The recent publication of the “Future vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” by leaders of the Palestinian community in Israel is not a unique incident in the history of the relations between that community and the state of Israel.
Since the creation of Israel, there has been serious tension between successive Israeli government and Zionist political parties on the one hand and the leading personalities and political parties that represent the Palestinian citizens of Israel on the other. This tension arises from the unresolved status of the Palestinian community.
The Jewish inhabitants of Palestine were for a long time a growing minority in this land. It had been growing for a mixture of political and ideological reasons, with the Zionist movement encouraging Jews to come to Palestine to create a homeland here. Two things radically changed that demographic reality in the middle of the last century.
First, there was the massive Jewish immigration from Europe as a result of the tragedy that faced Jews there. That was aided by the subsequent readiness of European governments to compensate Jews for the Nazi crimes against them by encouraging the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Second, there was the forced expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries by Zionist organizations.
Combined, these two factors created on the one hand the main underlying problem of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian refugee issue, and on the other, a Jewish majority in the part of historical Palestine where Israel declared its independent state.
Since then, and especially during the 1950s and 1960s, discriminatory state policies have been applied against those Palestinians who managed to stay in their homes. In addition to attempts to erase their national identity and strip them of their political rights, in those early decades the Palestinians of Israel were also subject to restrictions on movement and were contained in isolated population pockets, not that different from the restrictions on movement and the isolation of populated Palestinian areas in the West Bank today.
Equally important, official Israeli policies disadvantaged that minority socially and economically, rendering it the poorest and least educated segment of society.
Most obviously discriminatory are Israeli land laws, specifically the expropriations of land that either belonged to Palestinian citizens of Israel or should have been used for their urban or rural development.
It was this Israeli policy of land expropriations that led to the demonstrations on March 30, 1976, where six peaceful protestors were killed in the first real confrontation between the state and its Palestinian citizens.
In spite of all that, the Palestinians of Israel have maintained their Palestinian and Arab identity, developed their cultural and political identity and articulated their demands for equality in several significant ways, whether in “Land Day” demonstrations that started with the above or this latest document.
This document is inspired not only by the inequality Palestinian citizens of Israel face, but also by the Israeli Jewish insistence–an insistence that came to the surface most clearly during the years of the peace process–that Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state.
How can this be, leaders of the Palestinian community in Israel asked, when one-fifth of the population is non-Jewish? Would it not be more democratic and civilized if Israel considered itself a state of all its citizens?
But the document, which has created a lot of controversy in Israel with often shrill reactions, is significant for more than one reason. First, it presents a civilized and intellectual argument that should instigate a measured dialogue within Israel in order to further mutual understanding.
Second, it reflects a maturity on the part of the Palestinians of Israel, who are no longer talking only about their basic social and economic rights but are dealing with the much deeper roots of their problems as citizens of the state of Israel, a state that needs to redefine itself through a civilized and responsible dialogue that takes into consideration the views, rights and interests of its Palestinian minority.
It would be a healthy debate. Indeed, it has to be acknowledged that a debate is taking place not only between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, but also within the respective communities. The reason many in Israel are alarmed is that the Palestinian citizens of Israel are presenting their case in a sophisticated and respectful way that cannot be dismissed out of hand and is already raising eyebrows and sparking debate outside the borders of Israel.
Israel has always leaned heavily on its image abroad as a democracy. This document is a blow to that image.