University of Haifa
University of Haifa - As’ad Ghanem (Dept of Political Science)
denounces Israel as an apartheid "ethnocracy" while speaking in
“Ethnocracy” and the Demographic Threat: Dr. As’ad Ghanem on
Israel’s Palestinian Citizens"
Center interviewed Dr. As'ad Ghanem of the University of Haifa about
the state of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and published the
interview in full. He is currently a visiting researcher at the
University of Maryland, College Park.
academic work focuses on the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Here
they are often referred to in the Israeli nomenclature as “Israeli
Arabs.” How do they relate to Palestinians as a national group?
AG: The Palestinians inside Israel became a minority in their
homeland after the 1948 Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe,” referring
to the termination of the Palestinian homeland when Israel was
founded). They are part of the Palestinian people and therefore
nation in terms of their patriotic, national and cultural
affiliation. Israel didn’t recognize their Palestinian national
identity for a long time (preferring to call them “Israeli Arabs”).
It treated them as confessional and ethnic minorities, second-class
subjects, meaning not as equal right citizens.
Recent events in Akka (Acre)
have highlighted tensions between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian
citizens as Jewish civilians unleashed anger and violence against
their Palestinian neighbors after they accused a Palestinian man of
driving dangerously through a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur.
This began days of street fighting and vandalism. What are the
causes of this unrest?
AG: While the Palestinians in Israel are second class citizens who
live on the margins of Israeli political, social, cultural and
economic life, Palestinians in the so called "mixed cities" are on
the margins of the margins, being at the edges of the Palestinian
community in Israel in many ways. In comparison to life in most
developed countries, even the other parts of
and life before al-Nakba in 1948, those in “mixed cities” are in
many ways worse off. They tend to receive a very low level of
education and suffer from a high level of unemployment. Drug use,
divorce, discrimination and neglect from these municipal authorities
in their cities makes life in “mixed cities” especially difficult
for Palestinian citizens. This compounds the discriminatory state
policies that are directed towards the entire Palestinian society in
Many Jewish Israelis hold what could only be called racist views
towards the Palestinian citizens. Reports from Akka in the last few
days make it clear that most of the Jewish vandals and rioters are
those who hold very extreme stands against Palestinians in general
and those who hold Israeli citizenship in particular. A large
portion of them were settlers who moved to Akka following the
Israeli withdrawal of
They came to Akka as part of the Judaization efforts to increase the
Jewish population in Akka. This parallels the goal of transferring
the remaining Palestinians from Akka to other parts of the country.
The background to this phenomenon is rooted on the general framework
of the "Jewish State" policies towards the Palestinian minority, the
growing debate in Israel regarding the danger of changing
demographics and the vocal stands against the Palestinian minority
within the Israeli establishment, including government ministers and
members of the Knesset.
is going on generally at the national level?
AG: In terms of general Palestinian-Jewish relations in Israel, the
Akka events are a direct outcome of years of neglect and deep
polarization between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian
minority in Israel. The events in Akka follow important developments
contributing to deepening hostility between the two groups.
First, the political campaign against Palestinian-Israeli political
leaders reached its peak by the detention of leadership, including
Islamic Movement’s leadership, the chairman of Abnaa' Al-Balad
Movement, the head of the national democratic alliance (NDA), Azmi
Bishara, and the government’s investigation of most of the Knesset’s
Palestinian members—all for their political stances and activities.
Second, the increase of the transfer discourse in Israeli political
and public culture manifested in actual policies, such as the
canceling of citizenship for some Palestinian citizens. The Jewish
state’s objective is to preserve a Jewish majority. In popular
discussion of the negotiations, there is talk of the ceding lands in
the “Triangle” area to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians in
fear their citizenship is subjected to exchange by Israeli
politicians. The Yisrael Beiteinu Party, headed by Avigdor
Lieberman, has included this demand in its political platform.
Third, the recommendations of the Or Commission in September 2003
disappointed Palestinian citizens. The commission failed to
implicate the real actors in the intifada events of October
2000 in which Israeli police left thirteen Israeli-Palestinians
dead. Though committee recommendations included addressing
discrimination against the Palestinian minority, they balanced
responsibility for the events between the police and the victims.
After the publication of the committee recommendations, the section
which investigates the policemen, "Mahash," published a report in
September 2005. The report did not recommend presenting any bill of
indictment against any policeman for the deaths of thirteen
Palestinian citizens. This showed a carelessness towards the
Moreover, it has increased Palestinian citizens’ alienation towards
state institutions. Their distrust of the different state
institutions elevates each year.
Fourth, although the Palestinian minority gets larger each year,
they have become more marginal in national life. Many reports and
studies indicate that Palestinians in
sense they have little influence on the national level, even less so
than a decade ago.
There is a clear crisis in the relations between Palestinians in
Israel and the state, including the Jewish majority it represents.
The crisis is rooted in the state’s basic character and policies
towards the Palestinian minority.
pro-Israeli advocacy groups hold up the Palestinian citizens as an
example of the integrity of Israeli democracy...
AG: The citizenship of Palestinians in Israel has no real
significance. The notion of “citizenship” as applied to Palestinians
in Israel stems from
paradigm of control. These views have been picked up by Israeli
politicians, academia and media. The goal has been to enhance
control over Palestinians in Israel and intensify the separation
between them and the Palestinians on the West Bank and in
This concept gained currency after the Israeli conquest of the West
in June 1967. Aside from participating in elections, an extremely
limited form of participation for a minority, Palestinians in Israel
do not enjoy basic protections or basic rights that ought to be
assured by the fact of citizenship.
Above all, an “ethnocratic” regime rule in Israel is not a
democratic one. It is a regime that serves as an instrument of the
ethnic majority, even to commit systematic harm to the minority and
their basic rights. Such a regime ranks on a continuum with the
apartheid regime in South Africa before 1990. Though
it is far from a normal democratic state,
Israel’s systematic preferences to the Jewish majority are widely
supported by the Jewish population and Israeli academia, which works
hard to promote it in the West as a democracy.
is meant by “ethnocracy”? And has this term become more or less
applicable in the past several years?
AG: Increasingly, academic literature produced by Palestinian and
Jewish researchers criticized the Israeli system and its treatment
of the Palestinian minority. They have demonstrated the internal
contradictions of Jewish democracy in
Among these theories is the concept of “ethnocracy” that I
formulated along with Prof. Oren Yiftachel from Beer Sheva
University in Al-Naqab. It refers to the domination of the Jewish
ethnic group in the state of
and how the Palestinian minority is structurally relegated to a
position of inferiority.
Some argue the relation between the settler-colonial nature of
Israel and its proto-democracy is a foundational contradiction. The
relation between the nation, nationality, religion and citizenship
is the second structural contradiction of the Jewish democracy. The
state of Israel is not only Jewish due to its Jewish majority but
also because it claims to be the state of all Jews everywhere. This
means that Israel, according to its self identification and vision,
is not a state for all its citizens but is a state of
potential citizens who, as a result, are prioritized over actual
citizens based only on religious identity. Thus, there are deep
problems with the way Jewish democracy is formulated in Israel. The
first problem is the state incapability to achieve equality. The
second problem is the ideological citizenship, the Zionist
Israeli policy objectives and selective legal enforcement in the
last few years support these criticisms: the state’s treatment of
its Palestinian citizens; the mainstreaming of proposals to expel
many citizens to the Palestinian Authority in the context of a peace
deal; the lack of enforcement against the police’s killing of
Palestinian protestors; and the clear governmental preference to
maintain an absolute Jewish majority at the expense of the
Palestinian citizens’ rights. It became clear that Israel does not
see them as citizens equal with the Jewish citizen, but worse, as
enemies of the state.
In order to understand the most important changes in the last decade
or so it is important to consider some central points regarding the
formation of the political culture of the Jewish society in Israel
and its effects on Israeli institutions, decision makers,
politicians and other Jewish citizens. The most obvious feature was
the formation of a dominant ideology, a new Zionist consensus
towards basic issues in the political, economic and social arenas.
Amongst those is the status of the Palestinian minority in Israel,
or what is called “the Demographic Danger” of having too many
non-Jews. There is wide agreement among Israel’s establishment about
the necessity to maintain an absolute Jewish majority in the state
of Israel as a basic and necessary condition for its security.
This Zionist consensus has come to define Israeli political culture
and has been translated into both tangible policies and de facto
Palestinian citizens are more commonly considered under the rubric
of “security.” The Israeli National Security Council and various
security agencies began actively analyzing and considering
minority issues. An unofficial return to “military law” in
Palestinian minority areas resembling the first 18 years of the
state establishment (military law was upheld between 1948-1966).
The legal codification of Jewish superiority and Palestinians’
inferiority. A set of new laws further the Jewish character of the
state. One example is the law which bans family reunification when
Israeli citizens marry Palestinians without citizenship; it denies
non-citizen spouses the right of citizenship (though this order
was temporary, it has been renewed multiple times).
The political push to create a formal constitution that
concretizes the Jewish nature of the state.
Symbolic laws such as the law to commemorate Rehavam "Gandhi"
Ze'evi, the former Israeli minister who called for the transfer of
Palestinians (he was assassinated by Palestinians in the beginning
of Al-Aqsa intifada).
An increasing use of the term “demographic threat” to describe
Palestinian citizens. This term is not just restricted to the
politicians and decision makers, but it is common in the Israeli
academy. There was a conference at Haifa University titled “The
Demographic Problem and the Demographic Policy of Israel” to
discuss the forms of population growth of the Palestinian minority
in Israel and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The
attendees discussed proposals to deal with such dangers.
Israel has continued to control the land and prevent Palestinian
citizens from natural geographic expansion. They ban building
Palestinian houses on what is called “state lands,” though they were
originally confiscated from the Palestinians.
Parallel to these racist laws against Palestinian citizens, the last
years were marred by the silencing of the Palestinian political
parties. More restrictions against representation in the Knesset and
increased Zionist votes calling for lifting forms of political
immunity for Palestinian Knesset members diminished Palestinian
about Israel’s policies towards the Bedouins?
AG: Some of the most egregious examples of discrimination target the
Palestinian Bedouin citizens in the Negev. Bedouin citizens were
transferred and forcibly settled to new, concentrated areas by
force, suffering from large amounts of land confiscation in both
their old and new areas (the southern area of Israel is considered
important for future use since the population density is very low
now). The state, principally and formally, denies this relation
between the Bedouins and their land. Bedouins also struggle to
receive proper social services that the state provides to the rest
of its residents. Moreover, the Israeli government excludes the
Bedouins from positive development plans and forces them to the
margins of the Israeli economy and society.
The Israeli National Security Council was authorized to study the
Bedouin issue in the Negev and to establish the governmental
policies to deal with them. The National Security Council Annual
Report for the year 2004 described the Bedouins as a “time bomb
ready to explode” and said they bear the potential for future
violent confrontation. Furthermore, the Council warned against “the
danger of Bedouin control over wide areas of state land” and the
effect of “extremist” Islamic figures on the population. The report
folded them into the “demographic problem,” expressly naming “the
high percentage of natural growth” among them.
the early days of Israel’s existence, it programmatically encouraged
Jewish settlers to move to the Galilee to diminish the Palestinian
presence there, which is the process by which cities like Upper
Nazareth arose. Are there current versions of this?
AG: In 2005, the government approved a plan to Judaize the Negev and
Galilee. The plan includes investing about 17 billion shekels in the
Negev and the Galilee over ten years under the supervision of
current President Shimon Peres (he served as the minister for the
development of the Negev and the Galilee). Moreover, the state is
offering decreased taxes and grants as incentives for Jews to move
there and the Galilee. After the decision of withdrawal from Gaza,
the government encouraged Jewish settlers to move to these areas in
order to diminish the concentration of Palestinians.
The Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, announced
“withdrawal from Gaza is supposed to promote Negev and Galilee… the
other face of the withdrawal is to enhance settlement in Negev and
do the Palestinian citizens fit into this question of
peace/solution? How do their interests compare to those of the rest
of the Palestinians?
AG: The struggle of Palestinians in Israel began immediately after
al-Nakba in 1948. The significant and immediate difference between
them and other Palestinians lay in the fact that they had remained
on their land and became citizens of the Jewish state of Israel. In
practice, however, this fact, which is important in itself, did not
help them very much. In the eyes of the Israeli authorities and
various security agencies, they were generally considered to be part
of the Palestinian “enemy,” and Israel adopted a policy of harsh
control as part of the steps to control and deter them.
The Palestinians who remained in Israel were shocked by the scope of
the Palestinian defeat at the hand of the Zionist army and by the
establishment of a new state alien to them. They were weak, divided
and lacked a national political leadership to guide them. Most of
them were poor, illiterate and unorganized. Their main concern at
the time was to earn some living for their families and stick to
their land in order not to become refugees like their Palestinian
brothers and sisters. The Israeli authorities employed diverse
techniques that deterred many Palestinians from political
participation or even political discussions that were not to the
taste of the authorities; this impeded the consolidation of a
national leadership and encouraged “accommodating” leaders on the
Palestinian side. Direct military rule controlled the Palestinians
and limited their mobility.
Until 1967, most Palestinians did not have the leisure time or
material comfort for political activity due to the harsh conditions
of their lives in Israel. Many worked just to survive. This economic
dependence allowed the authorities to threaten those who might be
inclined to political activity with the loss of employment. After
1967, the military government receded, giving the Palestinian
citizens more freedom for political activity and critical thought.
For Israeli-Palestinians, their major political efforts were devoted
to searching for a solution to the Palestinian problem in the form
of the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and
Gaza Strip. Parallel to that, they strived for improving their own
standard of living and modifying the policies of the Israeli
authorities towards them. Their leaders focused on putting forward
demands for civic equality and invested efforts to work for changes
in social and political aspects of Palestinian society in Israel.
was the impact of Oslo on the Palestinian minority?
AG: The Oslo Accords of September 1993 mark a new stage in the
political life of the Palestinians in Israel and in their
aspirations. The direct contacts between Israel and the PLO
[Palestine Liberation Organization] and the declared intention to
find a comprehensive solution to the conflict has removed one of the
two key issues from the agenda for the Palestinians in Israel; in
practice, it left the question of civil equality in the state as the
leading item of their struggle. This acquired significant momentum
in light of the idea, which emerged over the years, that a solution
to the problem of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza
would promote Palestinian equality in Israel and help them realize
Immediately after the signing of the Declaration of Principles by
the Government of Israel and the PLO, the status desired by the
Palestinian citizens of Israel received much more attention. The
preferred or possible status of the Palestinians in Israel, as it
contravenes the Jewish-Zionist nature of the state, has been
discussed with greater frequency than in the past. Old and new ideas
of broad or limited personal autonomy have been raised, along with
ideas of annexation of part of the “Triangle” to the future
Palestinian entity in the West Bank. There is talk of a more
substantial integration than at present, both on the level of
individuals and as a group.
role do Palestinian citizens of Israel and their representatives
play in the current Israeli political scene? Are they being
consulted in the efforts to form a new coalition?
AG: Historically, Palestinian or Palestinian-dominated parties in
the Knesset—the DFPE [Democratic Front for Peace and Equality] and
its predecessor the Israel Communist Party, the PLP [Progressive
List for Peace], the DAP [Democratic Arab Party], and the NDA
[National Democratic Assembly]—were excluded from governing
coalitions. They were never part of negotiations over the
establishment of new governments in Israel.
Over the years, it became clear that Palestinian parties constituted
a “permanent opposition” with no practical or even theoretical
chance of joining a government coalition. This status derived from
several factors of which the foremost were that they were “non
Jewish” (hence representatives of an untrustworthy and “hostile”
minority), non or anti-Zionist and opposed in various degrees to
many government policies in both domestic and foreign affairs. In
other words, it was precisely the nature of the relationship between
the state and its Jewish majority, on the one side, and the
Palestinian minority, on the other, that relegated these parties to
the status of permanent opposition.
Over the years, the Palestinian-dominated parties have adopted a
consistently anti-Zionist position that opposes the definition of
Israel as the state of the Jewish people, deeming it unfair to the
state’s Palestinian citizens. They have stressed that Israel should
be a “state of its citizens.” The majority of Palestinian citizens
of Israel reject the Jewish-Zionist nature of the state. In addition
to the dispute over the country’s character and purpose, the
Palestinian parties and their Knesset representatives are firmly
opposed to government policy on vital issues such as the
distribution of resources within the state, the solution to the
Israel-Palestinian conflict in general and to its unwillingness to
settle the refugee issue in particular. This opposition exacerbates
fears about the Palestinians among the Jewish public and
decision-makers and reinforces the notion that they constitute a
“hostile minority” and potential fifth column. This anxiety in the
Jewish community plays an important factor in deterring Jewish
politicians from accepting Palestinians as full coalition partners,
lest their own parties’ support within the Jewish sector decline.
By excluding the Palestinian parties and Palestinian citizens from
full participation in the executive arm, the state has effectively
kept them from having active and equal influence on decisions
relating to momentous issues for the state and even for themselves.
This array of factors, all emanating from the predicament of the
relationship between Israel and its Palestinian community, has
rendered the Palestinian Knesset factions a permanent opposition
within the Israeli system of government. Palestinian parliamentary
officials have failed to register any significant achievement for
Palestinian society and have been unable to compel the government to
redress any of the Palestinians’ many complaints, even in cases that
the Jewish majority considers to be legitimate and justified. This
failure is inherent in the structural inequality of citizenship in
the ethnocratic state system.
has been more than a year since the release of the "Future Vision of
the Palestinians in Israel" and other related documents, which you
worked on with nearly 40 other intellectuals and politicians. What
did it propose?
AG: In December 2006, a group of politicians and intellectuals
headed by Shawki Khatib, the head of the Supreme Follow-up Committee
of the Palestinians in Israel—their highest and the most
authoritative representative body—published the “Future Vision of
the Palestinians in Israel.” This document attracted national and
international interest and elicited a wide variety of responses
across the political spectrum of Jews, Palestinians and others.
The document is a historic event in the annals of the Palestinians
in Israel and their relationship with the Jewish majority and
establishment. This is the first time a representative national body
of Palestinians in Israel has prepared and published a basic paper
that describes both the existing situation and the changes that are
needed across a broad spectrum of Palestinian life: relations with
the Jewish majority, the legal situation, land, social and economic
issues, the status of civil and political institutions, etc. The
document was written by activists from all political tendencies
among the Palestinians in Israel and delineates the achievements
necessary for defining the future relationship between the majority
and the minority in the state of Israel.
The document is based on three theoretical principles that
constitute the foundations of human social, political and cultural
development for at least the past two centuries. First is the
principle of human rights: the document addresses the fundamental
rights of the Palestinians in Israel as human beings to economic and
social development, women's and children's rights, to live without
violence, etc. and demands their realization.
The second principle invokes civil equality: the basic democratic
right to equality before the law and a reconfiguration of structures
and symbols that alienate the Palestinian citizens of Israel and
ensure Jewish superiority. And the third principle is that of the
right of communities to self-determination, including the autonomous
right to manage specific areas of life such as their own education,
cultural and religious affairs.
In order to realize these foundations, the document's writers demand
the implementation in Israel of a consociational system/bi-national
state. This would replace the existing “liberal system” that is
exploited automatically by the Jewish majority and that, indeed,
constitutes a “tyranny of the majority” in which, in the name of
liberal democracy, that majority takes draconian steps against the
Palestinian minority and its fundamental rights.
were these principles received by Israelis and especially among
The documents succeed in provoking responses from all political
sides, including different streams among Palestinians in Israel,
Israeli Jews, Jews abroad and Palestinians outside Israel. Most of
the responses from the Jewish majority have accused the Palestinians
in Israel of undermining Israel's foundations as a “Jewish and
Jewish reaction representing the Zionist consensus was expressed to
a significant extent by Journalist and previous Minister of Justice
Tommy Lapid, Professor Amnon Rubinstein and Historian and Professor
Alex Jacobson. For example, Law Professor Amnon Rubinstein, a former
Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party, writing in the daily
Ma'ariv, called the document "shameless" and claimed,
somewhat hysterically, that it "demands rights for the Palestinian
minority that have no foundation in international law – and demands
to put an end to Israel as a Jewish state."
Similarly, in an open letter to the authors of the document for the
Palestinian weekly Al-Sinara, Professor Shimon Shamir, a
member of the Or Commission that examined the causes of the October
2000 intifada (and which made a wide range of
recommendations to the Israeli government for improving the status
of its Palestinian citizens), noted, “not only does your document
fail to create a foundation for dialogue, it evokes a sense of
threat for Jewish readers, even those who are sympathetic to your
Through these reactions, Jewish intellectuals display a nationalist
readiness to recognize the right to self-determination of only a
single group in a pluralist reality. This model ignores the
compromises reached in Spain after Franco, in Belgium, in Canada
since the Quiet Revolution and in several other instances in which a
pluralist reality facilitated solutions based on mutual recognition,
the right of self-determination and self-rule for more than one
national or ethnic group within a single political framework.
At the other end of the spectrum, among the Palestinians of Israel
themselves, there is a group that proposes a different platform for
agreement among the Palestinians without accepting the need for a
compromise that can be accepted by a majority of Palestinian
citizens, as the Vision document does. The Islamic movement led by
Sheikh Raad Salah, part of the Sons of the Village movement,
criticized the document and demanded its cancellation and deemed it
A recent representative survey that I conducted last July-August
(2008) among Palestinians in Israel found the vast majority,
exceeding 94 percent, supported the main principal guides of the
is next for the “Future Vision” movement?
AG: Following the release of the document, the group of activists
who initiated it are busy establishing a political program derived
from the “Future Vision” principles. In December, we will hold a
conference to present the program and to urge Palestinian leadership
to consider it officially as the collective political agenda.
is currently a
visiting researcher at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Articles appearing on IsraCampus.Org.il are those of the writer and
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