In Israel, Citizenship for Arabs Is Always Conditional

Arab citizenship in the Jewish state never truly been regarded as being equal to that of Israeli Jews, making them easy targets for Israeli political leaders.

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Hundreds of Israeli Christians hold banners in a rally against what they said was state discrimination in funding their schools at the foot of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth on September 1, 2015.
Hundreds of Israeli Christians hold banners in a rally against what they said was state discrimination in funding their schools at the foot of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.Credit: AFP
Nadeem Shehadeh
Nadeem Shehadeh

Israel's Prime Minister is at it again. After the deadly attack in Tel Aviv on New Year's Day, Netanyahu reverted to attacking and delegitimizing the Arab citizens of the state, simply to score political points – exactly as he has done countless times before.

It was Netanyahu who, while running for office for the first time in 1996, published just days before Election Day the slogan "Netanyahu – Good for the Jews."  It was also Netanyahu who, while running for office in 2015, said in a Facebook video message on Election Day that, "The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going in droves to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses."

The reason why it was possible, and still is possible, for political leaders in Israel to attack the Arab Palestinian minority – as Netanyahu and his government does so often – is because since Israel's establishment, Arab citizenship in the state was never truly regarded as being equal to that of Israeli Jews. It was always seen as a conditioned citizenship that could be changed and threatened when needed.

Historically, the military rule imposed on Arab towns until 1966 best demonstrated the different meaning of citizenship for Arabs in Israel. Today, it is evident in the more subtle ways, such as racial profiling conducted at security checks in Ben-Gurion airport.

But the difference also exists in much larger forms. In the past two decades, politicians like MK Avigdor Lieberman have promoted the “Populated Area Exchange” plan – a proposal to swap the Wadi 'Ara area in northern Israel with Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. The goal is to revoke the citizenship of the area's Arab population as part of an arrangement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This notion of conditional citizenship for Arab citizens is not only about the ease of revoking one’s citizenship. It also affects the fulfillment of other basic rights. A good example of this is the Defense Minister’s recent decision to outlaw the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, which is one of the most important political and social movements within the Arab minority. The Defense Minister decided to use the emergency regulations, which have remained intact since the colonial British mandate, in order to severely violate the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly of a major part of the Arab community in Israel.

Another example is the government's decision to condition the major budget deal that was recently reached with Arab leaders, which aims to close the social-economic gap between Jews and Arabs, on commitments regarding law enforcement and compliance with building regulations – issues that the state has neglected to address in the Arab community for decades. Once again, basic rights and services that are required to improve the Arab community's welfare are instead held hostage for politically-motivated reasons.

This wide range of policies does not exist in a bubble on the political level. It creates an increasingly racist atmosphere where it is considered okay for Jewish citizens to abuse Arabs in the public sphere. This was evident in the Aegean Airlines incident last week, when Israeli passengers on a flight from Greece to Israel forced the cabin crew to remove two Arab citizens from the flight before allowing it to take off, considering them to be security threats.

The Arab community has always fought against this discriminatory existence, with its people, leaders, political parties, and civil society promoting an agenda of political and civil equality. As long as Arab citizenship in Israel is viewed and treated as conditional, the current atmosphere will only worsen. True and essential equality for the Arab minority, on a collective and individual level, is the only way to stop this erosion in the status of their citizenship.

Nadeem Shehadeh is an attorney in the civil and political rights unit of Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

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