Palestinians in Israel: Separate and Unequal


Israel is often called a democracy – even “the only democracy in the Middle East.” That may be true in part – if we ignore the 2.5 million Palestinians with few rights under Israeli military rule for 46 years in the Occupied West Bank, and another 1.5 million under continuous Israeli siege in the Gaza strip.

But even within Israel’s recognized borders “democracy” is mainly for the Jewish majority. The 25% of the population who are not Jewish – over a million Muslim and Christian Palestinians – are nominally citizens of the Jewish State, but in practice live their lives separate and unequal. In many ways their status resembles African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights South.

On a trip to the Middle East last month I was able to witness this situation first-hand.

Some Palestinians in Israel live in impoverished urban ghettos within the larger Israeli cities of a type that would be familiar here in the US. But mostly they are forced to reside in separate and segregated towns scattered in Israel’s center and north. In the south of the country, approximately 70,000 Bedouins live in traditional villages which are “unrecognized” by the state and so remain without basic services of water, electricity and public schools (the Israeli government is in the process of forcing tens of thousands of them off their land and into poor, segregated townships that look a lot like “Indian Reservations”) Israeli regulations openly codify goals to achieve “Judaization” – the promotion of Jewish settlement – in regions of the country with high Palestinian populations.

Not surprisingly, Palestinians inside Israel fare poorly by every economic and social measure compared to Jewish citizens. Unemployment is markedly higher for them and wages for those who have jobs are significantly lower; many jobs and benefits are out of their reach through formal or informal restrictions. Palestinian towns are crowded and hemmed-in by Jewish-only settlements and zoning laws that restrict residential construction. Most of Israel’s land is reserved legally for Jews and Palestinians find it almost impossible to buy or build outside of their own communities. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates are significantly worse for Palestinians.

All of this might sound familiar to the historical condition of racial minorities in the US. But in Israel there is an additional twist.

A thorough-going system of affirmative action is built-in to the Israeli legal structure, but it is a legal framework to benefit the already privileged Jewish majority. ADALAH (“Justice” in Arabic), the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel – an organization that functions somewhat like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the US – has documented more than 50 Israeli laws that favor Jews over Palestinian citizens in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures.

Jewish communities receive significantly more per-capita funding for education, health, recreation, transportation and housing; many public sector jobs are reserved specifically for Jews. Given their inferior segregated school system and the fact that entrance exams are exclusively in the Hebrew language, Palestinians also find it extremely difficult to gain entrance to Israeli universities.

Defenders of Israeli “democracy” often point out that Palestinians have the right to vote, and that is true. Three political parties represent Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Israeli Knesset, with about 10% of the seats (much lower than their percentage of the population).

But none of these parties has ever been accepted as a partner in any of the dozens of Israeli coalition governments over the years; no member has ever served in a national ministerial/cabinet post. In fact, the Palestinian parties are under constant threat of being outlawed. A recently proposed Knesset bill would remove their representation completely.

And consider the fact that Israel uses exclusively Jewish symbols in its flag and government, and its national anthem sings only about the “Jewish soul yearning to be free.” It’s as though the US adopted the Confederate Battle flag or replaced The Star-spangled Banner with “Onward Christian Soldiers”.

This is not a system that would be recognized as a democracy in any way that we understand it here in the US.

We, of course have plenty of work to do in order to achieve real equality at home. Fifty years ago, Dr. King pointed out that “the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.” As we mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March On Washington, much still needs to be done, but progress has also been achieved.

In Israel though, Palestinians continue to be literally “exiles” in their own land and to suffer legalized discrimination in many spheres of life. Should the US continue to support that system with more than $30 billion in military aid of the coming decade – especially with so many unmet needs at home?

Jeff Klein is a retired local union president and member of Dorchester People for Peace ( and board member of Mass. Peace Action; he has traveled a number of times to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories.

Originally published at  The author submitted this article to the Bay State Banner but it has so far not been published there.