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Israel 'nation state' law clause would enshrine apartheid, warn critics

The article in the controversial law would give constitutional backing to Jewish-only communities excluding Palestinians
Proposed bill would entrench the creation and maintenance of Jewish-only towns across Israel (AFP)

In a step towards cementing a two-tier ethnic system in Israeli law, a parliamentary committee reviewed on Tuesday an article in a draft bill that would legalise the upholding of Jewish-only communities.

The proposal, known as Clause 7b, is part of the highly controversial "Nation-State" draft law, which seeks to enshrine Israel's Jewish identity in the Basic Law - Israel's equivalent of a constitution - superseding its democratic identity.

Clause 7b says the "state can allow a community composed of people of the same faith or nationality to maintain an exclusive community".

In a highly unusual move, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday publicly called for parliamentarians to scrap the highly controversial article, saying it would "allow any community to establish residential communities that exclude Sephardic Jews, Ultra-Orthodox people, Druze, LGBT people".

'Are we willing to support discrimination and exclusion of men and women based on their ethnic origin?'

- Israeli President Reuven Rivlin

"Take a look at Israeli society and ask: in the name of the Zionist vision, are we willing to support discrimination and exclusion of men and women based on their ethnic origin?" Rivlin wrote in an open letter.

"The broad nature of this article, which has no balance, could harm the Jewish people and Jews around the world and in Israel, and could even be used by our enemies as a weapon."

The Israeli president did not mention the impact the clause would have on Palestinian citizens of Israel - despite them being the population most significantly targeted by discriminatory housing policies.

But Rivlin undoubtedly had them in mind as Israel has persistently stood accused of discrimination against its Palestinian population - and the Nation-State bill could further exacerbate criticisms of the country's human rights record.

'No equivalence anywhere else in the world'

Jamal Zahalqa, an MP who was part of the committee discussing the article, told Middle East Eye the clause's only modern equivalence could be found in apartheid South Africa.

Zahalqa, a Palestinian of Israeli citizenship and a leader of the Joint List, asked: "If this is not apartheid, then what can you call this?" 

"There is no such law in any country today," the MP said, adding that the clause is just one dangerous aspect of the bill.

"This is very serious because it is a constitutional law, so if it is passed it will be very difficult to reverse," he said.

'If this is not apartheid, then what can you call this?'

- Jamal Zahalqa, MP

Zahalqa said the law will now be prepared ahead of a second and third reading before it is handed to Israel's parliament - the Knesset - to be voted on. He said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has requested this happens before the Knesset breaks for summer on 22 July.

"This law will create two different citizens in Israel, Jews and Arabs, and the status of the Arabic language will be weakened," he said.

 "Jews will have priority over Arabs" under the new law, Zahalqa warned.

Similarly, the Knesset's legal adviser Eyal Yinon said: "We have not found equivalence in any constitution in the world," for the clause allowing exclusive communities.

Hassan Jabareen, the general director of rights group Adalah, also issued a warning against the bill.

“This bill features key elements of apartheid, such as housing segregation and the creation of two separate tracks of citizenship based on ethno-religious identity,” Jabareen told MEE. “The Jewishness of the Israeli state would override any other constitutional principle or other law and would be above even the Knesset itself.

“A constitution is supposed to guarantee a state for all its citizens. It must not explicitly exclude the Palestinian citizens, non-immigrant homeland minorities, who make up 20 percent of Israel's population.”

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For a proposal to become law in the Israeli Knesset, the bill must go through three readings before it can be voted on. The first version of the bill was approved in April.  

If the bill passes, it will establish Hebrew as the only official language, relegating Arabic from an official language to one with "special status".

It would also declare "Jerusalem as the capital of Israel" and lead to the official adoption of the Hebrew calendar. 

Avi Dichter, an MP from Netanyahu's Likud party, is the sponsor of the bill.

During a Knesset debate on the bill in April, he said "Anyone who does not belong to the Jewish nation cannot define the state of Israel as his nation-state."

"The Palestinians will not be able to define Israel as their nation-state. The nation-state law is the insurance policy we are leaving for the next generation," he said.

"The state of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people," Dichter added.

Entrenched discrimination

Despite representing 1.8 million of Israel's 8.8 million inhabitants, human rights groups have repeatedly highlighted how discriminatory state zoning regulations, land distribution policies and budgets have effectively kept Palestinian citizens of Israel crowded in segregated towns and neighbourhoods with access to far fewer services and infrastructure than their Jewish counterparts.

While Clause 7b has raised serious concerns about how it would further entrench discrimination of Palestinian citizens of Israel into law, in practice Israeli towns and communities have long found ways to prevent Palestinians from moving in.

In 2011, the Knesset passed the Admissions Committees law which granted hundreds of municipalities across Israel the right to deny housing applicants based on their “social suitability” and whether they would fit into the "social and cultural fabric" of the community - essentially enshrining into law a common practice.

In June, residents of the northern Israeli city of Afula - including current and former municipality officials - protested against the sale of a house to a family of Palestinian citizens of Israel, demanding the area remain solely Jewish. 

Meanwhile in March, the mayor of the town of Kfar Vradim froze construction of a new neighbourhood of more than 2,000 homes after it emerged that more than half of the highest bidders for the new lots were Palestinian citizens, not Jews.

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