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Special Reports

Trial of Azmi Bishara highlights situation of Palestinians in Israel’s ‘democracy’

Abul Fadl

When the trial of Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset, opened on December 10, another demonstration of the apartheid-like nature of Israel began. According to the indictment prepared by Elyakim Rubenstein, Israel’s attorney general, Bishara faces several charges, including organising “illegal” trips for Israeli Arabs to Syria (a country still officially at war with Israel), “supporting terrorist organisations”, and “incitement to commit acts of violence by enemies” because of remarks which he made in Syria in support of Hizbullah and the “option of resistance” against Israeli occupation.

Dozens of Bishara’s supporters attended the court hearing in Nazareth, along with several MPs from Britain, Norway and Sweden. The trial of Bishara and two of his parliamentary assistants, Musa Diab and Ashraf Qursam, was adjourned for about a month. It is the first of its kind for a serving MK (member of the Knesset) for political remarks made while in office. Israeli police have several times questioned Arab MKs, but none had ever been indicted or tried. In November police questioned MK Talab al-Sani’ about an interview in which he described an attack outside a military headquarters in Tel Aviv last summer as “legitimate resistance” because it was aimed at soldiers, not civilians.

Bishara, a 45-year-old Christian professor, has organized 19 trips for about 800 Arabs wanting, for the first time since 1948, to visit Syria for reunions with relatives who sought refuge there. “All I did was to help people meet their families. That’s not a crime but a humanitarian act,” said Bishara, MK from the pan-Arab Nationalist Democratic Party (also known as Tajammu’ or Balad). “It’s like bringing the Red Cross to trial,” he added.

The indictment cited an address on June 10, 2001, in Qirdaha, Syria, in which Bishara said that the “option of resistance” could only be maintained by “widening this domain again, so that people can struggle and resist.” He also called on the Arabs to support the intifada. In the audience were Hizbullah’s leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, and leaders of several Palestinian resistance groups based in Damascus. The indictment also cited a speech at a gathering on June 5, 2000, in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, in which Bishara praised Hizbullah for its success in driving Israel out of most of southern Lebanon.

The Knesset stripped Bishara, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Humboldt University (Germany), of his parliamentary immunity in a plenary session on November 7 at the request of attorney general Rubenstein. The vote to remove Bishara’s immunity from prosecution was a rare instance of political unity: the Israeli left sided with the right, highlighting the racism and chauvinism pervading the Israeli body politic. Even the few leftwing MKs who voted for Bishara criticised him; Meretz leader Yossi Sarid accused Bishara of being a member of Hizbullah. This is the first time in Israel’s history that an MK has been stripped of his immunity for his political stand; in the past the immunity of MKs has been withdrawn for criminal offences. The move was condemned by the Socialist International at a meeting in South Africa. The European Parliament and numerous human-rights groups and lawyers’ associations around the world have expressed grave concerns as well.

But Bishara’s trial belies a number of myths upon which the Zionist project is founded: that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”, and that Israel is a democracy, for example. Bishara’s case exposes Israel as undemocratic: only Jewish citizens enjoy full rights. Trying a lawmaker for expressing ‘unpopular’ or ‘detested’ views is an affront to the principles of democracy: members of legislatures are elected precisely to voice their views and their constituencies’ views. Bishara’s trial is effectively a trial of Israel for its treatment of the Arabs living within the “Green Line”: Palestinians who did not leave in 1948, and their descendants. These Palestinians, also known as “1948 Arabs” or “Israeli Arabs”, are citizens of Israel and constitute some 19 percent of Israel’s population (which is 6.5 million).

In theory 1948 Arabs have the same social and civil rights as Israeli Jews; in practice they are subject to prejudice and discrimination. Between 1948 and 1966 they were under military rule, during which they lost most of their land in a series of expropriations.

A UN report has listed 17 Israeli laws involving discrimination against Arab citizens. These include the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to Jews from any part of the world, whereas Arab citizens who marry non-Israelis are refused the right to family reunification; a law banning Arab political parties that do not recognize the Jewish character of Israel from contesting elections; and the education law, which declares that the promotion of Jewish culture and Zionist ideology is one of its aims. A US state department report issued in September 2000 concluded that Israel “does not provide Israeli Arabs with the same quality of education, housing, employment opportunities and social services as Jews.”

In fact 1948 Arabs are effectively an underclass in Israeli society. They are subject to discrimination in public services and the allocation of development funds. Arab towns have much smaller budgets than Jewish towns, and so lag behind in essential services such as healthcare and education. Schools in Arab communities are often rundown and overcrowded, lack special-education services and counsellors, have poor libraries and hardly any sports facilities. The average income of 1948 Arabs is lower than any other group’s in the country. Poverty and unemployment rates among them, about 30 percent and 20 percent respectively, are double those of Israel’s overall figures. Infant mortality among the 1948 Arabs is also almost twice as high as the Jews’.

Well-educated Arabs rarely find employment commensurate with their training. Law or common practice bars 1948 Arabs from most jobs in the public sector, as well as from buying homes in Jewish-populated areas. For instance, virtually none of the 3,400 workers employed by the state airline, El Al, is an Arab. Other public-sector enterprises, such as the electricity and telephone companies and government ministries, employ a few dozen Arabs out of tens of thousands. However, in Jewish-owned hotels and restaurants Arabs are usually the busboys and dishwashers; in service stations it is they who pump the gas.

A report issued by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (1997) shed light on another aspect of systemic discrimination against 1948 Arabs. It pointed to grants given by the education ministry earmarked only for army veterans, which automatically makes most Arabs ineligible because they do not serve in the armed forces. It also stated that many private employers also require military service, citing an ice-cream store that advertised for staff with an army record. “The criterion of army service is cynically used to prevent Arabs being accepted for jobs,” the report said.

Until the 1970s the 1948 Arabs coexisted uneasily with Israeli Jews, showing little sign of the hostility characterising other Arab-Israeli relationships, despite being persecuted and ill-treated. Many used to take their children to celebrations marking Israel’s “independence day”, and gave their votes to Zionist parties, mainly the Israeli Communist Party (Rakah). Israeli Jews never appreciated these attempts to fit in at any cost, yet they caused the “Israeli Arabs” to be suspected and resented by the rest of the Arab world.

In the 1970s, the 1948 Arabs began to become more “radical”. In the 1980s the Israeli authorities tried to arrest this process by a policy of “Israelisation” of 1948 Arabs. The project ended in failure, paving the way for what came to be known as the “Palestinianisation” process, with a growing willingness to agitate for their rights and express support Palestinians elsewhere.

Israeli concerns over this “Palestinianisation” and the growth of the 1948 Arabs led to proposals of territorial exchange during the Camp David summit in 2000. The proposal was to keep Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Ghazzah under Israeli control in return for the transfer of 1948 Arab communities living close to the Green Line, including the town of Umm al-Fahm, a centre of Islamic activism, to the control of the Palestinian Authority.

During the early weeks of the Aqsa intifada, the Palestinians’ protest extended beyond the Green Line, sparking what came to be known as the October Uprising. In an extraordinary explosion of fury, thousands of Arabs swarmed onto the streets of several cities throughout Galilee and in a number of cities on the Mediterranean coast. There were clashes between Arab civilians on one side and Jewish civilians and Israeli police on the other. Israeli troops fired on Arab demonstrators, killing more than a dozen. Arab shops, property and even mosques were attacked and ransacked. It was the bloodiest instance of Israeli troops firing on Arabs in the 1948 areas since March 1976, when six Palestinians were shot dead in protests over land expropriations in Galilee. Palestinians mark that event annually as ‘Land Day.’

Bishara’s trial is another attempt to break the bonds between 1948 Arabs and their brethren in the West Bank and Ghazzah, and turn the clock back to the days of the docile 1948 Arabs of the 1950s and 1960s. Bishara is no threat to the existence of Israel. He has never called upon 1948 Arabs to take part in armed struggle against Israel. His understanding of resistance is not restricted to violence. “It [resistance] is more encompassing, and can mean demonstrations, strikes, education. I derive my position against occupation from democratic liberal principles,” he said recently. That is why trying him exposes Israel as a system of apartheid masquerading as a democracy.

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