Words Are Not Enough

If the ultimate goal of exposing human rights violations is to protect people from rights abuses, the U.S. and the EU must initiate a proactive strategy to change Israel’s policies.

During the past two weeks, the United States and the European Union released their annual human rights and progress reports, respectively, on Israel. Each one substantially criticized the state of minority rights in the country. The U.S. State Department called the "institutional and societal discrimination" against Arab citizens of Israel one of the country's top three most significant human rights issues of 2011, and the EU stressed that "progress on the situation of the Arab minority was limited."

While the acknowledgment of discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel is welcome, these words alone are not an adequate response to the urgency of a rapidly deteriorating human rights situation. While these super-powered friends of Israel are recognizing the "right" wrongs, and saying the right things about the degradation of the rule of law in Israel, words and recognition in oft-neglected reports are insufficient, at best.

It may come as a surprise that the yearly U.S. State Department "Report on Human Rights Practices" in Israel has, for nearly a decade, noted the "institutional, legal and societal discrimination" faced by Israel's Arab citizens. In the last two years, discrimination against Palestinian citizens has rightfully taken center stage, with the State Department calling it a "principal human rights problem" in 2010, and now, one of the three top rights issues in the country in 2011.

It may also be news that in February 2011, for the first time, the EU urged Israel "to increase efforts to address the economic and social situation of the Arab minority, to enhance their integration in Israeli society, and protect their rights." Or that in December 2011, as reported in Haaretz, an internal EU report concluded that the Arab minority in Israel was a "core issue, not second tier to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Or that in mid-May 2012, as part of the European Neighborhood Policy Progress Report on Israel, the EU voiced particular concern about the ongoing trend of "an unprecedented number of potentially discriminatory or even anti-democratic bills being tabled in the Knesset," saying that the bills "tend to antagonize relations with the Arab minority."

Both the EU and the United States noted the persistence of deep socioeconomic disparities between Arab citizens and their Jewish counterparts, with the Americans going so far as to recognize that such disparity is often the result of indirect discrimination, such as conditioning social and economic benefits on military service, from which Arab citizens are exempt.

The reports also reflect serious concern about the human rights challenges facing the Arab Bedouin in the Negev. The EU highlighted the government-approved Prawer Plan, which aims to forcibly displace tens of thousands of Arab Bedouin from their ancestral land, noting that the plan was "criticized for the limited consultation of representatives of unrecognized Bedouin villages - which would be the most vulnerable in the event of relocation."

The U.S. State Department's analysis of the challenges facing the Arab Bedouin community has remained largely unchanged for the last 10 years, with it regularly concluding that the Arab Bedouin population is the country's "most disadvantaged." This year, the State Department was able to point to a legal victory by Adalah in June 2011 in which the Supreme Court ruled that "the Water Tribunal should provide basic access to water for persons living in unrecognized villages." Notably, however, the Water Tribunal (an Israeli court sitting as an arbiter on conflicts over access to water in the Negev ) has subsequently refused to implement the decision.

By this time next year, if current trends continue and the United States and the EU continue to rely on words alone, more discriminatory and racist legislation will have been enacted, legal victories upholding Palestinian citizens' rights will go unimplemented, and the socioeconomic conditions of Palestinian citizens of Israel will only have worsened.

Racism is being normalized among the Israeli public, and legitimized in Israeli politics. The favored "words-on, hands-off" approach of the international community may actually be facilitating, if not contributing to this troubling reality. If the ultimate goal of exposing human rights violations is to protect people from rights abuses, the United States and the EU must speak out publicly at the highest levels, and must initiate a proactive strategy to change Israel's policies.

Taken alone, strong rhetoric on human rights and equality is at best acquiescence to discrimination, oppression and inequality, and at worst, serves as fuel for continuing such unjust policies: If the Israeli government knows that the world is content to simply note its concern about human rights violations, it will continue to actively pursue the dangerous policies and practices against the Palestinian minority (not to mention Palestinians living under occupation ). True democracy and the respect of human rights cannot survive on words alone.

Rina Rosenberg is the international advocacy director of Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz