Israel’s Palestinian politicians were elected by the people, but aren’t welcome in parliament


JERUSALEM — The discussion about the "Israeli-Palestinian conflict" usually focuses on the borders of two future states, recurring wars in Gaza, and the status of millions of refugees.

Less discussed is an element that has been forced to the forefront in recent weeks, in the midst of a wave of attacks mostly by Palestinians against Jewish Israelis: The fact that 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arab, or Palestinian citizens of Israel.

One of the Palestinian citizens' key grievances is that they are treated differently from Jewish Israelis under Israeli law.

Most Palestinian citizens of Israel come from families who were residing on land that is now Israel in 1948, when the state was formed. Though they were granted citizenship early on, their citizenship rights were conditional. They were subject to curfews, expulsions, land grabs and administrative detentions from the state’s inception.

These policies aren't new. But after weeks of attacks mostly by Palestinians against Jewish Israelis, they're joined by worsening rhetoric and state violence against Palestinians in Israel. A crackdown by Israeli security forces has left 59 Palestinians and 11 Israelis dead since this round of violence began.

Israeli security forces stand guard outside the Old City in East Jerusalem on Oct. 10, 2015, following a number of stabbing attacks by Palestinians against Israelis.

Palestinians fear that new security measures put in place in response to the attacks may become the new status quo. These fears pertain in particular to new checkpoints set up around Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that effectively allow the security forces to completely close off whole communities, drastically restricting residents' ability to get to work, school, medical appointments and otherwise conduct their daily lives.

“When I meet people these days the first thing they tell me is ‘we don’t envy you.’” says Yousef Jabareen, an Arab member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. “Apparently they feel the tension even in this building. And I guess they are right,” he adds with a chuckle.  

More from GlobalPost: Latest Israeli-Palestinian violence marked by 'lone wolf' attacks 

Palestinian members of the Knesset are the target of frequent verbal attacks, and some Israeli politicians make a concerted effort to align them with extremist Islamist forces in the region.

But there was hope just months ago that those dynamics could be changing.

In the March general election, representatives from four Arab-dominated parties ran on what was called the "Joint List." They secured more than 10 percent of the vote, making them the third-largest faction in the Knesset — and prompting hopes that, among other things, the List might be able to secure more equal rights for Palestinian Israelis. So far that hasn't happened.

In recent weeks one Knesset member suggested that Arab members should be searched when they come into the parliamentary building in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself accused them of marching under the flag of the Islamic State, said Yousef Jabareen, a member of the Joint List.

This kind of talk comes from all over the government.

“On the same day it was another Minister Ze’ev Elkin [in charge of Jerusalem Affairs and Immigrant Absorption] speaking about us supporting terror and inciting and [being] the representatives of terror groups,” Jabareen said.

This rhetoric began even before the Joint List came to power, when Netanyahu called on his supporters to head to the polls because “the Arabs [citizens of Israel] are heading to the polling stations in droves."

Then last week Netanyahu excluded Joint List leader Ayman Odeh from a meeting with opposition leaders about security.

“We were hoping that the Joint List for the first time ever would open the door for fulfilling some of our demands as a community, but we see a serious obstacle in the current dominant discourse within Israeli politics, the discourse of incitement, of exclusion,” said Jabareen. “The dehumanization of the leaders of the community, and definitely the community itself, is becoming part of the mainstream. It's part of the government, part of the media.” 

Palestinian citizens say the discrimination comes not just in words but in deeds, specifically laws.

"The increasing racism and fear in the hearts of Jews and Arabs is leading to such a situation where whenever there is a little bit of tension each side bunkers itself away," says Palestinian member of the Knesset Aida Touma-Sliman.

There have long been laws that favor Jewish Israelis, such as those involving religious symbols, religious leadership and the Jewish National Fund, an organization that owns 13 percent of the land in Israel and stipulates that only Jews may lease its land. There are also laws that deny Palestinian heritage, such as the law that authorizes the finance minister to reduce state funding of an institution that commemorates the day of the Nakba, the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 following the creation of the State of Israel.

Other laws may not explicitly make reference to a particular group, but are used to target Palestinian Israelis, according to Palestinian leaders. 

“There are no indications that the ratcheted-up measures are temporary. Unfortunately these things sometimes become part of the permanent measures they use,” said Jabareen.

“The government is implementing a political plan without announcing it. A one-state solution with some kind of autonomous self-steering in the main Palestinian cities; and this is exactly the scene of the apartheid of South Africa and I call these main cities the Bantustans.”

According to Aida Touma-Sliman, another lawmaker on the Joint List, how Israel frames discussion of the conflict also discredits Palestinians.

More from GlobalPost: The violence in Jerusalem could be really hard to stop

“The conflict is changing its terminology, from ‘occupation and oppressed people and settlers’ to ‘conflict, a peaceful settlement.’ They’re not by chance these changes. It’s as if we are talking about a religious conflict and the main focus were a religious issue,” says Touma-Sliman. “Why is it a religious issue? There is a clear intention from Netanyahu’s side to make it look like that.”

She argues that the government's response to the new wave of violence is leading to less contact and understanding between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis. 

"The increasing racism and fear in the hearts of Jews and Arabs is leading to such a situation where whenever there is a little bit of tension each side bunkers itself away."

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