One of the claims made most often by Israeli officials and supporters is that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East”. But in recent weeks, media outlets around the world have reported on a string of new laws in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) meant to curtail the work of human rights non-government organisations (NGOs).
Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has even referred to such groups as “terrorism aids”.
The targeted NGOs report on human rights abuses in the entire area under Israeli control: that is, within the state of Israel, as well as the West Bank and Gaza.
Abusing such NGOs is a longstanding tradition of Israeli leaders. Even Yitshak Rabin, who was murdered by a right-wing extremist in 1995 for being the first prime minister to have open negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, once expressed his wish to attack Palestinians “with no supreme court and no B’tzelem”.
B’tzelem is one of many such NGOs under attack, together with the Physicians for Human Rights and several support groups for Israeli youth who refuse to serve in the military (“refusniks").
One of the laws passed is to create a Knesset committee to investigate NGOs that have “endangered soldiers”. This is a reference to NGOs producing reports documenting the details of Israel’s Gaza 2008-09 massacre.
Many commentators around the world expressed concern for the state of democracy in Israel. In Israel, 10,000 people marched in Tel Aviv under the banner of “saving democracy”.
The problem is that Israel never was a democratic state. Even by the standards of liberal capitalist democracies, which define themselves as having basic rights and the same basic laws applied to all people despite the power of the rich, Israel has always fallen well short.
This is because there have never been one set of laws that applied to all.
At least five different levels of citizenship for people under Israeli control can be identified. They can be considered “civil castes”, as people get locked into them from birth and mobility is almost impossible.
For example, Israel bans the acquisition of Israeli citizenship through marriage if the recipient is Palestinian or a resident of most Middle Eastern countries. This act is internationally unique.
Jewish Israeli citizens are the highest civil caste. A Jewish citizen of Israel officially enjoys the legal rights most people associate with democracy, including the right to vote, and freedom of movement and expression.
Non-Jewish Israeli citizens make up about 20% of all Israeli citizens. These are mostly Palestinian descendants of families that survived the ethnic cleansing of 1948 when Israel was formed.
This ethnic cleansing resulted in the expulsion of most Palestinians from the parts of Palestine in which Israel proclaimed sovereignty.
This minority were granted citizenship, but lived under martial law until 1966 before finally being officially granted “equal rights”. Since then, Palestinians who are Israeli citizens have suffered discrimination in policy and practice.
The Palestinian cities and towns within Israel are its poorest and most underdeveloped. In many respects, the status of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship is not much different from other indigenous populations that live as minorities in colonialist states.
Yet some non-Jewish Israeli citizens face even worse practices. For example, in the southern part of the country, there are 36 Bedouin villages that the Israeli state refuses to recognise.
This means that these communities, some of the poorest in the region, have no roads or basic infrastructure, such as water and electricity. They are not allowed to build anything more than tents and sheds, and are suffering ongoing harassment from the authorities.
One such village, Al Araqib, was wrecked several times by the authorities in the past few months through suppression of protests and arrests of village residents.
Bedouins living within Israel’s borders are granted Israeli citizenship, but the unrecognised villages suffer extreme oppression.
Around the region where most of these unrecognised villages reside, more than 100 settlements of single Israeli families were built, often on the grounds of expelled Bedouin villagers. These settlements enjoy quality infrastructure, including special arrangements for water and electricity.
The largest of such properties is the residency of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
East Jerusalem residents make up the third civil caste under Israeli control. When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, it occupied the eastern parts of Jerusalem.
Israel has never officially asserted its sovereignty on the West Bank, in order to avoid having to give Palestinians in the occupied territory citizenship rights.
However, it was important for Israel to assert its sovereignty in some way over East Jerusalem, as the myth of “uniting Jerusalem” was important for the leadership to maintain.
To avoid giving East Jerusalem residents Israeli citizenship, a loophole was created to give them a status akin to temporary residents. They carry special identity cards.
They are not allowed to participate in the Israeli elections, but are officially allowed to enter local elections. The vast majority refuse to do so, as they do not recognise the Israeli authorities' power over them.
These people enjoy very few actual rights and are subjected to oppression similar to other West Bank Palestinians.
Israel’s wall, which tore the West Bank into many fragments, goes through East Jerusalem as well.
In Jerusalem, the wall (supposedly to protect Israel from terrorist attacks) does not really separate Jewish neighbourhoods from Palestinian ones. Like elsewhere in the West Bank, the wall cuts Palestinian neighbourhoods and villages in two, making everyday life almost intolerable for most.
The fourth category, West Bank residents, have no basic rights or citizenship status. They are unable to take any part in the decision making process in Israel (which exercises control over them), and are subjected to serious oppression.
The existence of hundreds of check points and road blocks, as well as the wall, severely damages freedom of movement and makes the Palestinian economy dependant on Israel.
The situation for West Bank Palestinians and East Jerusalem residents is made more unbearable by the half a million Israeli citizens, or “settlers”, who live in heavily guarded Jewish settlements. They take over Palestinian land at will.
These settlers enjoy the full rights of Jewish Israelis, the highest civil caste. Palestinians in the same areas live under a completely separate system of laws.
Gaza residents are the lowest of the civil castes. Like West Bank Palestinians, Gaza residents enjoy no civil rights. Yet their situation is worse, largely due to their geographical isolation.
The residents of Gaza, two-thirds of whom (1 million) are refugees from the 1948 ethnic cleansing or their descendants, live in sub-human conditions. Gaza is often referred to as the largest concentration camp in the world.
This isolation allows Israel to massacre large parts of the population with relative ease, especially since the withdrawal of 10,000 Israeli settlers in the last decade.
Gaza is now surrounded with automatic weapons, remotely controlled by young soldiers playing with joysticks in air-conditioned offices elsewhere. Gazans who dare get too close to the fence risk being shot.
This reality strips the Israeli regime of any genuine democratic credentials. The new laws are further eroding democratic rights, and are an indication of the political atmosphere inside Israel today. They should be opposed.
But they merely extend the denial of rights suffered by Palestinians in all different civil castes.
There is another way. An alternative to the incapacitated mainstream Israeli left, which accepts the Zionist project of an exclusively Jewish state, a steadily growing movement of Palestinians and Jews are organising and protesting together.
Examples of this can be found in the campaigns against Israel’s wall. Bil’in and Ni’lin in the West Bank, in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan in East Jerusalem where land grabs and repression from the police are on the rise, and in the case of the unrecognised villages such as Al Araqib.
The number of Jewish Israelis who take part in such protests is still far too small. But it already plays a valuable part in campaigns, such as that for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, by providing a “voice from within”.
Israel’s system of vastly separate laws applied to different sections of people under its control is why it is often compared to apartheid-era South Africa. The BDS campaign is an attempt to replicate the successful campaign to isolate apartheid South Africa.
The current attack on human rights groups in Israel needs to be understood in the larger context of the struggle for democracy in Israel. It is a further dangerous step, not least because it aims to restrict the ability of human rights groups to report on the true situation for Palestinians.
Ultimately, a democracy is not measured by the right to freedom of speech in one section of the population, but by true equality for all.
[For more information on the call from Israeli activists supporting a boycott of Israel, visit www.boycottisrael.info .]