Days before Israel marked its 66th anniversary, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he intends to pursue a new law that will further enshrine Israel as a Jewish State of the Jewish nation. This Basic Law was announced in the midst of a growing debate over the symbolic, practical, and realistic return of the Palestinian refugees, displaced by Israel in 1948 when the state was created. The Real News’ Lia Tarachansky profiles such projects, including a fictional anthology by the Israeli group Zochrot where short stories tell of the day after a future return. She also speaks to Nizar Ashqar, whose great great grandfather established the village of Iqrith on the Lebanese-Israeli border, to which refugees simply returned in a form of protest and a Bethlehem-based architectural project called Decolonizing Palestine. If the Palestinian refugees return Israel may no longer have a Jewish majority. To ensure Jewish control over Israel, its legislation already has many laws that discriminate between Jews and non-Jews the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says they are not enough.
LIA TARACHANSKY, PRODUCER: [inaud.] Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced during a speech at the Independence Hall that he intends to pursue a new law that will enshrine Israel as a Jewish state into the countries legislation. The announcement came only four days before Israel marks its 66th Independence Day.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I intend to pursue a new basic law that will guarantee the legislation of Israel as the state of the Jewish nation.
TARACHANSKY: Israel doesn’t have a Constitution. Instead, its Declaration of Independence serves as a sort of vague outline. It reads:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants….
Israel’s Jewish nature is therefore defined in a set of basic laws which determine who can be a citizen, what land citizens have access to, and what rights. The laws pertaining to the state’s Jewish nature were put in place in its early years, shortly after it displaced two-thirds of the Palestinians in the war of 1948. For most Israelis, the main determination of a Jewish state is a Jewish majority. Israel therefore forbids the return of these Palestinian refugees, for fear that it will tip the demographic balance currently keeping Jews in the majority. This point was put plainly by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): There isn’t a single Palestinian leader who will sign on to the end of the conflict and give up on the right of return, even if we divide not just Jerusalem, but even Tel Aviv.
TARACHANSKY: And more recently by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, when he was commenting on the end of the negotiations.
MOSHE YA’ALON, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I’m not willing to give up on what they call the right of return, and so I will not support negotiations to end the conflict and all their claims.
TARACHANSKY: For most Palestinians, the refugees’ right of return is not negotiable. In fact, many have long stopped arguing in its favor and instead focused on the question’s practicality.
In January, a unique event took place took place in a Tel Aviv bookstore, where a collection of short stories was was published in an anthology called /aʊdə/, Arabic for return. These fictional stories were written by Palestinian and Israeli authors in Hebrew and Arabic and take place in the imaginary future after the Palestinians return.
UNIDENTIFIED: I think we all understand that the Nakba is not just the result of the war of 1948 but a purposeful decision by the state of Israel to prevent the refugees’ return.
UNIDENTIFIED: The return is already here, and at the same time it’s very far away. There’s now a process of looking into the future, of planning this return. And the book is part of that.
UNIDENTIFIED: I thought to myself, it won’t end well, definitely not for the Jews here. They will stop being the landlords. And I question how many will even stay or if such an option will even be possible, as it won’t be me who decides.
UNIDENTIFIED: It’s clear to me that the stories of the Jewish and Palestinian authors have totally different bases. The Jewish authors are usually looking for the starting point of how to talk about return, and maybe they find that point by the end of the story. For Palestinians, if they don’t find a better starting point, they lean on their family history.
UNIDENTIFIED: I think it will be the beginning of another conflict, because there will be–I feel the Palestinians and Israelis will be more alike than the refugees who will come here, because the refugees will come from all kinds of places, from refugee camps, there will be the poor who haven’t even gone to school, and there will be the rich who live in Europe and can afford to come and live here.
TARACHANSKY: While the book is but an imaginary return, others practice symbolic return. The village of Iqrit lies on the Israeli border with Lebanon, and its residents were displaced in 1948. The village’s expulsion is unique, because most of its residents remain in the territory of Israel, and following a Supreme Court challenge, they actually won, allowing them the right to return to their lands. When they tried to do so, the Israeli army demolished their homes. Two generations later, its residents tired of the decades-long legal battle and simply returned. Nizar Ashqar’s great-great-grandfather established the village during the Ottoman Empire.
NIZAR ASHQAR, COMPUTER PROGRAMMER AND ACTIVIST: For me, I can’t imagine what will happen, and I don’t care what will happen. Maybe it will be A paradise here, maybe a civil war. I don’t know. But I don’t care also, because this is the right, and then rights are are not negotiable.
TARACHANSKY: The danger of the right of return to the exclusivity of a Jewish state was analyzed by the Israeli think tank Metzilah, which warned that that Israel must politicize return and turn it into an issue to be negotiated, tax used by Israeli leader since the beginning of the so-called peace process.
“[I]t is recommended that the discussion on return be shifted from the discourse of rights to the domain of political negotiations. … [A]ny recognition of the right of return may bring mass claims to return in its wake.” [emphasis in original]
“For the Palestinians, Israel is not ‘their country’ and even if it is regarded as their country, the restriction on their entry is not arbitrary. The State of Israel is entitled to prevent the entry of the Palestinians into its territory, and a fortiori the entry of their descendants….”
ASHQAR: The third generation, my age,–
TARACHANSKY: Which is your generation.
ASHQAR: –yeah–they don’t trust–like, they don’t trust the Israelis, the Israeli authorities, and they don’t want to wait for them to decide for us whether we have the right to come back or not. It’s like a symbol. It’s not the real–like, that we are now came back [incompr.] we are happy. No, we’re not. This symbolizes the return and it gives them–like, it tells the authorities that we are here, this is our land, and we won’t give it up, like, even if you put us in the worst conditions.
TARACHANSKY: And from the symbolic to the practical: another question another project of return is the work of architects Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, and Eyal Weizman, whose Bethlehem-based studio designs forms of practical return, such as this municipal plan for the currently depopulated village of Miskeh.
ALESSANDRO PETTI, ARCHITECT, DECOLONIZING PALESTINE: We wanted to engage with [incompr.] reality of the conflict over Palestine, not only critically, but also [productively]. So what we designed, what we call it: a manual of decolonization. So we are not waiting the day after. Okay? We have to be prepared.
Every time that we presented our projects, the first reaction was actually always a smile. We start to interpret the smile as the first moment where actually you can see the possibility to plan your future, the possibility of an urgency, the possibility of not just waiting, you know, the political solution.
TARACHANSKY: It is in the midst of this debate that the Israeli prime minister announced his new law. Speaking at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, he added:
NETANYAHU: For the existence of the state of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish nation, there isn’t enough definition in our basic laws. And that’s what the proposed basic law aims for. It will define the national right of the Jewish nation over the land of Israel. And it will do so without hurting the rights of any citizen.
TARACHANSKY: In today’s legal system, it’s nearly impossible to become a citizen in Israel for a non-Jewish person. Israel’s land laws prevent non-Jews from purchasing land, 13 percent of which is owned by the Jewish National Fund, which explicitly stipulates the land is to be used for the benefit of the Jewish people only.
Shortly after the mass displacement of the Palestinians in 1948, their properties and lands were confiscated by the state and redistributed to the Jewish citizens. Not one village or town was established for non-Jewish citizens in Israel, while hundreds were built for the incoming Jewish immigrants. Along with a discriminatory distribution of state funds to Arab municipalities, these conditions created huge economic and legal disparity between Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.
In a recent documentary by this journalist titled On the Side of the Road, the struggle for equality in Israel was framed simply by the extreme right-wing member of parliament David Rotem.
DAVID ROTEM, ISRAELI MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Some don’t see this state as a Jewish and democratic state and are trying to turn it into a state for all its citizens. But it won’t succeed. We will stop you.
TARACHANSKY: Netanyahu’s decision to pursue such a law therefore raises many questions, as, if Israel defines itself explicitly as a Jewish state, it would have to define who is a Jewish person–a sensitive issue debated for decades by its chief rabbis. More importantly, it would have to define what citizenship means for those who are not Jewish, and even more so for the millions of Palestinian noncitizens under Israel’s military rule in the West Bank and Gaza.
For The Real News, I’m Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv.
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