making worthy of the name. The nature of Israel's policies towards its Palestinian minority goes to the very heart of the conflict -- and points us towards a solution.

An analysis that makes the links between what is happening in the hills of the West Bank and the Negev desert is a necessary part of imagining a future solution "that protects the rights of both the Palestinian people and Jewish Israelis", a redefining of self-determination whereby both groups share a common homeland based on equality. It is the alternative to the separation and "ethnic purity" that disturbs even the honest among its advocates.

Ben White is a freelance journalist and writer. His latest book is Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, discrimination and democracy.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.


There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.


Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.


Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

0800 7318496