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20 November 2011updated 12 Oct 2023 10:44am

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

By Ben White

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'”.

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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.

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