Historical Background

Establishment of the state | Military rule | 1967 and after | State discrimination | Oslo accords | Al-Aqsa intifada and October 2000 | Commission of inquiry


Today, Palestinian citizens of Israel comprise close to 20% of the total population of the country, numbering over 1,000,000. They live predominantly in villages, towns, and mixed Arab-Jewish cities in the Galilee region in the north, the Triangle area in central Israel, and the Naqab (Negev) desert in the south. A part of the Palestinian people who currently live in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Diaspora, they belong to three religious communities: Muslim (81%), Christian (10%), and Druze (9%). Under international instruments to which Israel is a state party, they constitute a national, ethnic, linguistic, and religious minority.

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Establishment of the state

In 1947, the Palestinians comprised some 67% of the population of Palestine. On 14 May 1948, the State of Israel was established. During the Arab-Israeli war that immediately followed, approximately 780,000 of the pre-1948 Palestinian population fled or were expelled, forced to become refugees in the neighboring Arab states and in the West. Of the 150,000 Palestinians who remained in the new state, approximately 25% were displaced from their homes and villages and became internally displaced persons as the Israeli army destroyed over 400 Arab villages. As a result of the war, the Palestinian population in Israel found itself disoriented and severely weakened. They had been effectively transformed from members of a majority population to a minority in an exclusively Jewish state. They lacked political as well as economic power, as their leadership, as well as their professional and middle classes, were refused the right to return and compelled to live outside of the state.

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Military rule: 1946-1966

From the state's inception, the Jewish majority viewed the Palestinians who remained within the state suspiciously and frequently with hostility - as part of the Arab world, as a potential fifth column, and oftentimes simply as enemies of the state. From 1948 to 1966, the Palestinians in Israel lived under military rule applied only to them, despite the fact that they were formally declared citizens of the state in 1948.

Military rule placed tight controls on all aspects of life for the Palestinian minority. These measures of control included severe restrictions on movement, prohibitions on political organization, limitations on job opportunities, and censorship of publications. For example, in 1956, the Israeli army killed 49 Palestinian farmers in Kufr Kasem for "violating" the curfew imposed on their village. Unaware that a curfew had been ordered, the farmers were returning home from working their agricultural lands when they were killed. Substantial demonstrations on the anniversary of the massacre in 1957 marked the first time that Palestinians in Israel had organized on a large scale to protest the state's repressive policies. Up to 1965, attempts by the Palestinian community in Israel to form political parties to run for the Knesset, such as the El Ard (The Land) Movement, were forcibly stopped and their associations outlawed.

The Israeli authorities also confiscated massive amounts of Palestinian-owned lands. As the majority of the Palestinian community traditionally relied on agriculture as their main source of income, state expropriation of lands forced Palestinians to seek work as wage-labors and thus become primarily dependent on the Israeli economy. Prior to 1948, the Jewish community owned just 6-7% of the land. During the next four decades, 80% of lands owned by Palestinians living in Israel were confiscated and placed at the exclusive disposal of Jewish citizens. Today, 93% of all land in Israel  is under direct state control.

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1967 and after

Military rule was lifted in 1966. One year later, following the war in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Jerusalem. As a result Palestinians in Israel regained contacts with Palestinians in these areas. From this time and throughout the first Intifada (1987-1993), Palestinian citizens of Israel confined their struggle to a civic one and restricted their national effort to events in the Occupied Territories.

Other struggles throughout the 1970s and 1980s included long strikes organized by mayors of Arab municipalities to protest paltry budget allocations for basic services and demonstrations over land confiscations. Of particular importance was the call for a general strike in 1976, following a wave of land expropriations in the Galilee area. These expropriations were part of the governmental plan to expand the existing Jewish settlements and to establish new ones in order to reach a "demographic balance" in areas where Palestinians constituted a majority. Protests erupted in the Galilee, during which Israeli security forces killed six Palestinian citizens and wounded hundreds more. Every year on 30 March, Land Day, Palestinians in Israel commemorate their collective struggle against land confiscation and dispossession.

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State discrimination

Israel never sought to assimilate or integrate the Palestinian population, treating them as second-class citizens and excluding them from public life and the public sphere. The state practiced systematic and institutionalized discrimination in all areas, such as land dispossession and allocation, education, language, economics, culture, and political participation.

Successive Israeli governments maintained tight control over the community, attempting to suppress Palestinian/Arab identity and to divide the community within itself. To that end, Palestinians are not defined by the state as a national minority despite UN Resolution 181 calling for such; rather they are referred to as "Israeli Arabs," "non-Jews," or by religious affiliation.

Further attempts have been made to split the Palestinian community into "minorities within a minority" through separate educational curricula, disparate employment and academic opportunities, and the selective conscription of Druze and some Bedouin men to military service. Israeli discourse has legitimated the second-class status of Palestinian citizens on the basis that the minority population does not serve in the military; however, the selective conscription of Druze and some Bedouin has not prevented discrimination against them.

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Oslo accords

Despite historical marginalization and overwhelming disparities, many Palestinian citizens believed that their situation would improve with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. However, the 1990s brought many shifts in the political atmosphere which affected the situation of the Palestinian minority. Under Labor-led governments, Arab political parties held a balance of power, and the government occasionally accounted for those Palestinian concerns that did not challenge the structure of the state. When the Likud or unity coalition governments held power, Palestinian citizens were faced with decreasing budgets, special programs exclusively established for Jewish communities and institutions, and heightened institutional discrimination.

These political shifts have been exacerbated by the problems that the Palestinian minority has faced post-Oslo. The promise and hopes that were briefly raised have not been met with concrete benefits for Palestinian citizens of Israel. In fact, the widely-held view that the peace process would act as a springboard to alleviating or at least addressing the problems of the Palestinian minority did not materialize. Palestinians in Israel found themselves excluded from the peace process, and their civic and socio-economic status unilaterally neglected. Indeed the Oslo Accords have redefined and limited the "Palestinian question" to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, excluding Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as the entire refugee population in the Diaspora from any substantive dialogue.

The realization that their concerns would not be met through the Oslo process brought an increase in political protest on the part of the Palestinian minority. Palestinians demonstrated in large numbers in 1998 in Umm al-Sahali following the court-ordered and state-executed demolition of Palestinian homes, and in Umm al-Fahem after the army attempted to expropriate Palestinian land for use as a military training area. Both protests resulted in violent clashes with the police. As a result of the events in Umm al-Fahem, which went on for three days, hundreds of Palestinians including students, were injured by tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition after the police stormed the high school. Students also protested at universities, demonstrating on numerous issues such as tuition increases and other academic issues; violence against the Palestinian community; and national identity concerns.

The post-Oslo period has also been characterized by a substantial decline in economic stability of the Palestinian minority. The Palestinian community already faced a high rate of unemployment: as of July 2000, the localities with the highest rates of unemployment were all Arab, and the situation has worsened since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada.  The ongoing high rate of unemployment compounds the ill effects of discrimination. The poverty statistics for the Palestinian minority are equally chilling, as after social security payments, 37.6% of Palestinian citizens of Israel remained below the poverty line in 1998-1999.

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Al-Aqsa Intifada and the events of October 2000

In September 2000, two months after the failed Camp David accords, Ariel Sharon, then a Member of the Knesset (MK), visited the Haram al-Sharif compound, site of the al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem. Over the course of the next two days, Israeli security forces killed and injured tens of Palestinian worshippers and demonstrators throughout the Occupied Territories. The uprising that began with Sharon's provocative visit to assert Israeli sovereignty over the disputed area and the resulting demonstrations throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories has become known as the al-Aqsa Intifada.

Following these events in the Occupied Territories, Palestinians in Israel called for a general strike in early October to express solidarity with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians demonstrated in massive numbers in Arab towns and villages throughout the country, resulting in more than 1,000 arrests, with hundreds indicted and detained without bail until the end of trial, many of whom were minors. During street demonstrations in early October 2000, Israeli police used live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas against the unarmed protestors; hundreds were injured and 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed. The al-Aqsa Intifada events marked the first time in decades that such brutal violence was used by Israeli police against Palestinian citizens of the state.

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Commission of inquiry

In November 2000, the Israeli government, headed by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, announced the establishment of a three-member Commission of Inquiry ("the Commission"), in accordance with the Commissions of Inquiry Law (1968). The mandate of the Commission is to investigate the clashes between the security forces and Arab and Jewish citizens, which culminated in the death and injury of Israeli citizens starting from 29 September 2000. It further calls for an investigation into the behavior of the inciters, organizers and participants in the events from all sectors, and the security forces.

The Commission sets a precedent in Israeli legal history. This is the first time a Commission has been established to investigate police violence against the Palestinian minority, although the Palestinian community has demanded such commissions in the past. As a result of the Commission, serious questions have been raised regarding the credibility of the police force as a whole. Testimonies heard by the Commission to date shed important light on the relationship between Palestinian citizens and the state, and Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. As it stands, the state-sanctioned use of force against Palestinian citizens calls into question Israel's commitment to democracy, and highlights the problems of Palestinian engagement with state institutions.

Along with the establishment of the Commission, the February 2001 direct election of MK Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister was another pivotal moment for the Palestinian minority. For Palestinian citizens of Israel, the choice between Barak and Sharon afforded no political option, as both candidates touted a Zionist agenda that explicitly and implicitly relegated Palestinians to second-class citizenship and continued the policies of occupation in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. For the first time, most of Palestinian community boycotted the election (only 23% voted, less than a third of the typical turnout by the community) by staying home from the polls or submitting blank ballots. The unity government subsequently created by Sharon is facing the end of the Oslo process, as political negotiations have broken down and massive violence rages in the Occupied Territories.

UN ECOSOC