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When will Israel stop seeing Palestinians as a 'demographic threat?'

Israel’s political and social outlook, rooted in its desire to be a ‘Jewish state,’ makes it impossible to view the Palestinians as anything but an existential problem, even those it accepts as citizens.

By Amjad Iraqi

Palestinian Muslim worshipers perform traditional Friday prayers in a street in Wadi Joz neighbourhood outside Jerusalem's Old City, as policemen block their way to Al Aqsa mosque, October 17, 2014. The Israeli government has restricted access to the al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam's third holiest shrine to men under 50. (Activestills.org)

Palestinian Muslim worshipers perform traditional Friday prayers in a street in Wadi Joz neighbourhood outside Jerusalem’s Old City, as policemen block their way to Al Aqsa mosque, October 17, 2014. (Activestills.org)

Last week, Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet reported about the auctioning of a letter written by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to then-Haifa Mayor Abba Hushi. In the letter Ben-Gurion rejected attempts to allow Palestinian Arabs to return to Haifa after fleeing during the 1948 war, stating that “until the war is over, we don’t want a return of the enemy.” 

While the letter does not reveal anything new regarding the Israeli leadership’s intent to keep as many Palestinians as possible out of the new state, it does offer a chilling reminder of the origins of this Israeli policy towards Palestinians, which has remained remarkably consistent 67 years after the state’s establishment.

In the eyes of Israelis, Ben-Gurion’s attitude towards the presence of Palestinians in the state was justified: demographics in any ethnic and national conflict have precarious effects on the politics, security and stability of the different communities involved. More significantly, for the Jewish community, Israel needed to be Jewish-majority country where they would not be threatened by the domination and racism of others, as has been the case for centuries.

The terrible irony is that in its desire to escape its history as a persecuted minority, the Israeli Jewish population became an oppressive majority obsessed with racial control. To this day, the Palestinian people — whether in refugee camps, under occupation, or minority citizens inside Israel — are viewed by the Israeli state as an existential challenge. It is not just the right wing that espouses this racial paradigm; liberal Zionists, in their attempt to advocate for a two-state solution, repeatedly warn that the Palestinian population living under Israeli control will soon surpass the Jewish population, and that Israel would be forced to abandon democracy if it wants to preserve its “Jewish character.”

This obsession over the Palestinian “demographic threat” has become so normalized in both Israeli and international discourse that people have forgotten that at its core, it is both a sinister and racist concept. A Palestinian’s personal character, their advancement in society, and even their indifference to politics mean little to the state – it is their blood that determines their status and defines them as a danger. This view has served to legitimize numerous laws and policies that attempt to manipulate the state’s demographic landscape, with the aim of minimizing and containing the non-Jewish population under its control.

Ben-Gurion’s letter is one testament to how the denial of the Palestinians’ right of return, and the expulsions and flights that preceded it, were seen as key instruments in achieving the state’s goals. The same persistent fear of the right of return was also a factor that encouraged Israel in 2003 to ban family unification between Palestinian citizens of Israel with spouses and children from the occupied territories. While the ban was initially defended as a “security measure,” it is now widely viewed as a means of preventing Palestinians from entering and living in Israel. These policies, of course, contrast with the Law of Return, which allows any Jew in the world to acquire citizenship and residency in Israel solely on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.

A group of Jewish boys visit the depopulated Palestinian village of Lifta, located on the edge of West Jerusalem, Israel, March 4, 2014. During the Nakba, the residents of Lifta fled attacks by Zionist militias beginning in December 1947, resulting in the complete evacuation of the village by February 1948. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

A group of Jewish boys visit the depopulated Palestinian village of Lifta, located on the edge of West Jerusalem, Israel, March 4, 2014. During the Nakba, the residents of Lifta fled attacks by Zionist militias beginning in December 1947, resulting in the complete evacuation of the village by February 1948. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

The demographic fear not only targets Palestinians outside the state, but also those within it. The Admissions Committees Law, which allows hundreds of small communities to reject housing applicants based on “social and cultural criteria,” was enacted out of concern that the Supreme Court’s landmark Ka’adan ruling would allow Palestinian citizens to access lands outside of their Arab locales. Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth), led by its mayor, Shimon Gapso, is attempting to discourage the movement of Palestinian citizens into its neighborhoods in order to preserve the city’s “Jewish identity.” In Jerusalem, where the demographic policy is most severe, Palestinians are being forced out of the city through residency revocations, confiscation of properties, physical separation and other means, while settlements for Jewish citizens rapidly expand in their place.

In view of these and numerous other examples, the obsession over the demographic threat necessitates a simple question: when does the threat end? The cynical answer is that it doesn’t. Israel’s political and social outlook, rooted in its desire to be a “Jewish state,” makes it impossible to view the Palestinians as anything but an existential problem, even those it accepts as citizens. Even if two states are formed, refugees are naturalized in a Palestinian state or their host countries, and equal rights are granted to the Palestinian minority in Israel — all of which are increasingly unlikely — the Palestinians, by virtue of their identity and connection to the land, will still be viewed as a danger.

It is hard to say if Ben-Gurion knew when he wrote his letter to Abba Hushi that Israel’s “war” would never truly be over. It is clear, however, that the result of that ongoing war is not democracy or peace, but discrimination and oppression. Many Palestinians are responding to this by articulating a joint future based on recognition, diversity and equality, but it is precisely this future that Israel as a “Jewish state” cannot accept. As long as fear, racism and separation guide Israel’s vision of itself and the Palestinians, the demographic threat will never cease.

Amjad Iraqi is a Projects & International Advocacy Coordinator at Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

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    1. Jello

      Hahahaha. The Arabs declare that they wish to destroy the Jews. The Arabs invade and insist that this will be “a war of extermination”. They lose. Now they are crying foul that the Jews see them as hostile. They do so while persistently insisting that 1) There is no Jewish people 2) The Jews have no rights to the land 3) The Jewish State has to be eliminated, and last but best, 4) The Jews are being paranoid and racist by actually paying attention to what the Arabs say!

      When the Arab minority in Israel decides that it actually wants to live in this country rather than insisting that it wants to replace it with another country, then perhaps the ‘demographic threat’ can come to an end. Until then, the Arabs in Israel are very much a threat and very much a demographic.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        But we’ve been listening to what you actually say: that to “live in this country” for an Arab means 1945-Japanese-style Total Surrender west of the River Jordan. And that anything less than that means you’re the victim. We too have been listening. And we’ve also been listening to Ayman Odeh who says something very different than what you say he says. But whom your Foreign Minister and Prime Minister treat as if he has a contagious disease.

        http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.649978
        Is Israel ready for the new Arab leader Ayman Odeh?
        The rise of the Joint List chairman presents a unique opportunity to improve Jewish-Arab ties.

        Reply to Comment
        • Jello

          It means the Arabs actually accepting that they have permanently failed in their war to destroy Israel. If they do not do so, then they are obviously and objectively legitimately defined as a threat. If they accept their failure to destroy Israel, then peace is possible. Otherwise what peace can last when the Arabs continue to dream of destroying Israel? Anything less does not make me a victim. It means that we remain in a state of war and must act and see the world accordingly.

          Our Foreign Minister and Prime Minister met with MK Ayman Odeh recently for a one-on-one conversation. Hardly qualifies as treating him ‘as if he has a contagious disease’.
          http://news.yahoo.com/lieberman-blasts-netanyahu-talks-arab-list-101528432.html

          Ayman “I can’t come up with anything positive about Israel” Odeh happens to lead a a political grouping that includes Jamal “We were here before you, and we will remain here after you are gone” Zahalka and Haneen “Do I really need to find a quote for this traitorous c*#t?” Zoabi? Yes, he is a breath of fresh air when he decides to appeal to the Jews.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You might pay attention to what your link actually demonstrates, which is the point I’m making:

            ‘Odeh said the meeting was “not simple.”
            “I came here today with great responsibility as a representative of the largest minority in the country, a minority that as part of a despicable election tactic, was incited against by the prime minister and its very citizenship was questioned,” he said.

            “I relayed this message to the premier too, and I reiterate and say it’s unacceptable that a prime minister speaks against citizens voting,” he said….

            Arab Israelis — the descendents of Palestinians who stayed on after the Jewish state was established in 1948 — say that state discrimination makes it difficult for them to obtain planning permission to expand their communities, forcing them to resort to illegal construction which is liable to demolition.

            Prior to the meeting, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman urged Netanyahu to cancel talks with Odeh, accusing him of granting legitimacy to “terror supporters”.’

            (And Zahalka was responding specifically to right wing racists screaming at him. And calling an MK a “traitorous c*#t” only further makes the point I’m making.)

            Reply to Comment
          • Jello

            The point you were trying to make was that the Prime Minister was ignoring Odeh. Clearly he is not. Odeh had a one-on-one conversation with the Prime Minister.

            Zahalka said what he believes. He says the same thing repeatedly, usually less explicitly. And Ms. Zoabi is a traitorous c#@t who does not believe that the kidnap and murder of teens of the country she has sworn loyalty to is an act of terrorism. Notice that what makes this argument incredibly simple to make is the fact that she actually swears loyalty to the State of Israel when she becomes an MK. It is pretty explicit that she has none which makes her both a traitor and a liar.

            Reply to Comment
          • Yeah, Right

            Jello: “It means the Arabs actually accepting that they have permanently failed in their war to destroy Israel.”

            Something like this, perhaps?
            “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security”

            Or something like this instead?
            “The PLO accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338”

            Those look pretty unconditional to me, and do rather preclude the idea that the PLO is still intent on a “war to destroy Israel.”

            That declaration was made in 1991, and not once have the Palestinians so much as hinted that they plan on putting conditions upon that unconditional recognition of the right (note that: they are saying that Israel has the “right”) of Israel to exist in peace and security.

            That’s now 24 years ago, and you still refuse to take “yes” for an answer.

            How odd.

            Reply to Comment
          • Jello

            Yes, it could have something to do with the Arabs continuing to refuse any negotiations on the basis of “two states for two peoples”, continuing to refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and continuing to insist that there will be no peace without flooding Israel with millions of Arabs. That is before considering the obvious fact that the PLO/PA/Fateh continued to sponsor attacks against Israeli civilians even after reportedly abandoning armed struggle and recognizing Israel’s right to exist in peace and security. And of course before considering the obvious fact that the PLO/PA/Fateh continue to raise new generations on the narrative that only Israel’s destruction will be a satisfactory outcome.

            If the Arabs really want to demonstrate that they wish to end the conflict all they have to do is to accept that they have failed to destroy the Jewish State and that they are now willing to live in peace next to it. That is done by accepting that negotiations will produce peace on the basis of “two states for two peoples”. So far their unwillingness to do so speaks volumes.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Joel Cantor

      The Islamic state of Egypt considers Coptic Christians and Jews as a demographic threat. Therefore, such people constitute an inherent problem for Egyptianism. So Egypt must be dismantled for the case of common humanity. The same for Morrocco, Libya, Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia Yemen, Syria, Pakistan et al.

      Reply to Comment
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