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One Democratic State: Much More Than “Equal Rights”

One of the key manifestations of Israel’s nature as a settler colonial entity is its denial of equal rights to its citizens on the basis of identity. Although its “Proclamation of Independence” affirms the “complete equality” of all its citizens, Israel operates a system of segregation against native Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship. It is understandable, then, that Palestinian and pro-Palestinian politicians and activists would call for equal rights for all Israeli citizens. However, does such a frame of analysis capture the full essence of the occupation and settler-colonization of Palestine? If not, might there be any dangers inherent to such a political discourse?

Israel’s nature as an occupier settler-colonial entity

If Israel were merely guilty of apartheid, or segregation against some of its citizens on the basis of identity, then speaking of equal rights would be addressing the heart of the issue. Even then, it would have to be made explicit that the expression refers, not only to citizens’ legal rights, but to their economic, social and other rights as well — which is one limitation of the “equal rights” approach.

However, Israel is guilty of much more than that. By politicizing identity, claiming that all Jews of the world are really one people with a collective right to self-determination, and therefore the right to a state exclusive to them (and thus exclusive of non-Jews), and by choosing to exercise this pretended right on Palestinian land without a democratic mandate from the Palestinians and at the cost of the ethnic cleansing of the land’s native population, Israel has proven to be an occupier settler-colonial entity rather than merely an apartheid one. The issue is therefore not merely about Israel’s policies of discrimination but about its very nature as a settler-colonial entity. Rather than legitimizing the settler-colonial frame by demanding equal rights within it, the liberation movement should question the legitimacy of the settler-colonial frame itself. This article therefore aims to present a non-exhaustive list of the settler-colonial elements that are not about citizens’ unequal rights but that would need to be eliminated or dismantled for the settler-colonial wrong to be righted.

1) Israel defines itself as a Jewish state

Israel’s “Basic Law” states that the land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people and omits any reference to the rights of any non-Jews in that same land, that “the realization of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People”, and that the state’s emblem is a Jewish religious symbol. The Supreme Court also ruled that Israel’s “founding principle is to be a Jewish state for the Jewish people”, and the Law bans citizens who propose the transition from a state of the Jewish people to a state of all its citizens from participating in parliamentary elections.

2) Israel brings settlers in, keeps natives out

Settler colonization is defined as the supplanting of a native society by a foreign constructed society. Two key elements —perhaps the two key elements— of settler colonization are thus the bringing in of settlers and the expulsion of the native inhabitants.

The “Law of Return” and the “Citizenship Law” do just that by favoring Jews over non-Jews —in reality, settlers over natives— when granting residency and citizenship. The “Absentees’ Property Law”, the “Land Acquisition Law” and the enactment of an amendment to the “Land Ordinance (Acquisition for Public Purposes)” allowed for the seizure of lands of natives forced to flee as refugees and denied Israeli citizenship and right to return. A large percentage of land occupied in 1948 is also under the control of the Jewish National Fund, whose vision is “to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people”.

3) Israel segregates against its non-Jewish citizens without technically affecting their rights

All Israeli citizens have “equal rights” to own land and real estate. Yet non-Jewish municipalities exercise jurisdiction over only 2.5% of the land for around 20% of the population, while “admissions committees” operate in around 700 agricultural and community towns filtering out non-Jewish applicants, on the basis of their (loosely defined) “social unsuitability”.

All Israeli citizens have “equal rights” to education. The Ministry of Education designed curricula deliberately omits civics and democratic values — but all citizens are entitled to benefit from this curriculum. Also, all schools have equal rights to apply for exemptions from the curriculum and for state funding, yet these have only been granted to Jewish schools. All citizens have equal rights to a university education, yet the proportion of Jews going to university is double that of non-Jews.

Like in any other country, taxation and the allocation of state resources are determined by the government. The result is that employed non-Jewish citizens earn on average less than 60% of what Jewish citizens earn, while more than 35% of Arab families live beneath the poverty line — all of this without discrimination in terms of legal rights.

In all such cases, the discrimination against locals is effected outside the context of their rights and falls out of the “equal rights” frame.

4) Many aspects of Israeli segregation look like what any other state would do

Just like any other state, Israel imposes zoning and building policies that benefit some and disadvantage others; grants and denies building permits, then demolishes illegal structures; organizes essential services (such as garbage collection, electricity, public transportation and water and sanitation infrastructure) in a way that benefits some and disadvantages others. In virtually all of these cases, those advantaged are Jews while those disadvantaged are non-Jews — but the “equal rights” approach cannot capture this segregation. A recent example of this is the law pushing for stricter punishment for rape on “nationalistic grounds”: Although the text of the law makes no reference to the rapist’s identity and applies similarly (equal rights!) to a Jewish rapist and to a Jewish non-rapist, it is not difficult to imagine what way Israeli judges’ discretion will go.

Israel also treats its citizens differently than it treats non-citizens — just like any other state in the world. This applies to areas it has officially “annexed”, such as East Jerusalem or the Golan Height, where it refuses to grant Israeli citizenship to Palestinians (in which case Israel argues that it defines its own naturalization policy, just like any other other state — that doesn’t affect its citizens’ rights) or where the Palestinians themselves have refused Israeli citizenship (in which Israel argues that is no longer bound to treat them as it would its own citizens). This is exacerbated by the fact that international law allows a level of violence in occupied territories, a fact Israel uses to justify its checkpoints, road closures, and other military actions in the West Bank — again, not a matter of equal rights.

OK, if not equal rights — what should we be pushing for?

This analysis aims, not at justifying the Israeli occupation and settler-colonization of Palestine, but at showing how the “equal rights” approach fails to capture the whole issue at hand. The alternative is adopting a political vision that identifies Zionism’s politicization of identity and its settler-colonial endeavor as the root issue of the occupation, segregation and apartheid in Palestine, and that therefore proposes the fundamental antithesis, not its discrimination, but to its nature: A transition from the Jewish, settler-colonial state to One Democratic State. This inclusive Palestinian state would seek to identify and dismantle, not only the above-mentioned elements, but all of the power dynamics that form and sustain the settler colony.

Granted, such an approach is far more ambitious than merely striving to improve the conditions of the occupation. Yet, we Palestinians have always known that only when our ambition for the establishment of a state of all its citizens exceeds the Zionists’ ambition for the establishment of a state exclusive to Jews will we succeed at finally turning the black page of colonization. A growing number of Israeli Jews are starting to realize that they, too, have an interest in joining us in this fight (and I cite here Eitan Bronstein’s and Ner Kitri’s excellent articles on the topic). Together, we will succeed, not at partially relieving the oppressed, but at removing the source of oppression, and at setting a historic milestone for humanity’s struggle against the politicization of identity and settler-colonialism.

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