A discriminatory law in Israel that distinguishes Palestinian Christians from Muslims has prompted intense criticism from local citizens. The measure — which Israel’s legislative body, the Knesset, passed on February 24 — officially recognizes Christian Arabs as a minority and grants them one additional seat on the public advisory board of the state’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the law is particularly historic for an unfortunate reason: its illogical identification of Palestinian Christians with Israeli citizenship as non-Arabs.
The legislator who sponsored the law, Yariv Levin, is a member of the right-wing Likud party, which presides over one of the most hard-line ruling coalitions in the Knesset’s history. Levin promoted it as a step toward integrating Christians into Israeli society. “The legislation would give separate representation and separate consideration to the Christian population, that will separate them from Muslim Arabs,” he remarked to reporters of the Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv in January. “It’s a historic and important step that could balance the State of Israel and connect us to the Christians, and I am careful not to refer to them as Arabs, because they are not Arabs.”
Arab members of the Knesset, as well as lawyers and activists from Haifa to Jerusalem, are condemning the law as an act intended to divide the Palestinian community within Israel — some have even likened it to South Africa’s legal division of its black population into separate tribal groups during apartheid.
“The state of Israel is using structural and inherent inequality and discrimination against Arabs to advance its agenda of actively working against Palestinian national identity,” Azem Bishara, a legal consultant for the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit, told VICE News. “The law is an attempt to continue rendering Arabs as second-class citizens, both undermining and fragmenting unity.”
Approximately 1.6 million Palestinians are citizens of Israel, of which roughly 123,000 are Christian. The estimated figures do not include the 230,000 Palestinian Christians who live in the occupied West Bank or the Gaza Strip. However, for Palestinians living inside Israel, the idea of being fragmented and separated from Israel’s Jewish population is not new.
In 2012, Israel’s Defense Ministry organized a conference in Nazareth on the question of recruiting Palestinian Christians into Israeli military service, which offers considerable benefits to veterans. Attendance was slim, but the government revisited the question in 2013, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party began to consider ending the long-established exemption of Christians from serving in the Israeli military. Muslims and ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, are also exempted from serving in the military. (The Knesset is formulating a new conscription bill that would potentially change the Haredim exemption, however, which has recently incited fury and protests in the Orthodox community.)
Jowan Safadi, a volunteer with Baladna, a youth organization in Haifa that is organizing an awareness campaign against the conscription of Palestinian Christians, told VICE News that he believes Israel’s goal is to make Christians feel as though they are a vulnerable minority.
“Right now Israel is promoting the fear and image of radical Islam, saying look what they are doing in Egypt and Syria, and that Christians are only safe in Israel,” he said. “It’s creating a negative atmosphere that is sectarian and prejudiced, and this will only generate tension between Muslims and Christians.”
According to Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, more than 50 laws discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Some of these laws aim to cut off state support for programs or organizations in predominantly Arab cities like Nazareth, while others severely restrict political participation.
Safadi told VICE News that a nationwide campaign to protest the legislation is being readied. Two of its organizers, Adalah and Baladna, joined other Palestinian civil society groups in issuing a joint statement that denounced the bill as sectarian and emphasized Palestinian solidarity:
“We vehemently reject all attempts by the Israeli government to fragment and segregate the Arab Palestinian society along sectarian lines of Christians and Muslims. We assert that we were and will continue to be one people united — albeit with different religions and ideological affiliations — and an integral part of the Arab Palestinian people. We have the right to define our national identity, which is based on our Arab culture, language, common history, and on the unity of our destiny and our future as a single original group that remains in its homeland.”
The law’s passage reflects the Israeli government’s fear of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which continues to grow amid criticism from human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, of the Israeli army’s use of excessive force in the occupied Palestinian territories.