The Knesset’s (Israeli Parliament’s) Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee approved a proposal on February 29 that, if passed, will allow a vote by 90 out of 120 members of Knesset (MKs) to suspend a serving MK from their post indefinitely. There is little doubt that the proposed legislation was designed to target serving Arab MKs. Earlier this month, the Knesset’s Ethics Committee suspended three Arab MKs for periods of two to four months as punishment for meeting with families of alleged Palestinian terrorists shot dead after killing Israeli civilians. Needless to say, the Ethics Committee did not suspend Jewish MKs for similar visits—for example, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked met with the family of an alleged Jewish terrorist accused of burning the Dawabsheh family to death last year, but did not face any penalty for the visit.
The proposed law is the latest in a series of legislative efforts and policies that severely encroach on civil and political liberties in the country. But while much attention has been given to the effects these policies have had on the Israeli left and on Israeli civil society in general, the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel has disproportionately experienced the most harmful consequences of these policies.
This month’s suspension of three Arab MKs and the proposal to grant MKs the power to indefinitely suspend other elected representatives appear to be yet another step in an ongoing agenda to further marginalize and limit the right of the Arab minority in Israel to political representation. In multiple recent Knesset elections, the Israeli Central Elections Committee has banned certain Arab parties from running. While it also occasionally bans fringe Jewish parties on the far right, these are carried out on the pretext that their racist agendas undermine Israel’s democratic status. In contrast, efforts to ban Arab lists are based on their calls to change Israel’s status from a Jewish state to a state for all its citizens. The Supreme Court has repeatedly overruled such decisions, but the underlying effort to limit Arab political representation has only increased. Similarly, before the 2015 election, the Knesset raised the threshold for winning parliamentary seats from 2 percent to 3.25 percent of the vote in an attempt to block Arab parties, which tend to be very small, though this move backfired when all Arab parties united into a joint list and became the third largest bloc in the Knesset.
Civil society and freedom of association is another arena of contention. Over the past few years the Israeli government has pursued a series of anti-NGO initiatives. Proposed bills have called for revoking certain organizations’ tax-exempt statuses, denying NGO registration on political grounds, requiring pre-approval from the government for donations from foreign funders, and labeling certain nonprofits as funded by “foreign agents.” These efforts elicited concern from Israeli civil society groups, Jewish communities abroad, and foreign diplomats from the European Union and the United States. Yet while anti-NGO legislative efforts led to a public outcry, the far graver curtailment and clampdown on Arab civil society went almost unnoticed.
On November 17, 2015, the Israeli Security Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declared the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel an illegal organization. The Islamic Movement, a sister organization to the Muslim Brotherhood that has been active in Israel since the 1970s, has worked over the years in Islamic dawa, social and community work, and political activism. While membership figures are not available, a 2015 survey found that over 40 percent of Palestinian citizens of Israel say they support the Islamic Movement. Efforts to outlaw the northern branch began in 1996, when it launched its “Al-Aqsa is in Danger” campaign, which alleged that Israel plans to change the status quo in al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Yet the Israeli security services have repeatedly argued that the movement has no links to terrorism or to illegal activity and that outlawing it will only lead to radicalization. The ban on the movement has far-reaching implications for its hundreds of affiliated civil society associations and tens of thousands of activists. Activists can now be arrested just for being members of the movement, and the assets of affiliated organization can be confiscated. The security cabinet decision criminalizes “any entity or person belonging to this organization, as well as any person who gives it service, or who acts on its behalf.”
The threshold for outlawing an Arab association is blatantly much lower than the one for Jewish organizations. When Israeli governments have created legal barriers for Jewish movements in the past, such as the extreme-right Kach and Kahana Chai movements, they have declared these “terrorist organizations” based on evidence of engagement in or incitement of terrorist activity. In the case of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, however, a sweeping ban was adopted even in the absence of any evidence of a link to terrorism.
Even free speech in artistic and cultural expression has come under fire. For example, the “Nakba Law” adopted in 2011 enables the Ministry of Finance to cut funding for any public institution including schools that commemorates the Nakba, what Palestinians consider their national tragedy. While the law does not specify Arab institutions and schools as its primary target, it places a disproportionate burden on them by penalizing the expression of a major component of Palestinian cultural identity.
Likewise, the “Boycott Law” of 2011 bans Israeli citizens and organizations from calling for a boycott not only of Israel, but also of its settlements in the occupied territories. It opens boycott supporters to civil lawsuits and threatens state-supported cultural, educational, and scientific institutions with budget cuts and revoked tax exemptions. The minister for sport and culture, Miri Regev, has recently declared that she will work to include a new funding criterion for budgetary support that will fine state-funded cultural institutions that refuse to participate in cultural activities in settlements. Minister Regev threatened to cut funding for the theater of Palestinian-Israeli actor Norman Issa, for example, who declared that his troupe will not perform in the settlements. Issa subsequently backtracked on his refusal. Again, while the language of such laws and policies has addressed all Israeli citizens, in effect they disproportionately affect Arab citizens.
Minister Regev has also proposed the “Loyalty in Culture” bill, which would deny funding to cultural institutions displaying “disloyalty” to the state through such actions as commemorating the Nakba, undermining Israel’s Jewish democratic identity, or inciting terrorism or racism. Yet given the plethora of Jewish organizations, educators, and politicians who advocate for the preference of Israel’s Judaism over its democracy—and Regev’s own incitement of racism—the proposal seems to be sending a message to Arab citizens and those who might sympathize with them.
Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett has likewise sought to silence political dissent in cultural expression, removing plays or books he has deemed inappropriate from mandatory and elective school programming. Haifa’s Al-Midan Theater, the only publicly funded Arab theater in the country, was the primary target of sanctions. Even when the minister appeared not to target Arabs specifically—for example, when he banned a novel by a Jewish author from the mandatory school curriculum—it was because the novel portrayed a romantic affair between an Arab and a Jew.
Considered together, the proposed bills, passed legislation, policies, and initiatives of successive Israeli governments under Benjamin Netanyahu amount to a concerted assault on the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The growing infringement on the civil and political freedoms of 20 percent of Israel’s population continues to undermine Israel’s liberal democratic credentials. But it is unlikely that the shrinking space for political dissent will remain confined to the minority population.
With the government’s growing intolerance toward dissent, some Jewish civil society organizations have also faced attacks or restrictions (although not as severe as Arab organizations such as the Islamic Movement). The human rights organizations B’Tselem, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, and the Center for the Defense of the Individual (HaMoked) have all come under attack from right-wing organizations with ties to parties in the ruling coalition. Minister Bennett has banned the veteran Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers’ Breaking the Silence organization, which exposes the moral toll of the occupation, from lecturing in schools and the army, and a group of MKs has proposed a bill to outlaw the organization. The government’s targeting of the civil and political rights of Arab citizens should raise alarm not only because it attacks a minority population, but also because of its implications for the viability of democratic opposition in the country.