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Separate and unequal: How Israel segregates its own citizens inside the Green Line

The pending demolitions of Khan Al-Ahmar and Susiya, two Palestinian communities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, along with the forced expulsion of their inhabitants, have been attracting international concern and protests.

Similarly, the recent eviction of a Palestinian family to make way for Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem, prompted widespread condemnation (though, of course, no practical steps of censure or sanction).

In all three cases, the Israeli authorities and settlers deploy a variety of legal tools to dress up displacement and colonisation as merely “respect for the law” and “due process”.

But while such policies in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) have been widely denounced, even by the state’s allies, there is a profound lack of awareness about how Israel segregates its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, inside the Green Line – and the mechanisms used to do so.

A recent episode, one which barely registered any media coverage, offers an opportunity to understand how Israel’s institutionalised discrimination relates to land and housing rights.

A country club taken to court

Earlier this month, an Israeli court rejected a claim of discrimination brought by a Palestinian citizen, after he was refused membership of a Jewish community’s country club. According to the court, Kochav Ya’ir municipality is entitled to reserve 90 per cent of the subscriptions to its country club for town residents, “with the remainder available to Jewish and Arab residents of neighbouring towns”.

Dr Ahmed Mansour, from nearby Tira, filed a petition against Kochav Ya’ir’s municipality after the country club’s consistent refusal to accept Arab members. In response, the community changed its rules to exclude all non-residents – Arab and Jewish. According to the judge, such restrictions save a “homogenous” community the costs of “enforcing behavioural norms on non-residents”.

In an article published by Israeli newspaper Haaretz in August on the case, local residents were clear about the motivation for the rule change. “We don’t want the Arabs to swim with us,” said one. “When they were here, it wasn’t pleasant.” She added: “It’s no big deal if that’s the price our Jewish brothers [outside the local council] have to pay.”

At a 2010 council meeting, one resident concluded: “Since we can’t deny only Arabs from being members, the residents of…[neighbouring Jewish communities] are harmed.” A resident of a nearby Jewish town was sympathetic:

Jews and Arabs aren’t the same thing. They don’t deserve to swim with us. I’d rather they don’t go in the pool, even if it means I can’t use it.

Admission committees and segregating space

The case of Kochav Ya’ir–Tzur Yig’al (its full name reflects a merging of two communities in 2003) is illustrative of far deeper, systematic discrimination than a rural country club. Want to keep Palestinians out of your swimming pool? No problem, restrict access to residents only. And why is that a solution? Because non-Jews are prevented from living in the community in the first place.

Admission committees are a core component of Israel’s segregated land and housing system – in the words of Israeli paper The Marker, they keep hundreds of rural communities “off limits” to Palestinian citizens. Yet few outside observers – including those justifiably outraged by displacement in the West Bank – appreciate how they function, or even know of their existence.

A rare exception to this silence was a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch, which described how the committees “determine who can gain admittance to all communities of fewer than 500 households”, based on “vague criteria”. The committees, it went on, “have notoriously been used to exclude Arabs from living in rural Jewish communities”.

Rules introduced in 2010 by the Israel Land Authority “stressed the regulatory right of the regional committee to reject applicants on the grounds that their acceptance ‘will create another community within the present community in a way that would harm its character’.”

As Israeli academic Marcelo Svirsky drily commented: “The discursive creativity of the discriminator is to be admired; not an explicit racist word and yet a whole world of racism implicated in it.”

In 2011, the Israeli parliament passed the “Admissions Committees Law”, affirming the role of the committees in 43 per cent of all towns in Israel. In 2014, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition against the law, and in so doing, the petitioners said, “legalise[d] the principle of segregation in housing between Arab and Jewish citizens”.

A 2013 article by Seth Frantzman in the Jerusalem Post describes the committees as “a uniquely Israeli invention; no other country in the world allows 90 per cent of its rural communities to operate committees that restrict who may live in them”. This “affront to human dignity” is all the worse for the fact that “their proceedings are kept secret and no data on their decisions are published”.

Frantzman adds:

What is most shocking is that Jews would never tolerate such a situation in another country. In France, Germany, Russia, the UK, Australia, Argentina or the US, Jews would never tolerate being asked about their religion, ethnic background, politics and marital status before being ‘allowed’ to move to a suburban neighbourhood.

While the admission committees ensure that rural communities remain Jewish, the regional councils ensure that these communities play a role in securing spatial control far disproportionate to their population size. For, in the words of Israeli professor Yehouda Shenhav, the regional councils are no ordinary local government entity but “operate on policy developed in settlers’ societies”.

In the Galilee, regional councils with a Jewish Ashkenazi majority control over 63 per cent of the land, but are populated by just “six per cent of the area’s population”. While Palestinian citizens constitute 72 per cent of the region’s population, their local councils control just 16 per cent of the land. “Segregation within the Green Line is no less than the segregation across it,” Shenhav observes.

Judaising the Galilee, blurring the Green Line

Such an observation rings all the truer in light of the history of Kochav Ya’ir–Tzur Yig’al. The latter was created in 1991 as part of then-Housing Minister Ariel Sharon’s “Seven Stars Plan”, whose aim was to establish new Jewish towns next to the Green Line “with the declared intention of its consequent eradication” (a goal acknowledged on the municipality’s website).

At the time, the Seven Stars Plan was described by Israeli activist Michal Schwartz as “the largest such Judaisation plan ever to be approved”. Schwartz told a United Nations meeting that “the aim of the plan was not only to enhance Jewish population, but to curb Arab population growth”, and was initially “kept secret from the Arab heads of local councils and mayors”.

These Judaisation drives are ongoing. In August, it was reported that “Israel’s executive arm for settlement construction has begun advancing plans for new Jewish communities in the Galilee…in a declared effort to create a demographic balance between Jews and Arabs in the northern region.”

In the southern Naqab/Negev region, meanwhile, Bedouin Palestinian citizens experience routine demolitions and displacement. In Umm Al-Hiran, an entire community is seemingly doomed to destruction, specifically in order for a new Jewish town to be established on its ruins.

Separate and unequal

Around 90 per cent of Israel’s Palestinian citizens live in Arab towns. Even in so-called “mixed cities”, “Arabs and Jews are residentially segregated and reside in different neighbourhoods, similarly to the regional and national segregation in Israel since the establishment of the state.” The admission committees and regional councils are instrumental parts of the “separate and unequal” status quo.

In 2012, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, returned from a visit to Israel, where she reported that she had witnessed “a land development model that excludes, discriminates against and displaces minorities”. This model, Rolnik added, “is being replicated in the occupied territory, affecting Palestinian communities.”

However, while the discrimination faced by Palestinians under military occupation is attracting increasing attention and criticism, the reality inside the Green Line is almost entirely neglected. Correcting this state of affairs would not just shine a light on a serious injustice, but help illuminate the core issues that require tackling if there is ever to be equal rights for all in Israel and the oPt.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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