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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Knesset passes segregation law

The Knesset passed a segregation bill today. Palestinian Israelis are not allowed to live in Jewish localities built on land confiscated from them. Government policy also makes sure they cannot build on the little private land that was left in their ownership. How long can Jewish Israelis continue pretending that Palestinians do not exist? 

In a session lasting well after midnight, the Knesset passed (Hebrew) a new law, which allows communities of up to 400 members, in the Negev and Galilee (the south and north of Israel, respectively) to form “acceptance committees” that will screen candidates who wish to live in their locality, on the basis of various parameters, including vague wording relating to social and cultural compatibility. The law nominially forbids discrimination on the basis of race, gender or religion, but its effect and intent to segregate Palestinian Israelis are clear. I highly recommend reading the excellent post by Nimrod Lutz which outlines the background and implications of the bill. But there is an even broader context that should be remembered when this legislation is discussed.
On the one hand, acceptance committees are by no means exclusively intended to prevent Palestinian Israelis from living in Jewish localities. Other “unsuitable” people are excluded as well. For example, a case pending before the High Court of Justice pertains to a Jewish family denied residence because they viewed the move as a means to better their lives. Yes, you read that right – the acceptance committee decided they only want people whose lives are already perfect.

On the other hand, the shocking nature of this exclusion should not obscure the main intention of the bill, which is racial discrimination. It would be upsetting enough if the only element of discrimination was the principle of segregation which it enshrines. But as bad as that is, there is much worse discrimination at work here.
In the first decades of Israel’s existence, through a variety of legal and pseudo-legal means, vast amounts of land were confiscated by the state, almost all of it Arab-owned private land. Much of this land was transferred to the Jewish National Fund, which has a charter forbidding it to allocate land for the use of non-Jews (don’t worry – the rabbinate is not involved, it is simply enough to be “not Arab” in order to qualify).

Although this specific arrangement was shot down by the High Court of Justice, it is really superfluous, because even lands owned directly by the state have been allocated almost exclusively to Jews. But it actually gets worse.

Despite the massive confiscations, Israeli Palestinians have retained some ownership over private lands, mainly the lands on which they lived when Israel was founded or adjacent areas. Because of lack of adequate planning by the state, however, Palestinians often find it hard to obtain building permits for residential construction on land which they privately own. Sometimes, even buildings which existed when the country was founded are deemed illegal by the state. If Palestinians build illegally, their homes are either demolished or under threat of demolition, and cannot be connected to utilities.

Investment in infrastructure or public services in Palestinian localities is severely deficient in absolute terms, and terrible in comparison to nearby Jewish localities. Palestinian municipalities have been starved of funds by designating their jurisdiction area to exclude any facilities which might generate significant municipal tax income. Even private economic development has been hampered by the same inadequate planning which stands in the way of legal residential construction.

All of these problems have been significantly aggravated by the growth of the Palestinian Israeli population, from less than 200,000 in 1948 to over 1.3 million today. The shortage in housing, infrastructure, services and employment areas in Palestinian localities is acute. State budgets allocated for improving this situation are relatively small, and are easily overshadowed by the massive effect of continuing discriminatory policies.
In this context, it may not be surprising that some Israeli Palestinians wish to move to predominantly Jewish localities. This option is not available to many of them. Because Jewish areas are almost invariably richer, the cost of living there is higher. Because their own localities are so underdeveloped, the value of their property is low, so selling it to buy a home in a Jewish locality is usually out of the question.

Many Jews are unwilling to let their apartment to Arabs, and those that do are sometimes the target of intimidation, including through campaigns led by state employees. Finally, those who manage to overcome all these difficulties, often meet a hostile and disparaging treatment, as this sad story illustrates. Sometimes, the town pretends they do not exist and refuses to grant any recognition to their culture, up to and including a ban on Christmas.
Under these circumstances, it is no wonder some Palestinians are particularly drawn to the smaller Jewish localities in Israel’s periphery in the North and South. Since these are also the areas where most Israeli Palestinians live, they can be close to their families. Land prices are lower than in the central region. Building is usually in individual homes, which most Palestinians prefer to apartment buildings.

It is precisely from those places that the new law intends to shut them out. Unlike other groups which the law will help to unjustly exclude, the alternatives for Palestinians are much poorer and quickly disappearing. The Israeli government is terrified (Hebrew) of the prospect that they will form contiguous blocks inside the country which may secede. At the same time, it is unwilling to let them join Jewish localities (in large part, built on confiscated Palestinian private land), and egregiously neglects the places where they currently leave. Even some long-time mixed towns, such as Acre, have started to fray around the edges in recent years.

This policy is grossly unjust. It is unsustainable and foolish. Israel has been trying to pretend for over sixty years that is has no Palestinian population, and to treat a group of over a million people as some inanimate obstacle one has to build around, an attitude which is both criminal and wasteful. We live here together, whether we like it or not, so we might as well like it. The first, tiny and obvious step would be to abolish this heinous law.

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