Israel’s Palestinians mostly sit out pro-democracy protests

HAIFA, Israel (AP) – Amal Oraby is usually a fixture at street protests. But while tens of thousands of Israelis have been demonstrating for months against the government’s controversial plan to transform the judiciary, Oraby is sitting it out.

An activist and lawyer, Oraby is one of the many Palestinian citizens of Israel who have remained on the fringes of some of the country’s largest and most sustained demonstrations – a glaring absence in a movement that claims to uphold the country’s democratic ideals.

“I don’t see myself there,” Oraby said.

As minorities long plagued by systemic discrimination, Palestinian Israelis may have the most to lose if the plan, which would likely weaken judicial independence, goes ahead.

But the community has a deep sense that the system is already rigged against it, and always has been — and sees the demonstrations as an exclusively Jewish movement, unwilling to take up issues important to Palestinians and blind to longstanding injustice is against her.

For many Palestinian Israelis, the movement’s patriotic hallmarks have only reinforced that there is no place for them: the ubiquitous Star of David flag, the national anthem about the Jewish soul’s longing for Israel, and the heavy involvement of former military officials, an institution which Palestinian citizens view with suspicion, if not hostility.

“In this demonstration we are not talking about occupation. We don’t talk about racism. We don’t talk about discrimination,” said Sami Abou Shehadeh, a former member of the Israeli Parliament. “And they call it a fight for democracy.”

Organizers say they have repeatedly invited Palestinian Israelis to participate, but their message remains firmly focused on the overhaul.

Months of massive demonstrations and a general strike forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to postpone the major overhaul this week. But he didn’t scrap it, and protests are expected to continue.

The current plan would give the government control over who becomes judges and limit judicial review of their decisions and laws. Netanyahu’s government says the proposal would ease the legislative process and rein in a judiciary it says has liberal sympathies.

Critics say it would damage the country’s system of checks and balances — and it has drawn opposition from a wide spectrum of Israeli society, including top economists, senior judicial officials and even the military.

While protesters say their goal is to protect the Supreme Court, seen by Jews as a bulwark against tyranny, Palestinian Israelis see the court has failed them repeatedly. They have long viewed Israel’s democracy as corrupt, both by the country’s treatment and by its 55-year indefinite occupation of lands the Palestinians are seeking for an independent state.

Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who make up a fifth of Israel’s 9.6 million population, have the right to vote and have Arab representatives in parliament, with an Arab party even recently joining a governing coalition for the first time – but they have long faced discrimination against one Range of spheres, from housing to workplaces.

Descendants of Palestinians who remained within Israel’s borders, they are viewed by many Jewish Israelis as a fifth column because of their connections and solidarity with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While Palestinian Israelis have in many cases risen to the highest echelons of government, academia, and business, the population as a whole is poorer and less educated than Jewish Israelis.

In their criticism of the Supreme Court, Palestinian-Israelis point to a 2021 decision to uphold a controversial law that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people, a law they say discriminates against minorities. They say the court generally allows Israel to build on occupied land and regularly allows Israel to demolish the homes of Palestinian attackers.

Still, as a minority, they could have more to lose if Israel became more illiberal, said Muhammed Khalaily, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

Existing protective measures could be jeopardized. A senior member of Netanyahu’s government, for example, once called for separate maternity wards.

This bleak potential future wasn’t enough to draw them into the protests.

Having watched their own rights attacked over the years, some in the community feel a sense of betrayal that Jewish Israelis have never united against these injustices with the same passion they have shown over the past three months .

“Where were you? Where were you during our fight?” asked Oraby, the activist.

Protest organizer Shir Nosatzki said she recognized the complexities keeping Palestinian Israelis away, but added the movement has repeatedly reached out to the community and has given growing numbers of Palestinians a voice.

“There is no other group in Israeli society that has been so tempted to involve them in the protest,” said Nosatzki, who also heads a group that promotes Jewish-Arab political partnerships.

But the reality looks less inviting for some. Former military officials were constantly present, boasting of their combat victories against Palestinians and others, claims that are painful for Palestinian Israelis to hear.

A small contingent of left-wing Israelis opposed to the occupation have been ostracized by other protesters for waving the Palestinian flag and trying to raise the Palestinian issue at the protests, fearing it will crowd out more nationalist Israelis or be used by opponents to do so could be smearing the protests as a cover for the radical left.

The issue blazed a trail after a West Bank killing spree by Jewish settlers through a Palestinian town, Hawara, and what critics said was a muted response from the Israeli security services. Protesters yelled at police, “Where were you in Hawara?” This became a recurring chant against the increased police presence during the protests.

Some Palestinians support taking part in the protests, if only as a platform to share their perspective. Others have tried to join the demonstrations and start their own movement demanding that Israel treat all citizens equally.

Reem Hazzan, a political activist, said she accepted an invitation to speak at a protest in the northern city of Haifa last month but withdrew at the last minute after saying organizers had asked for changes to her speech and said it wasn’t the right tone for the performance. Nosatzki said all speakers submit their speeches for review, which tends to create tension.

“It’s a fight that’s missing unless it’s addressing the root of the issues,” Hazzan said. “The real invitation to Arab citizens will be real when these protests come and say, ‘Friends, let’s build a future together, without occupation, with peace and with equality.'”

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