First published by the Middle East Monitor on 26/9/2016
If Israel is not lauding its army, the Israeli Defence Force, as the self-proclaimed “most moral army in the world”, it is claiming to be the “only democracy in the Middle East”. The IDF’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and its regular attacks on Gaza, the most recent of which resulted in the murder of over 2,000 Palestinians, destroy the first claim.
An analysis of the second claim finds it is another false claim, unless of course its claim is changed to “the only democracy for Jews in the Middle East”. The contrast between the democratic rights of Jewish citizens of Israel on either side of the Green Line and Palestinians on either side of the same line could not be starker.
In the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, Palestinians cannot vote in Israeli elections, while Jewish Israelis living illegally on Palestinian lands can. A number of Israeli politicians including Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman live in illegal settlements. Israel’s recently installed Consul General in New York, Dani Dayan, was leader of the settlement movement. It is worth noting that Brazil refused to accept his appointment as Israeli ambassador, while the US had no qualms about his appointment in New York.
In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are in political limbo, barred from voting in Israeli elections but also barred from voting in Palestinian elections. As a matter of fact, one of the legal challenges to the planned municipal elections slated for 8 October was the exclusion of East Jerusalem Palestinians due to an Israeli decision. The Palestinian Supreme Court decided to postpone the elections and has postponed a decision to 3 October.
In other areas of the West Bank, Palestinians are entitled to vote in presidential, legislative council and municipal elections. The last presidential elections, which brought Mahmoud Abbas to power, were held in 2005 and the last parliamentary elections were held in 2006. Hamas won that election eventually resulting in Israel and the international community boycotting the Hamas government. Presidential elections are long overdue and the Palestinian Parliament has not operated effectively since the Fatah-Hamas split.
Palestinian MPs who have tried to carry out the duties for which they were elected have not been able to do so without Israeli interference, including their freedom to move in the West Bank and certainly to represent their constituents in Jerusalem. Israel has also broken international norms attached to parliamentarians by arresting a number, mainly affiliated to Hamas, including the Speaker of Parliament Aziz Dwaik. It most recently arrested and held PFLP Legislative Council member Khalida Jarrar. She was released in June after serving 14 months of a 15 month prison sentence. This attack on Palestinian democracy brings into question Israel’s democratic credentials.
On the face of it, democracy applies to all Israeli citizens in equal measure. At least, that is what Israeli leaders and supporters of Israel claim. They tell us regularly that Palestinian (Arab) citizens not only vote in elections but a number of Israeli Members of the Knesset (MKs) or Parliament are Palestinian. There are currently 17 Palestinian citizens of Israel serving in the 20th Knesset. Ahmad Tibi, leader of Arab Movement for Change, serves as one of 10 deputy speakers of the Knesset, representing the Arab MK block.
If you scratch the surface you begin to see the discrimination and intimidation that Palestinian MKs suffer, especially if they speak up for the people they represent and make any attempts to expose Israel’s discriminatory policies against its 1.8 million Palestinian citizens. Whether this is in terms of education, health, housing, or civil rights including marriage and unification with Palestinians from the West Bank, they incur the wrath of Jewish members of the Knesset. Their opposition to 60 discriminatory laws and to the plan to ethnically cleanse the Bedouins from their villages, many of which Israel does not recognise, is seen as an indication of their disloyalty rather than legitimate representation of their constituents. Balad MK Haneen Zoabi, the first Muslim woman to be elected to the Knesset on an Arab list, has faced a particularly nasty campaign especially since her participation in the Gaza Flotilla, which Israel attacked on international waters resulting in the death of 10 humanitarian passengers. She was arrested and briefly held. Zoabi called the Israeli action “criminal”.
Zoabi’s party, the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), has been a specific target of Israel since 2003. In 2007, its then leader Azmi Bishara was charged with supporting terrorism, treason and various other charges. He denied the charges and decided not to return to face these charges, remaining in exile since.
The party’s Chairman and former General-Secretary, Awad Abdel Fattah, is currently in custody following his arrest at home at 3am on 18 September. At one point, up to 40 members of Balad were in custody and, while most have now been released, a small number, including Awad continue to be detained. His detention was extended again yesterday. In a statement, Balad said: “From the little Israeli police have since revealed, it seems the Balad-Al Tajamo members were arrested for suspected money laundering on behalf of the party and for other fraud-related charges. The Israeli court has extended the remand of most of those arrested for a second time – leaving them in jail now for over a week – while some have been released to house arrest under strictly-limiting conditions. The details of the allegations remain secret and are still being withheld from both the public and from the arrestees themselves”. Balad went on to “vehemently reject the charges against the Balad-Al Tajamo activists, and condemn the manner in which the night time arrests were conducted.”
Balad claims that “these arrests reek of political persecution of the very worst kind, and come close in the wake of Israel’s unilateral move to outlaw the country’s Islamic Movement-Northern Branch. It is also directly linked to recent racist legislation approved by Israeli lawmakers, such as the Expulsion Law, designed to target the Palestinian Arab community from within.” MK Basel Ghattas penned an article in Arabic rejecting the claims and confirming his belief that Israel wants to destroy the party. The Israeli police is accused (in Arabic) of setting up special units to specifically target Balad members
I spoke to Abdel Fattah’s wife, Fathiyya Hussein, who confirmed to me that the family has faced intimidation by the Israeli authorities for some time. She herself and her two sons were arrested in 2014 and detained, even though one of her sons was a minor. She was held for three days but her eldest son Muhannad was held and beaten resulting in broken ribs before being released to house detention for eight months. He received a suspended sentence and a fine. Muhannad was accused of an illegal protest against the Prower plan. She also confirmed that the intimidation has touched other members of the party including its three MKs. When I asked why her husband was particularly targeted she said “because of his position as chairman and chief signatory on any transactions.”
It is rare to hear of such intimidation of other political parties in Israel and certainly none of either established or newly formed mainly Jewish Israeli parties. The exceptional attack on Balad sends an unambiguous signal to Israel’s Palestinian citizens. While they are allowed to enjoy some aspects of the norms of a democratic process, they must remember, like their occupied Palestinian counterparts on the other side of the Green Line, it is Israeli Jews that enjoy a five star democracy wherever they reside between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean.