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Israel’s laws of persecution

Nimer Sultany | The Guardian

8 September 2009

Two cases brought before Israeli courts last week revealed the attitude of the establishment towards Palestinian Arab citizens of the state. One shows how Palestinian citizens are treated as victims of police brutality, and the second shows how they are regularly victimised because of their opposition to injustice.

In the first, a policeman who shot and killed an Arab citizen in 2006 was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment. The unbearable leniency of the sentence is more evidence of the total disregard for Arab life inside Israel, where ethnicity of the victim is a de facto mitigating circumstance in the case of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Indeed, this was the only case in which any policeman or soldier was indicted since the mass protests of October 2000, in spite of the fact that about 40 citizens were killed during this period.

The second case involved an indictment against Rawi Sultani, a 23-year-old law student, for “contact with a foreign agent” and “delivering information to the enemy”; two flawed articles in Israel’s laws comparable in their application to use of “national security” laws by authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the world. The young student is a political activist of the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), a party that calls for the transformation of Israel from a Jewish state into a state for all its citizens. Rawi is also the son of a well-known leader of the party. He is accused of having contact with another youth, who allegedly turned out to be a Hezbollah member, during a national Arab youth conference in Morocco. Allegedly, Rawi disclosed information regarding the Israeli army’s chief of staff, given their membership in the same gym. Yet the case is based on a tendentious account of one statement of a publicly known fact regarding the chief’s membership in that gym made by the accused.

The identity of the accused, the identity of his father, the party to which they both belong, the timing of the case and the kind of charges chosen cannot be easily overlooked and give grounds to questioning the political incentives behind the indictment and the message behind it. One would be hard put to explain the extensive surveillance against leaders and activists of the NDA as revealed by this case.

Indeed, since the emergence of the NDA in the mid 1990s, it faced mounting legal and public attacks. These attacks took a stronger turn since October 2000 and culminated in the forced exile of Azmi Bishara, the leader of the NDA, who was accused with similar charges in 2007. What was supposed to be a fatal blow to the NDA and its legitimacy within the Arab minority has failed, with the party’s success in the Israeli parliamentary elections in February. However, this did not deter the establishment from mounting further attacks on the cadres of the party. Thus, we have witnessed in the last month show-arrests and interrogations of many young activists of the NDA that are reminiscent of crackdowns on pro-democracy activists in authoritarian regimes.

Its connections with the Arab world is a recurring theme of the persecution of the NDA as a party challenging the Jewishness of the state, and is the real incentive behind Rawi’s case. The NDA has, since its inception, challenged the iron cage surrounding Arab citizens following 1948. Israel has detached Arab citizens from their familial, historical, cultural and sociopolitical milieu. The legislation preventing family unification and the naturalisation of spouses of Arab citizens if they were residents of the occupied territories or other Arab countries surrounding Israel is only the most draconian example of this policy of segregation. Israeli law also defines a long list of Arab states as enemy states and prohibits Arab citizens from visiting them, and prohibits political parties from expressing support of Arab liberation struggles. In short, “national security” is broadly defined to fit the dominant ideology of the state rather than the security of citizens, regardless of their national affiliation.

Yet, as Rawi’s father correctly argues, the Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot be expected to treat the Arab world as an enemy and they cannot be held accountable for the political views or affiliations of other Arabs they meet in their travels outside Israel. Indictments such as Rawi’s aim at forcing Palestinian citizens to adopt the Zionist newspeak and refrain from connections with the Arab world and from identifying with its legitimate cause against Israel’s continuing occupation of Arab lands.

Criminalising dissent is not unique to Israel. Many oppressive states, such as apartheid South Africa, have used it to de-legitimise parties, ideas and activities disliked by ruling elites and security apparatuses. Furthermore, persecution on grounds of “security” creates an immediate divide between Arab and Jewish citizens. In 2007, the head of Shabak, the Israeli general security agency, stated that struggles against the Jewishness of the state, even if lawful and democratic, would be deemed subversive. The current right-wing government is seeking to condition citizenship on loyalty to Zionist ideology, a demand unparalleled in any democracy and contrary to the most basic of human rights. With this kind of attitude, it is no wonder that young Arab men and women inside Israel are victimised because of their noble aspirations to equality and freedom.