After a fierce shouting match that could reportedly be heard from behind closed doors, Israeli ministers voted Sunday in favor of a controversial "Jewish state" bill by a 14 to six majority.
The bill, which still requires the approval of the Knesset, or parliament, to pass, defines Israel as the nation-state of Jewish people, cites Jewish law as an inspiration for legislation, and in some drafts, would see Arabic delisted as a second official language.
Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said that the reform, similar to a constitutional amendment, is a "necessary" measure to balance democracy and Jewish values.
"[Israel] has equal individual rights for every citizen" he said at the cabinet meeting. "But there are national rights [which are] only for the Jewish people: a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel, and other national symbols."
Critics, however, have slammed the law as racist and undemocratic in a country where more than 20 percent of the population is Arab Muslim or Christian.
Amongst those opposing the bill internally is Israel's center-left finance minister Yair Lapid, who called the draft law "terrible and badly written." In raising the November 18 incident involving Zidan Saif, the Arab Druze policeman who was killed while responding to a terror attack on a synagogue, Lapid asked: "What are we meant to tell his family? That he a second-class citizen in the state of Israel?"
Israel's Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, also spoke out against the bill saying that it would erode democracy in the country.
In response to critics in the heated cabinet meeting, Netanyahu reportedly slammed his fist on the table and shouted: "It cannot be that Arabs can live in Jewish towns, but Jews can't live in Arab towns. A country within a country is developing."
The Prime Minister later said he was "determined to pass the bill with or without agreement."
With early elections looming, many say that Netanyahu's political posturing, including his support of the controversial new bill, is a dangerous maneuver designed to bolster his support amongst Israel's powerful right-wing ahead of the vote.
"[The whole process] smacks of populist politicking," Yohanan Plesner, the President of the Israel Democracy Institute, said in a statement. "[It] touches on raw nerves at an especially delicate moment in our nation's history."
The controversial bill comes as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians continue to escalate. A bloody summer war in Gaza, which killed 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians and more than 2,100 Palestinians, has been followed by a spate of Palestinian terror attacks in Jerusalem.
The latest wave of violence has killed 11 Israelis and least a dozen Palestinians, including several perpetrators of the terror attacks.
On Sunday, Israeli soldiers reportedly shot dead a farmer on the Gaza border. A spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Force said the man had failed to respond to warning shots. If confirmed, it will be the first Palestinian death in the strip at the hands of Israeli forces since the end of the summer war.
In response to the mounting tensions, Israel has reinstated a controversial counterterrorism measure of demolishing the family homes of terror attack suspects and perpetrators. The decades-old policy, condemned by Human Rights Watch as collective punishment, was previously abandoned in 2005 after its deterrent effect was called into question by a military report.
So far, only one home has been destroyed in response to the recent series of terror attacks, but another three are scheduled for imminent demolition.
Netanyahu is also reportedly penning a separate bill that would further extend powers to revoke the permanent residency and social benefits of Palestinians who encourage terror and incitement to violence. The proposal has received some support including from Jerusalem Mayor, Nir Barkat, who said the government also needed to consider how to "act more decisively against those who case disturbances and throw stones."
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