Denying Palestinians a Voice

Israel’s elections rebuffed the hard-right politics of recent years, but the new government is still unlikely to stop Jewish settlers from seizing Palestinian land or to recognize equality for Arabs, many of whom have no say in the Israeli occupation that constrains their lives, reports Dennis J. Bernstein.

By Dennis J. Bernstein

There has been extensive coverage in the U.S. press of the recent election in Israel, but almost no mention of the fact that some 4.3 million Palestinians, who live under Israeli Occupation, had no say in the process that will surely affect their futures.

In the American news media from the liberal MSNBC to the right-wing Fox it is just taken for granted that these people should have no meaningful voice. They are simply part of the scenery, dependent on whether Israel will let them have some quasi-state on scraps of land that Israeli settlers haven’t taken.

A panoramic view of the Israeli settlement of Ariel on the Occupied West Bank. (Photo credit: Beivushtang via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet, outside the areas inhabited by the Palestinians on the same West Bank hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers were allowed to vote and, indeed, several major parties catered specifically to the settlers’ desire to take more Palestinian land.

In other words, the people who have taken West Bank land in defiance of international law had the right to vote on what will happen to that territory, while those who are entitled to the land under international law remain effectively voiceless.

Yusef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Palestine Center, described this “massive” voter disenfranchisement of Palestinians, saying: “What you have today between the river and the sea, the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, are approximately ten million people. They are governed by the state of Israel.

“Only half of them are truly represented by that state as Jewish Israelis, the other half are either treated as second-class [Arab] citizens who are largely discriminated against in various ways, or have no right to vote for the system that governs them.”

DB: Let’s go through this carefully: maybe we can make the point this way, I think there are about 4.3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza [including children]. How many of them voted in this election?

YM: Actually, none of them voted in this election. Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza do not have Israeli citizenship, even though their lives are controlled by the Israeli state.

DB: So, let me go through this, in Ramallah and the West Bank there are 400,000 potential voters there. And how many voted?

YM: None.

DB: None. And in Nablus there’s 150,000 potential voters, how many voted there?

YM: None, again.

DB: And, Al-Khalil [Hebron], about 250,000? How many ballots were cast there?

YM: Absolutely none.

DB: I could go down the line…

YM: Well, I should actually make a point of correction there. Ah, in Al-Khalil

DB: The settlers…

YM: ….exactly. The settlers had the privilege of voting because they are treated as Israeli citizens, of course they are Israeli citizens but their neighbors, Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territory could not. So, you know, the few hundred Israeli settlers living amongst a mass of Palestinians, in a city like Hebron, have a greater say in determining the policies of the government that is impacting, directly, the lives of Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Whereas the Palestinians themselves have no say in the system, at all.

DB: And I assume that given all the expansion of illegal settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank, there’s probably going to be a lot more voters, but they’re all going to be Jewish from Israel.

YM: Well, it’s an important thing to kind of keep track of, … the demographics, across the board, showed that settlers and particularly the religious communities within Israel … and there tends to be a lot of overlap in those categories. The birth rates there are the highest. It’s a very fast growing community, and they continue to play an outsized role, in determining who gets to be in government and, in turn, what the make up of coalitions end up looking like. It’s not surprising given this reality that really only the right wing in Israel is able to put together a coalition.

DB: Now, how many Palestinians are living inside what is considered Israel, now, inside the green line?

YM: Well, there are over 1.2 million Palestinians, who are inside Israel today. It should be noted that these Palestinians did not cross a border, the border crossed them. They are the original inhabitants of the territory that were there prior to 1948 that managed to survive the massive depopulation that took place from 1947 to 1949 to make way for the Jewish majoritarian State of Israel. Today they number about 1.2 million, or about 20 percent of Israel’s population.

DB: Do we have any indication of how they voted? Were they strong in support of Netanyahu or …?

YM: No, certainly not. There is a divide within the community of Palestinian citizens in Israel. Many of them feel that they should not take part in any way in a Israeli political system which is, you know, by nature geared against the very existence of Palestinians and Palestine, and has worked to disenfranchise them and dispossess them. Others believe that there is a strategy in being involved, and being active within the Israeli political system. For the most part though, especially in this election, there was a very minimal voter turnout among Arabs in Israel, in general, Palestinian citizens, in general.

But a few Arab parties did manage to win a few seats in the Israeli parliament. Not much different, though, in terms of their numbers than in previous elections.

DB: Just to stay with that for a moment, in terms of those few who were elected inside, as you say, inside the part of Palestine, where the border is now considered Israel, … how are those elected representatives treated? Is there any indication that they have equal rights, or, in fact, that they have been discriminated against, probably in part, because they have some, little bit of power. How are they treated?

YM: We have to differentiate here between the representatives themselves, and the Palestinian citizens as well. Of course, the representatives are citizens, but there are different privileges that you have once you become a member of the Parliament.

And so, we are talking about two different things. In general, Palestinians citizens of Israel face a system of both legalistic and social discrimination, in the Israeli state. And a number of very fine civil rights and human rights organizations have thoroughly documented precisely how this system works.

But it’s very simple to understand, that if you are living in a state, that by self-definition is a Jewish state, but you are not Jewish, that state is not going to welcome you. In the same way it is going to naturally ostracize you, just by its nature. And so, stemming from this is a number of different policies and discriminatory features that target Palestinian citizens of Israel.

As for the members of the Israeli Knesset they too have faced an onslaught, particularly as Israeli politics has moved further to the right. And parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, ultra-nationalist party has come into, what is today, the mainstream. And has introduced a very, strong form of racism, what many would even call fascism into Israeli politics, when it comes to their policies towards Palestinian citizens of Israel. Members of the Knesset who are Palestinian citizens of Israel have been targeted. And there have been attempts to strip them of their immunity as members of Knesset, also prevent them from running in elections in the future.

DB: So you are saying that elected members of the Israeli parliament, despite the fact that they were elected, have been the butt of a great deal of abuse, discrimination, limitations, … threats?

YM: Absolutely. For example, you look at the Palestinian citizen of Israel whose a member of the Knesset, Haneen Zoabi . She participated in the activists attempt at breaking the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which was known as the flotilla. And because of her participation, she’s been branded as a traitor, and has been threatened, and there have been a number of attempts to punish her in different ways as a member of the Israeli Parliament. And this is but one example. Probably the most recent, and most egregious example, but a good example of how if Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Israeli Knesset refuse to toe the Zionist line that they are severely repressed for that.

DB: And, just to be clear, before we get back to the occupied parts of Palestine, that’s sort of a strange phrase anyway, but just for arguments sake, those living inside the green line, Palestinians, some have compared their life there in the Jewish state as similar to life under U.S. Jim Crow law. Would that be an exaggeration?

YM: It’s tough to make this kind of analogy. They are different, they are different situations.  Now Jim Crow was something horrible, I think this is horrible, too. I don’t know what you want to call it. It doesn’t look anything like democracy should be, and it certainly looks a lot like apartheid.

DB: Alright, so I’ve heard the phrase “Comparison kills.” So let’s just focus on what kinds of rights are these Palestinians living in the so-called Jewish state, do they have the same rights to good housing, good schools; Israeli’s schools are touted as being great, where does the breakdown come?

YM: For Palestinian citizens of Israel the discrimination is sometimes nuanced but it’s certainly there.  One of the ways in which this becomes very apparent is how the budgeting is allocated for different areas based on ethnicity. For example even though the Palestinian citizens of Israel make up some 20 percent of the state’s population, they receive less than half of that proportion of the budget for services. Just to give you an example of that sort of discrimination, they have the same voting rights as other Israeli citizens but they are not treated as full and equal members of society from a variety of other directions.

DB: Now, in terms of those disenfranchised in the precisely occupied parts of Palestine, now identified as such, how do they fair? And how do their rights hold up? Even if they don’t have a chance to vote, I’m thinking maybe the Israelis want to give them some of the same rights. How does life in the West Bank stack up to life in Tel Aviv?

YM: Completely not comparable quality of life. Palestinians living in the West Bank are extremely limited in the choices that they are able to make in their lives. Where they are able to move is restricted by the Israeli occupation, where they are able to go to school is restricted by the Israeli occupation, whether or not they are able to reunite with their families in Gaza, let’s say, or across the green line somewhere else, is restricted by the Israeli occupation. Who they are permitted to marry and reside with, is restricted by the Israeli occupation.

So a great many facets of their lives is determined by a state that doesn’t represent them and they have no representation in. For Israelis living in Tel Aviv or say any of the other major cities in Israel or elsewhere, they have a normal degree of freedom that you would expect in most advanced states. Of course, that’s because they are Jewish Israelis, not Palestinian citizens living elsewhere in Israel or in the occupied territories.

So what you have is a system that ultimately determines rights and laws that people have access to, based on ethnicity. And this is the type of regime that should not be welcome, I believe, in the twenty-first century.

DB: Just to make it clear for folks who perhaps don’t get this yet, here I am, I’m a Jewish American if I went to Israel to live, I would have more rights than say the Palestinians living inside the green line, and certainly the people who have been living inside the West Bank and those territories for like ten or fifteen generations. I’d have more rights than them, right?

YM: You could move to a depopulated Palestinian village where the headstones of the ancestors of refugees still stand, and have more rights to that land than the ancestors of those buried there, who are just beyond the border, and unable to return, simply because you are of the Jewish faith and they are not.

DB: If I moved there, when would I be allowed to vote? Would I eventually have the right to vote?

YM: There’s a naturalization process, but you can quickly go to Israel, the Israelis have a law that they call “the law of return” that enables a person who identifies as a Jew, and meets the criteria to be recognized as a Jewish person, as the state of Israel determines, can immigrate to Israel, become a resident and a citizen, in a very fast track way, and then vote in Israeli elections.

You know, the leader of one of the right-wing parties that performed very well in this past election, Naftali Bennett, is not from Israel. He lived in the United States, an American, moved to Israel, got involved in the Israeli political system and became now a politician leading a significant faction in Israeli politics. And so you have more rights as a Jewish person who lives in the United States to that land because of the Israeli state than a Palestinian does who may have been living on that land, and still owns property in that land, to this day.

DB: Now, if I were Palestinian living in the West Bank and my brother was living in the Gaza Strip and I wanted to go and spend a weekend with him, how difficult would that be?

YM: Very difficult, if not impossible.

DB: Right across there, we’re talking about my brother living a few miles away, right?

YM: The Gaza Strip is not very far from the West Bank, we’re talking perhaps 40 miles, separated by Israeli territory in between. Getting there though becomes extremely difficult. And getting back also becomes complicated, as well. The restrictions on movement are extremely significant.

First, you’d need a permit to leave, to move from place to place, of course this all depends on what the present situation is and it’s highly variable. Checkpoints that did not exist yesterday can exist tomorrow. And so moving around, and depending on how you move around whether it’s by vehicle, or on foot, or by taxi requires certain permits. Crossing borders requires certain permits. Coming back requires certain permits all of which is something that needs to be applied for and approved by an Israeli military apparatus that is more often than not, not helpful to Palestinians who want to do the basic things that everyone else takes for granted like being able to go visit their brother or their family a few miles away.

And so, no, it’s not an easy thing to do. I don’t want to say it’s completely impossible because it can happen but the extent of effort that one has to go through, including roundabout journeys to not go through Israeli territory, make the journey practically impossible.

DB: Now back to election results, if every Palestinian, just say every Palestinian living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip had a right to vote, what would sort of be the breakdown in terms of Jewish voters and Palestinian voters?

YM: Well, it would probably be around fifty-fifty. And, you know, it’s really interesting to think about because it allows you to think about coalition formation and party ideology in a completely different way. Remember, you have some divisions within the Palestinian community that are similar to divisions that you see in the Israeli community as well as everywhere else.

DB: Conservatives, liberals….radicals…

YM: …liberals, seculars … religious, that sort of thing. And so it’s not inconceivable that if you had an election system that allowed for participation of all people within the state that you might see a party, coalitions forming between religious parties across ethnic and religious lines that have similar interests in terms of whether or not pork should be legally traded in the market, or the role of women in society, and so on and so forth. Versus secular parties who have different perspectives about these issues and the role of religion and the state, and so on.

DB: So, for instance, you might have conservative Palestinians agreeing with conservative Jews on what role women should play within the culture and the society.

YM: You have parties in Israel today that, for example, on the role of women are extremely conservative, and have a very fundamentalist perspective on the role of women, and that has been a flashpoint in Israeli politics. And so it’s not inconceivable that those alliances can be formed if there was an election in the system that allowed everybody to vote. Once that barrier, that artificial barrier that’s there in the political system disappears a whole bunch of different coalitions and parties become imaginable. Because the issues that divide them become different, and there are agreements that become possible across ethnic and religious lines, that just were not possible before. So it would really amount to, I think, a radical reformation of the political constellation in the system altogether.

DB: And, finally, in this context what kinds of actions has the Israeli apartheid state taken to make sure that people don’t understand this population differential, and what it might mean in an election. What are the rules in terms of what actions, is this a part of the Israeli state’s behavior to make sure that this disenfranchisement, this connection between Palestinians and Jews, this balance is not a part of the dialogue, if you will, and that in fact there are more Jews coming in, less Palestinians?

YM: The Israeli government over time has been constantly obsessed with demographics. Because, you have to remember, this is a state that was established by a political movement, the Zionist political movement, which was a minority in the territory. That had the objective of coming into a territory that was populated by a majority of native inhabitants and then establishing a majoritarian state, in that space.

So from the very beginning demographics and demographic engineering were central in the Zionist political movement and continue to be. There’s a perpetual fear in Zionist politics about becoming outnumbered. You can imagine, in the United States for example, or other democratic systems, as we are seeing today, minorities playing a larger role in politics, and making the election of a white candidate less likely without posing an existential threat to the entire political system. In Israel that’s not the case. That obsession over demographics has been there from the beginning and will continue to be, because the state cannot imagine its own existence without a significant Jewish majority.

And so, yes, the immigration of Jews into Israel has been something that has been heavily supported by the state. And opportunities to reduce the Palestinian population within the state have also been taken. That demographic battle is something that various Israeli governments have engaged in, and probably will continue to engage in, as well.

DB: Now, I know you are somebody who monitors the U.S. press in the context of this issue. What kind of coverage has there been of this disenfranchisement? There was a lot of concern on the part of the Democrats. I mentioned all the MSNBCers, the Rachel Maddows, the Big Eds, and the Christopher Matthews … talking about the disenfranchisement of black and brown and poor people in the U.S. What kind of concern is coming out of the liberal media relating to this issue in Israel/Palestine? Anything?

YM: You don’t see much attention to this particular issue at all because the solution to this issue has not been considered one of civil rights and civil liberties, as was the case in South Africa, as was the case here in the United States over the course of multi-decade, multi-century struggle for equality here. Rather the solution is interpreted to be one of separatism. The idea that the Palestinians will have their own state.

In reality that solution has only been a solution to the Zionist problem. The problem that the Zionists face is that they want the Palestinian geography without Palestinian demography. And so they find themselves in a position now where they occupy the West Bank, and they do not want to let go of the territory, but at the same time they do not want to give the Palestinians there the right to vote, and the right to citizenship, and so on.

And so separatism is seen as a solution to that Zionist problem but it’s no solution to the Palestinian’s problem that include rights to return to their homes, as well as self-determination, and the right to vote, the right to equality and dignity in their homeland, and so on. And so, that issue of separatism has acted really as a fig leaf to distract from an apartheid reality that is only becoming further, and further entrenched.

Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.  You can access the audio archives at You can get in touch with the author at [email protected].


7 comments for “Denying Palestinians a Voice

  1. John
    January 29, 2013 at 00:20

    When we talk of Palestine and Palestinians, we are taking about an area and a people of whom many had their ancestors living in the region for over 2,500 years. They may be of the Jewish faith, the Christian faith or Islamic faith including numerous off shoots of each. The rights of any one of those groups has to be respected. As for Zionism, it was a late 1800s Eastern European invention proposing policies foreign to most Jews.
    Just as those who condemn the none Jews of the region for vocalizing a view that Israel should not exist (often used to mean, as a racist Jewish state which denies none Jews equal rights), so to do Zionists vocalize against the rights of rightful citizens (a majority) of other religions in the area. Remember also, “A land without a people for people without a land” bunk. Many Palestinians still hold deeds to their properties in the pre – Israel era.
    When you treat people the way Zionists have in the past, you will get blowback. If you want Israel to be a Zionist state then perhaps trade the West Bank (the region where a minor historical group followed Jewish tradition long ago – pork was not eaten) for major parts of Israel (Canaan) itself. Otherwise make peace, after all Jews Christians and Muslims lived in peace together in the past before a foreign political idea was invented.
    Also, can’t we call Begin, Sharon, and many other Israeli politicians terrorists?
    Israel has never tried to talk with Hamas but they sure supported it in the 80s to split Palestinians and go after their ambition, a Greater Israel. A travesty of justice.

  2. Hillary
    January 26, 2013 at 15:13

    Israel is a State built on myths and lies.
    Top Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein ( Tel Aviv University)and others have denied the existence of Jewish roots in the city of Jerusalem saying that Jewish archaeologists have failed to unearth historic sites to support the Jewish Exodus, the forty-year wandering in the Sinai desert, Joshua’s victory over the Canaanites and no archaeological evidence that concludes that the alleged Temple of Solomon ever existed.
    “Message from Bertrand Russell to the International Conference of Parlimentarians in Cairo, February 1970.” Reprinted in The New York Times, Feb. 23, 1970.
    “The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was ‘given’ by a foreign power to another people for the creation of a new state. The result was that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were made permanently homeless. With every new conflict their numbers increased. How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty? It is abundantly clear that the refugees have every right to the homeland from which they were driven”
    Erich Fromm, criticizing the Zionist assertion that Palestine is the land of the Jews stated : “The principle holds that no citizen loses his property or his rights of citizenship and the citizenship right is de facto a right to which (Palestinians in Israel) have much more legitimacy than the Jews…. If all nations would suddenly claim territories in which their forefathers lived two thousands years ago, this world would be a madhouse.” (Jewish Letter, February 9, 1959)

  3. Morton Kurzweil
    January 26, 2013 at 13:53

    The commitment of every Arab state has been the destruction of Israel. There has never been a suggestion of cooperation or recognition of the State of Israel. Zionism is a rallying cry to pan-Arab unity, a false ideal with no result except poverty and subjugation of the people under fanatical Islamic rule.

    • John
      January 29, 2013 at 11:27

      Do you expect it is easy for Muslims to accept the Zionist racist position. When Jews are threatened they all gather together collectively. If a country is bombed often people rally around an unpopular leadership to show some unity. Israel has never tried to communicate with Hamas. As soon as Hamas was seen to be the probably winner in the last election both Israel and the US started to arm Fatah. The problem is that Zionists don’t recognize or in some cases ignore that threats bring people together whether under good or bad leadership. Just as you want to defend a Zionist Israel so to do Palestinians want to live in peace in what is their lands and homes that Zonists took from them. Everyone needs to look in the mirror and see themselves in the others shoes. Politico-religious beliefs are dangerous promoting mob behaviour which can be pretty wicked.

  4. Historian
    January 25, 2013 at 17:15

    It is quite obvious that this writer has no knowledge of real History if he calls any of the land that Israel owns as “occupied territory,” He has swallowed the cool-aid Yasir Arafat has coined.

    He needs to stop trying to rewrite history and discover the truth.
    A Short rundown,
    The term “Occupied’ land was coined by Arafat right after that war.. The land taken (West bank and Eastern Jerusalem was all at that time governed by Jordan. Nothing to do with any Palestinian people. True there were small parcels of land taken and paid for or should be compensated for by the state of Israel if and when a peace can be reached BETWEEN Israel and the true representatives of the Palestinian people which certainly is not Hamas but hopefully the PLO and Pres Abbas.

    As a matter of fact Jordan booted the Palestinians out because of the problems they caused within their country trying to undermine their government..The refuges after “the war of independence” in 48 the refuges (Arabs living in the Palestine Territory) desired to live and assimilate into the surrounding Arab countries BUT each of the surrounding Arab Countries refused to accept them because they were not Doctors, Lawyers or educated people at that time and the Arab countries felt so humiliated by the outcome and failing to eliminate the Jewish State, that they kept the refuges out side of the Arab lands, Jordan Libia, Egypt, Syrian lands in refuge camps, continuing to blame Israel for their plight. In fact prior to that occurrence, during WWII the “Grand Mufti” called for all Arabs living in the territory now Israel to leave their homes and lands and join the Arab armies to “drive the Jews in to the sea.” As we know it never happened, Arabs lost the war to this rag tag Israeli army. By the way the Grand Mufti aligned himself and his people and the Arab states he had influence in with Hitler and the Nazi government,
    A little side history,, Arafat also would not sign that peace treaty with Israel because it would mean the halt of the Billions of dollars given to him meant for the Palestinian people, If the treaty occurred then the Israeli Gov and Palestinian Govs would as he thought worked together to help build their communities. Arafat’s wife now still lives in France with the billions of dollars meant for the Palestinian people for their social services etc,, He stole Billions from his own people, So No “occupation” and no “right of return” all not true!!
    Look it up,, and see for yourself Mr Bernstein.

  5. Historian
    January 25, 2013 at 16:50

    I do not know why people still are talking about “occupation” with respect to the Palestinians thinking that any of the land taken in the 1967 war belonged to any Palestinian. That land was governed by JORDON and has been since the state of Israel was established.Right of return is also a misnomer. “Occupied land” The media took hold of it and has drunk that cool-aid ever since, was coined by Yasir Arafat (the biggest crook who stole billions from his own people) and has and had nothing to do with reality. Jerusalem is and always has been the Capital of Israel. Building around it is Israels right to do so in their own land.
    If and when Israeli Parliament and Knesset will establish oath of allegiance to the Jewish State of Israel for all it’s members Arab or Israeli the plenty of voices and dialogue will be established.As far as telling the Israeli government what to do with regard to building in and around its own capital. It will fall on deaf ears as long as the POL will not recognize the right of the Jewish State to exist there sill never be any dialogue. Why should there be?

    • F. G. Sanford
      January 25, 2013 at 17:41

      You’re no historian, and based on your crippled syntax, you’re no scholar either. English is not your primary language, your history is Israeli propaganda, and your motivation for these comments is dishonest at best. Why don’t you pick up a copy of Ha’aretz and inform yourself. Even your countrymen hesitate to agree with the nonsensical drivel you purvey.

Comments are closed.