Knesset Passes Nakba Law Targeted at its Arab Citizens

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Preoccupied by the dilemma over what to do in Libya and more immediate concerns about a possible U.S. government shutdown, the American media hardly noticed the Nakba law passed by the Israeli Knesset at the end of last month. It has added another set of challenges for its Arab citizens — 20 percent of the population.  According to Saed Bannoura of IMEMC, “The Nakba law, once implemented, will make it illegal for public bodies, or agencies that receive funding from the State of Israel, to claim that Israel should not be a Jewish state, and that the practices of the government are not democratic. Furthermore the commemoration of ‘Nakba Day,’ the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, following the Yishuv’s ethnic cleansing of the majority of indigenous Palestinians from what became Israel, has also been made illegal.“ The bill also allows small communities in Israel to set up admission committees to decide who may or may not move into the community.

The reaction both from some Israeli circles and from Palestinian activists has been swift.  Rebecca Stoil of The Jerusalem Post writes, “While some coalition MKs were happy to claim victory, civil-rights organizations promised that at least one of the two bills would face a Supreme Court challenge. The Abraham Fund Initiatives, together with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, announced Tuesday that they intend to appeal the Admission Committees Law to the Supreme Court. ‘This law establishes a mechanism of ethnic segregation between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, under the auspices of the Knesset,’ complained the co-executive directors of the Abraham Fund, Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu and Mohammad Darawshe, calling the law ‘clearly unconstitutional.’”

Noting the absence of over 60 Knesset members all from the major political parties, the Haaretz editorial fears the bill encourages racism: “The votes on the so-called Nakba Law and the bill allowing small communities to set up admission committees, which the Knesset approved late Tuesday, add a shameful page to the parliament’s history. The two laws are the latest in a growing list of disgraceful legislation whose entire purpose is to discriminate against Israel’s Arab citizens, intimidate them and deny them their rights…. [The] thundering silence [of Netanyahu, Barak and Livni] enables the extreme right to lead parliament and all Israeli society on a path of incitement against an entire community, infringing on its rights for the imaginary purpose of protecting the state and its values. The silence is no less worrying and outrageous than the laws themselves.”

Along the same lines, Uri Avnery accuses the Knesset of adopting “two obnoxious racist laws. Both are clearly directed against Israel’s Arab citizens, a fifth of the population….The first makes it possible to annul the citizenship of persons found guilty of offences against the security of the state.… The second is more sophisticated. It allows communities of less than 400 families to appoint ‘admission committees’ which can prevent unsuitable persons from living there. Very shrewdly, it specifically forbids the rejection of candidates because of race, religion etc. – but that paragraph is tantamount to a wink. An Arab applicant will simply be rejected because of his many children or lack of military service. A majority of members did not bother to show up for the vote. After all, it was late and they have families, too. Who knows, some may even have been ashamed to vote.”

The Palestine Monitor also opines that the “Nakba Law deepens apartheid in Israel…. According to experts, the law is undeniably vague in its wording, thus leaving it open to abuse. Sawsan Zaher of Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, believes the bill threatens a broad swath of government-funded institutions. Organizations at risk include research institutions that are found to be challenging the definition of the Israeli state as Jewish and democratic; educational institutions, such as bilingual schools, which hold events acknowledging the shared history of Jews and Arabs; and state-funded community organizations, such as theatres showing plays about the Nakba.”

Some have suggested that the new laws passed by the Knesset amount to rewriting history and “censoring Palestinian culture and history.” Aimee Shalan of the Council for Arab-British Understanding believes, “Commemoration of the Nakba is being outlawed because it asserts Palestinian political and moral claims to justice, redress and the right of return, exposing a critical contradiction at the heart of Israel’s claim to be exclusively Jewish and ‘democratic.’ Outraged, Israeli-Palestinian Knesset Member Hanin Zoabi protested, ‘The Nakba is a historic truth, not a position or freedom of expression.’…Still it will take more than this recent raft of laws to prevent Palestinians from pursuing their education or remembering their culture….It is impossible for any Palestinian to pretend that the trauma of 1948 or of the successive dispossessions and forced exiles inflicted upon them are no longer central to their lives. As 15 May approaches, their culture, those memories and that history are more resonant than ever.”

However not everyone agrees with the opponents of the bill. In fact, some have gone so far as to praise the Nakba law. Yoaz Hendel, writing on Ynet,  is puzzled by the opposition to the bill since the “notion of cutting budgets of anti-Israel bodies should be shared by both rightists, leftists…. A sovereign state seeks to cut the budgets of institutions and bodies that reject its basic values, yet some people around here characterize this as an undemocratic step. The debate over the Nakba Law passed in the Knesset last week, as opposed to the impression certain groups in the Left try to create, is not fundamental at all. The voices of protest merely show us that Israel is home to elected officials and delusional groups whose entire worldview is based on a conditioned reflex. They fire off harsh words without actual thought; hotheads under the guise of enlightened liberalism.”

Recently, the debate over the implications of the Nakba laws seems to have moved beyond the mainstream political debate. The Palestinian blog Occupied Palestine posted a recent press release of the head of the Islamic Movement in the 1948 occupied lands, Sheikh Saleh, who in an interview “expressed his belief that a third Palestinian intifada (uprising) would break out because of the accelerating Israeli violations and racist laws against the Palestinians in occupied territories…. [T]he package of laws the Israeli government adopted recently…were intended to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from their 1948 occupied lands individually and then collectively…. ‘The Palestinians in the territories occupied in 1948 have no way but to adopt the strategy of steadfastness and challenge, so we can live on it happily or get buried in it [as] martyrs,’ the Sheikh underscored.”

In fact, not long after the bills cleared the Knesset, a “Third Palestinian Intifada” page was launched on the social-networking website Facebook, eventually claiming hundreds of thousands of supporters. The development was of enough concern to the Israeli government that the Israeli Cabinet Minister Edelstein wrote a letter to Facebook asking for the removal of the page, adding that he wrote “not only in my capacity as Israel’s Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, who is charged with monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, but as someone who believes in the values of free speech and knows that there is a difference between freedom of expression and incitement.”

While initially resisting the call, Facebook officials eventually relented, defending their decision by highlighting the fact that they had initially allowed the page to stay up. “Our reviewers felt that the content of the Page began as a call for peaceful protest, even though the term Intifada has been associated with violence in the past. In addition, the administrators initially removed comments that promoted violence. Under these conditions a Page of this nature would normally be permitted to remain on Facebook. However, after the publicity of the Page, more comments deteriorated to direct calls for violence. Eventually, the administrators also participated in these calls. After administrators of the page received repeated warnings about posts that violated our policies, we removed the Page.”

Despite the outcome, it is clear to some that the current trajectory of the Israeli state, in which its Arab citizens are treated as enemies and not partners, is not tenable in the long term. In light of even more damaging and revealing information from the Wikileaks website, the Haaretz editorial board noted, “Forty-five years after the military regime within the Green Line was revoked, public officials and state authorities continue to treat the Arab minority in Israel as a suspicious group of second-class citizens….Apart from ongoing discrimination in resource allocation and access to senior public positions, the Arab minority’s ‘daily life’ consists of insensitivity to its identity problem in a state that defines itself as Jewish. Legislative initiatives that reek of racism are further excluding the country’s non-Jewish minority groups and alienating them from their Israeli identity, and driving many young people to nationalist and religious extremism.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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