In Depth

Israelis should listen to their president before more Arabs die

Israel is home not only to Jews – but to Arabs like Kheir Hamdan, ‘killed in cold blood’ by police

Columnist Venetia Rainey

It should be a simple formula: all citizens of a state should be treated equally. Except that, as has been proved across the world, some are regularly more equal than others.

In Israel, where Jews and non-Jews - who comprise 20 per cent of the population - have long struggled to find a democratic national equation that affords all citizens the same rights, this issue has recently been thrown into sharp relief.

Tensions in east Jerusalem have already risen to dangerous levels due to a heady cocktail of illegal settlement expansion, police brutality, Jewish attempts to upset the delicate arrangement regarding the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount compound and a number of deadly Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers.

Now, in the wake of anger over the police's fatal shooting last weekend of a 22-year-old Israeli Arab, Kheir Hamdan, in highly dubious circumstances, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened those who partake in protests, violent or otherwise, with being stripped of their citizenship.

Further, he has invited anyone demonstrating against Israeli actions and supporting a Palestinian state to move to the West Bank or Gaza.

Such statements are barely veiled attempts to cow the Israeli Arab population into submission and dismiss their right to demand equal treatment to their Jewish counterparts. If throwing stones merits having one's citizenship revoked, then why was a request to do the same to Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s, rejected?

The answer is obvious - non-Jews are lesser citizens in the eyes of the Israeli government. Nowhere is this double standard clearer than in the attitude of the police to the various communities it is supposed to protect.

In the past month, the response to a series of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians in Jerusalem has been to shoot to kill. Whether there was another option is debatable. Certainly the priority has not been to detain and put on trial, in accordance with basic standards of justice.

This policy was crystalised by the weekend's deadly shooting of Kheir Hamdan after he attacked a police van with a knife during a night-time raid of his village. The police statement insisted officers felt their life was in danger and that they fired a warning shot first. 

But CCTV footage appears to show otherwise. Not only was Hamdan running away when a policeman got out of the (presumably knife-proof) van and shot directly at Hamdan’s torso, but there does not appear to have been any warning shot. He was then dragged into the van and later died of his injuries.

“They killed him in cold blood because he was an Arab,” Hamdan’s father told Israeli newspaper Maariv. “If he had been a Jew, it wouldn’t have ended that way.” It's hard to argue with that.

The basic problem is that Israel is not a country for all of its citizens. It is a country that successive governments have striven to ensure, by enforcing discriminatory policies regarding everything from land to immigration, is above all for Jews. 

On the surface this does not seem problematic; don't they deserve their own state after the horrors of the Holocaust?

But this belies the undeniable fact that a significant population of non-Jews have lived in this part of the world for centuries. Many of them left - either by force or of their own volition - when Israel was created in 1948, but some stayed, most of them  believing in the creation of a Palestinian state and rejecting the Zionist dream foisted upon them.

What of these non-Jews whose ties to the Holy Land are indisputable? How do they fit into a country that, at every level of society, screams that Jews are more worthy than anyone else?

This conundrum was recently explicitly recognised by the new Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, in a fascinating speech that deserves to be read in full. Fittingly, it was made at a ceremony marking the anniversary of a massacre of 48 Israeli Arabs in 1956 perpetrated by Israeli police.

"The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, who returned to their land after two millennia of exile. This was its very purpose. However, the State of Israel will also always be the homeland of the Arab population," said Rivlin, who was elected president in June this year. 

"We are talking about a population which is part and parcel of this land, a distinct population, with a shared national identity and culture, which will always be a fundamental component of Israeli society."

In other words, they cannot simply be wished away or stripped of their citizenship when they misbehave.

Rivlin, a vocal proponent of Israeli Arab rights, is a controversial figure and his presidency was strongly opposed by Netanyahu, which speaks volumes. 

"We must state plainly," Israel's president added, "the Israeli Arab population has suffered for years from discrimination in budget allocation, education, infrastructure, and industrial and trade areas...

"Poverty and a sense of deprivation provide a breeding ground for nationalist and religious extremism, and we ourselves fan these flames when we do not insist upon the principle of equality between citizens of the State of Israel."

Well, quite.

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