By Farah Najjar
Palestinian citizens of Israel are planning a series of actions, including a general strike and international campaigning, in a bid to cancel a controversial law that defines the country exclusively as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
Palestinian members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, described the legislation’s adoption on July 19 as an effort to sabotage the Palestinian “story and narrative.”
“It’s an attempt at destroying the entire rhetoric of historic Palestine … it stands against an entire people,” MK Ahmad Tibi, told Al Jazeera.
The Basic Law, which has standing similar to a constitution, gives only Jews the right to self-determination. It also strips Arabic of its official language designation, downgrading it to a “special status” that enables its continued use within Israeli institutions.
Additionally, it allows the Israeli government to expand the state’s annexation of Palestinian lands in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The law considers the expansion of the Jewish-only settlements a national value, encouraging and promoting their construction.
Adopted with 62 votes for and 55 against, the law has been met with widespread condemnation. Critics compare it to apartheid, saying it promotes ethnic superiority and further marginalises some 1.8 million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and other smaller minorities.
“We now expect to see a storm of legal proposals that are racist in nature,” MK Aida-Touma Suleiman told Al Jazeera. “We must be ready to face them and fight them in parliament and on the public level as well”.
‘Battle of fate’
Since the law’s adoption, the High Follow-up Committee – a representative body for the Palestinian citizens of Israel – has been meeting to discuss a way to respond.
The various political factions within the committee have unanimously agreed to launch a series of counter-actions.
The first is scheduled for August 8 when Palestinians from various cities will attempt to block the main street where the Knesset building lies in Jerusalem during an extraordinary session called for by the Joint List, an alliance of four predominantly Arab parties in the Israeli parliament.
The committee will also soon announce the “national day of anti-apartheid”, Tibi said. A petition to cancel the law will be distributed soon, with the aim of garnering at least 500,000 signatures. A general strike is also on the works.
“The aim is to portray the impact of the day-to-day contributions,” said Tibi.
“We’re also considering the possibility of reading out our speeches in Arabic during upcoming parliamentary sessions, in protest of the revocation of the status of Arabic as an official language,” he said.
Organisers said the moves are meant to help escalate the “struggle” to a national, political and international level – not just in parliament.
“The Knesset to us has never been a place of privilege. It has served merely as one of the various spaces where we battle, struggle and strife,” Suleiman said.
“It’s going to be a long battle but it’s not impossible … it is a battle of fate,” she said, describing the difficult path towards scrapping the law.
Apart from campaigning locally, the legislators have so far pencilled in a meeting with European Union officials in Brussels and also plan on working with various United Nations bodies and the global organisation of national parliaments.
Earlier this week, Zouheir Bahloul of the Labour Party resigned in protest against the law, bringing the number of Palestinian MKs down to 17, out of a total of 120. His party, which is part of the Zionist Union list and alliance, voted in favour of the legislation.
“The law oppresses me and oppresses the population that sent me to the Knesset,” Bahloul said.
“The government submits the Knesset to its whims. The Knesset has become a rubber stamp of exceptional and racist legislation. I will run from it as one runs from raging fire,” he added.
For Suleiman and Tibi, whose parties are members of the Joint List, Bahloul’s resignation was inevitable.
“There are Zionist parties with Arab MKs that voted in favour of the bill – that is the danger of joining a Zionist camp; it should never be the case,” Tibi said.
Palestinian citizens of Israel make up about 20 percent of the country’s population.
According to Tibi, they have long been treated as inferior to Jewish citizens – and the new law will make this even easier.
“Israel was never democratic to begin with,” he said. “It was racist in its policies, actions and laws. What’s new is that this law is a Basic Law.”
When Israel defined itself as “Jewish and democratic” in 1958, the “Jewish nature” of the state had always been a point that Palestinians adamantly opposed, added Tibi.
But the law took it a step further. “It is the definition of apartheid,” he said.
“We want to say to the international community that there is a Basic Law that institutionalises apartheid and we demand steps to be taken.”
With hopes to attain a new vote in parliament, a motion to either scrap it entirely or reformulate its language requires at least 61 votes.
In conjunction, Palestinian MKs plan to appeal to Israel’s top court, Suleiman and Tibi confirmed.
However, experts say neither a Supreme Court ruling nor a call to the international community is going to change the reality on the ground for Palestinians.
Diana Buttu, a lawyer and policy adviser at Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, said the EU and the UN can only issue condemnations, but that would be the “extent of it” owing to the US’ Security Council veto.
Since coming to office, US President Donald Trump has been developing an even warmer relationship with Israel than previous US presidents.
From recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital amid talks of the “deal of the century”, the passing of the law seemed to come at an optimal timing, said Buttu, echoing Suleiman’s and Tibi’s views.
Buttu also noted the Israeli Supreme Court has a history of siding with the “Jewish” component when ruling in cases brought forward by Palestinians against the state.
“In the past, they have [Israeli courts] confronted this fundamental tension by always favouring the side of Jewish and not the side of democracy,” Buttu told Al Jazeera, citing the admissions committee law passed seven years ago, which permits smaller Jewish communities to market state lands and determine prerequisites for residency.
In almost half of the Israeli towns, residential admission committees have therefore continued to filter out Palestinian applicants on the grounds of “incompatibility with the social and cultural fabric”.
“This law is among at least 50 other discriminatory laws … And in the rulings has always fallen on the side of Jewish, rather than on the side of being democratic,” Buttu said.
With the recently enacted nation-state bill, Buttu said to issue similar rulings from now on will only become “that much easier”.
“Now clearly, they’re saying: apartheid, formalised,” she said. “This [law] was only to make it official.”
Buttu attributes the passing of the bill to the Supreme Court’s precedents and its previous rulings.
“The entire reason that this bill has been allowed to progress so far is because the Israeli Supreme Court has allowed Israel to be as racist as it wants to be,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Palestinian MKs remain adamant to find a way to either cancel the legislation or change its language.
“Our story is stronger than their law,” Tibi said.