Disregard for Palestinian life has characterized the attitudes of Israeli authorities towards its Arab citizens since the establishment of the state. The Palestinians constitute what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, according to which the laws of humanity do not apply to them. For Israel, the Palestinians exist in conditions of “bare life”. Their minimal existence is tolerated but not enhanced. Invariably, the law is suspended when it comes to rectifying Palestinian grievances. Israel is usually quick to cite “national security” as justification for its lethal actions. Life for Palestinian citizens of the state is in a perpetual state of emergency where exception to the universal application of the law is the rule. As a colonial state, life in Israel is best viewed from a racialized prism where ethnicity and race govern the treatment of its citizens. As in all colonial regimes, territory and population are the two central elements which occupy the colonizer, and Israel is no exception. Both of these components provide the cornerstone of modern Zionism. Debates about demography, population, and settlements are the logical expressions of Zionism, and they will continue to be its cornerstone until Israel achieves its objectives of getting rid of as many of its Palestinian citizens as possible and bringing more land under its control.
When the law is applied (even minimally) in rare situations, it is a proof that the exception is the rule. For example, a policeman who shot and killed an Arab citizen in 2006 was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment – and this was an exception. In the majority of cases loss of life on the part of Palestinians at the hands of the state is treated with indifference. The lenient sentencing associated with criminal behavior of members of the security establishment is further evidence of total disregard for Arab life inside Israel. Indeed, this was the only case in which any policeman or soldier was indicted since the mass protests of October 2000. In spite of the fact that 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed during the demonstrations, no indictments were ever filed against any of the policemen involved, and all the cases were closed by the attorney general. Worse still, none of the mild recommendations of the Or Commission of inquiry, concerning ways to close the gaps between Jews and Arabs in many different realms of life in Israel, were ever implemented by the government.
Dehumanizing Palestinians takes its place in standard Israeli rhetoric among members of the ruling establishment, and to a very large extent among the public at large – young and old – as revealed in countless public opinion polls. In August 2000, Ehud Barak called the Palestinians “crocodiles.” One-time Israeli chief of staff Moshe Yalon described them as a “cancerous manifestation,” and equated the military action in the Occupied Territories with “chemotherapy.” In March 2001, the Israeli tourism minister at the time, the late Rehavem Ze’evi, called Yasser Arafat a “scorpion.”
After Hamas won the majority of seats in 2007 in internationally supervised democratic elections, Israel tightened its grip on the Occupied Palestinian Territories and embarked on a systematic policy of collective punishment by cutting off the flow of funds and drastically reducing the food supply and other essentials to Gaza – all in the name of “security.” Dov Weissglasse, who had been Israel’s point man in advising successive Israeli prime ministers on policy towards the Palestinians, described the choking off of the food supply and other essential goods to Gaza’s population of 1.2 million people as akin to a “diet regime.” In 2006 he quipped cynically: “It is like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die.” Rafael Eytan, a former Israeli chief of staff, referred to the Palestinians as “cockroaches in a bottle.” Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin called them “two-legged beasts.” A decade ago, the Shas party leader suggested that God should send the Palestinian “ants” to hell and called them “serpents.” More recently, in August 2010, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef pronounced that “God should strike” the Palestinians “with a plague.” Dan Schueftan, a professor at Tel-Aviv University, wrote in Maariv in October 2009 that “the Arabs are the biggest failure in the history of the human race. There’s nothing under the sun that’s more screwed up than the Palestinians.”
These individual positions are embedded in public opinion, where data released in September revealed that sixty four percent of Israeli teens aged 15 to 18 admitted that Arabs in Israel do not enjoy full equal rights in Israel, and from that group, 59 percent believe that they should not have full equal rights.
In October 2009, Netanyahu declared that the Jewishness of the state must be acknowledged by the Palestinians as a prerequisite for peace. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister and an avowed racist, declared at the United Nations in New York on October 2010 that “without recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, we simply cannot reach peace.” The implication of this theocratic stance is clear: it rules out the return of any Palestinian refugees to their homes in Israel, and it robs non-Jewish citizens of the state of their universal human rights.
At best, the Palestinians in Israel are treated as a “suspect community” that has to be closely watched by the state’s various institutions and the Jewish public. The Zionist project remains in full throttle, and in line with the dream of the founders of the state, current and future leadership will not rest until the Palestinian presence in Israel is significantly reduced. According to Lieberman’s latest statements at the United Nations, this means swapping territory with a large Arab population in Israel with a Bantustan Palestinian state in the West Bank. Subsequently, the ongoing peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel are an imaginary project for achieving genuine peace, unless Palestinian leadership totally succumbs to Israeli dictates with the aid of the US government.
Elia Zureik is Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. This article originally appeared in Mada Al-Carmel’s October, 2010 issue of Jadal, a bimonthly online publication that gives voice to the major political and social concerns of the Palestinians in Israel.