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For many Palestinian citizens of Israel, judicial battle leaves them out

2023-04-04T15:17:20Z

A man holds an Israeli flag as he stands in front of a large picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration against proposed judicial reforms by Israel’s new right-wing government in Tel Aviv, Israel January 28, 2023. REUTERS/Corinna Kern/File Photo

A plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to limit powers of the Supreme Court sparked huge protests across Israel before it was put on hold last week, but the country’s Palestinian citizens have largely remained on the sidelines.

The plans to overhaul the judiciary caused one of the biggest domestic crises in Israel’s 75-year history, triggering a wave of protest that forced the government to call a temporary halt to allow more discussion.

They have pitted opponents who see the plans as a threat to democratic checks and balances against supporters, who say they would rein in activist judges who have usurped the authority of elected governments.

With parliament now in recess, President Isaac Herzog has been facilitating negotiations on a possible compromise.

Arab citizens of Israel make up a sizeable 21% minority and would be among those most impacted by the planned judicial overhaul, given the sway of the courts on decisions vital to their interests.

Lawmaker Mansour Abbas of the United Arab List, the first Arab-led party to join a ruling coalition, said Arab citizens owe the Supreme Court their representation in parliament. If the government’s proposal is ratified, “you will not find a single Arab party in the Knesset”, he said in a radio interview.

Still, even as the demonstrations intensified, pulling in the country’s main labour union and members of the military, Palestinian citizens largely took a back seat.

Many said they felt that issues they care about, such as ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian areas including East Jerusalem and the West Bank, were largely ignored by the demonstrations, with only a tiny minority of protesters drawing attention to the Palestinian issue.

“Whenever they demonstrate in Tel Aviv, regrettably, not all the demonstrators understand that there is no democracy under a situation of oppressing a minority, a big minority, of confiscating land and demolishing houses,” said Aida Touma-Sliman, a Palestinian member of the Jewish-Arab Hadash party in parliament.

Last week, some 2,000 Arab citizens of Israel held their own demonstration in the northern city of Sakhnin, marking the annual commemoration of Land Day, when Israeli forces shot six Arab citizens during protests in 1976 over a government attempt to confiscate large swathes of their land.

Most Arab citizens of Israel are descendants of Palestinians who remained within the newly founded state after the 1948 war. When Israel celebrates its independence, many mourn the dispossession of some 750,000 Palestinians around the war as the “Nakba”, or catastrophe.

The Israeli government placed Palestinians who remained under military rule for almost 20 years, restricting their movement and transferring some of their land to state ownership.

Toufiq Ibrahim Kanaaneh, a retired 86-year-old carpenter, said despite being granted citizenship after the state was founded in 1948, he needed a military-issued permit to travel from his town until 1981.

Even when Palestinian citizens rely on the top court to advocate for their rights, many see it as part of a system that seeks to maintain the control of one national group over another, said Adalah attorney Adi Mansour.

That the freeze in legislation came in exchange for an agreement to form a national guard under far-right minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to focus on unrest in Arab areas was especially worrying, and would only compound tensions, Mansour added.

On Saturday, police shot dead a 26-year-old medical student from the Bedouin town Hura in southern Israel for allegedly grabbing a police officer’s gun and firing it, an account his family and Arab leaders dispute.

As Jewish Israelis debate the future identity of their state, “eventually, we are the ones who pay the price”, said Mansour.

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