Phyllis Bennis, a longtime analyst and activist around Middle East issues, is now head of the Middle East Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of From Stones to Statehood: The Palestinian Uprising, a book about the Palestinian intifada of the late 1980s, and Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s U.N. In this interview, Phyllis analyzes the racist character of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as well as its treatment of Palestinians who live within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
ColorLines (CL): What do you see as the root cause of the current Palestinian uprising?
Phyllis Bennis (PB): What’s going on right now can be summed up in one word: occupation. Contrary to the U.S. media’s portrayal, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is at the root of what the media at best identify only as a “disproportionate” use of violence by the Israelis on the West Bank and Gaza.
Certainly the Israeli troops’ use of helicopter gunships, of machine guns mounted on tanks, and so on is profoundly disproportionate when used against a Palestinian civilian population armed only with stones and some old Kalashnikov rifles.
But the real issue is the Israeli military occupation of Palestine—not only that it is inherently violent and a violation of international law and contrary to United Nations resolutions. Even if Israel used only proportionate violence, it would still be absolutely illegal, because the occupation of Palestinian land is illegal.
CL: And why is there an occupation?
PB: From its origins in the 19th century, Zionism centered on the idea of creating a specifically Jewish state in which Jews would be protected and privileged over non-Jews. Zionist occupation of Palestine was at first meager, amounting to about 10 percent of the population by 1900. By 1947, Jews were still only about 30 percent of the population of Mandate Palestine and owned only six percent of the land, but the UN Partition Resolution that year still assigned 55 percent of the land to a new Jewish state. However, by means of the 1947-48 war, Israel took over even greater expanses of land and forcibly expelled about 750,000 Palestinians. This travesty was the basis for the official founding of the Israeli state in 1948.
In this latest intifada, there have been numerous protests by Arabs living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. What are their numbers and their conditions of life?
Inside what is called the “Green Line”—the unofficial borders of Israel before the 1967 war—there are still about one million Palestinians, just under 20 percent of the total Israeli population. Most Palestinians are Muslim, some are Christian.
From 1948 to 1966, the Palestinians within Israel lived under explicit military rule. They were considered a military threat to the Israeli state, and they were ruled under a completely different set of laws than the Jewish population.
After 1966, military rule was lifted, but it was replaced by a set of Jim Crow-like laws designed to discriminate against Arabs in Israel. According to Adalah, an Arab rights organization, today there are at least 20 laws that specifically provide unequal rights and obligations based on what the Israelis call nationality, which in Israel is defined on the basis of religion. Israelis must carry a card which identifies them as either a Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian. All non-Jews are second class citizens. The Israeli Supreme Court has dismissed virtually all cases which dealt with equal rights for Arab citizens.
CL: Can you be more specific about how this discrimination works and what it means?
PB: All Israeli citizens, including Palestinians, have the right to vote in elections for members of the Knesset (parliament) and for the prime minister. But not all rights are citizenship rights. Other rights are defined as nationality rights, and are reserved for Jews only. If you are a Jew, you have exclusive use of land, privileged access to private and public employment, special educational loans, home mortgages, preferences for admission to universities, and many other things. Many other special privileges are reserved for those who have served in the Israeli military. And military service is compulsory for all Jews (male and female), except for the ultra-Orthodox who get the same privileges as other Jews, but excludes Palestinians, who do not.
Over 80 percent of the land within Israel that was once owned by Palestinians has been confiscated. All told, 93 percent of Israel’s land can only be leased or owned by Jews or Jewish agencies. Moreover, despite Israel’s booming economy, Palestinian unemployment is skyrocketing—Adalah says it is about 40 percent. In 1996 twice as many Arab citizens (28.3 percent) as Jewish citizens (14.4 percent) lived below the poverty line. Less than five percent of government employees are Arab. And eighty percent of all student drop-outs are Arab.
There are also vast disparities between Arab towns and Jewish towns in government spending on schools, medical systems, roads and electricity, clean water, and social services.
Unlike any other country in the world, Israel does not define itself as a state of its residents, or even a state of its citizens, but as a state of all the Jews in the world. Jews from anywhere in the world, like me, can travel to Israel, declare citizenship, and be granted all the privileges of being Jewish that are denied to Palestinians who have lived in the area for hundreds of years.
CL : Are Palestinians within Israel participating in the current uprising?
PB: The recent resistance has seen a whole new level of involvement in demonstrations by Palestinians inside the Green Line. They are protesting the discrimination they face in Israel as well as the occupation itself and Israeli brutality against Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza. Such protests are not completely without historical precedent; in 1976 there were a series of demonstrations on what became known as Land Day which protested continuing Israeli seizures of Palestinian land. Six Palestinian demonstrators, citizens of Israel, were killed by Israeli forces.
But this time there is a vast increase in the participation of Palestinians inside the Green Line. Their demonstrations have been met with the same brutal military tactics used against Palestinians in the West Bank. So, far 13 Israeli Palestinians have been killed. These tactics are in sharp contrast to the methods used by Israeli authorities in response to demonstrations by Israeli Jews.
In 1982, for example, when there was an upsurge of Jewish protests against the Israeli war in Lebanon, one Israeli Jewish protester was killed and there was such an enormous outcry that people remember his name to this day—Emil Grunzweig. But when a Palestinian is killed by Israeli military occupation forces, that is not considered news. We might hear a body count, but we never hear their names, who their parents or children are, what they did for a living.
On the West Bank and Gaza, as well as inside the Green Line, police randomly fired live ammunition into crowds of unarmed Arab demonstrators that were throwing stones. The racist double standard is everywhere. A mob of Israeli Jews even attacked the house of an Arab member of the Knesset, Azmi Bishara. But the police would not act against the rioters.
Unfortunately, the years of occupation have created, or have allowed to flourish, an incredibly racist vantage point among the majority of Israeli Jews. The majority of Israeli Jews are willing to accept the killing of Palestinians and collective punishment of the Palestinian population as justified state policy.
CL: Can you tell us more about Palestinian politics within Israel?
PB: Not surprisingly, Palestinians inside Israel have historically felt themselves excluded and disempowered by the Israeli government. The Communist Party of Israel was long a predominantly Arab party and received the vast majority of Palestinian votes. The CP remains strong, but a few Palestinian Knesset members have recently allied themselves to the Labor Party and more and more Palestinians have joined newer nationalist blocs. Azmi Bishara, who leads the Tajamoah (National Democratic) Party, became the first Arab citizen to run for prime minister last year. He and others actually call for the “de-Zionization” of Israel—for the transformation of Israel from a theocratic state privileging the Jewish majority to a democratic, secular state of all its citizens.
CL: You are painting a picture of an Israeli government, with the support of a substantial part of its Jewish population, which aims toward permanent subordination of Palestinian Arabs within its borders, along with domination over something that might be called a Palestinian state but what would really amount to a dependent Bantustan. Essentially the same vision that motivated apartheid South Africa.
PB: Yes. And there are even more complexities. Within Israel there are really four levels of citizenship, the first three being various levels of Jewish participation in Israeli society, which are thoroughly racialized. At the top of the pyramid are the Ashkenazi, the white European Jews. At the level of power the huge contingent of recent Russian immigrants—now about 20 percent of Israeli Jews—are being assimilated into the European-Ashkenazi sector, though they are retaining a very distinct cultural identity.
The next level down, which is now probably the largest component of the Jewish population, is the Mizrachi or Sephardic Jews, who are from the Arab countries. At the bottom of the Jewish pyramid are the Ethiopian Jews, who are black. You can go into the poorest parts of Jewish West Jerusalem and find that it’s predominantly Ethiopian.
This social and economic stratification took shape throughout the last 50 years as different groups of Jews from different parts of the world came, for very different reasons, to Israel. So while the divisions reflected national origins, they play out in a profoundly racialized way.
The Yemeni Jews in particular faced extraordinary discrimination. They were transported more or less involuntarily from Yemen to Israel. On arrival they were held in primitive camps, and many Yemeni babies were stolen from their mothers and given for adoption to Ashkenazi families. In the early 1990s a high-profile campaign began to try to reunite some of those shattered families.
Beneath all these layers of Jews come the Palestinian citizens.
A rigid hierarchy, highly racialized both within and between religious or national groups, orchestrates Israeli social life. Much of it is legally enforced. The most significant difference between this scenario and other similar ones is in the world’s perception of the Israeli reality. For the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, South Africa was always considered a pariah state. But Israel is not in that position. Israel is given a pass, if you will, on the question of racism. Because Jews were victims of the Nazi Holocaust, there’s a way in which Israeli Jews are assumed to be either incapable of such terrible racialized policies, or that it’s somehow understandable because of what Jews went through.
But the new intifada has refocused attention on the nature and extent of Israeli racism, among other things. You have new reports from Amnesty International looking at the Israeli treatment of its own Palestinian citizens—minors, children, being arrested, beaten and held for days. Israel treats Palestinians, inside or outside the Green Line, as being less human than Jews. This is rooted in the very definition and Basic Law of the Israeli state. And the new intifada may give us a chance to challenge that apartheid character.