Israelis practise 'tribal democracy'

Israel calls itself the only democracy in the Middle East, a self-description all too readily accepted in the West. Only critics in the Arab world and a handful of radical Israeli academics have challenged this orthodoxy, observing that the country is really an “ethnic democracy”, a democracy only if you are a Jew.

Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, makes the point more simply, calling Israel a “tribal democracy”. Not included in the tribe, he says, are the country’s one million Arab citizens—a fifth of the population.

The minority is increasingly clashing with the Israeli Jewish public and the political establishment over its demands for Israel to become “a state of all its citizens”.
The consensus among the majority is that such reforms would destroy Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

However, a new report, Silencing Dissent, by the Arab Association for Human Rights based in Nazareth, challenges the view that Israel can extol its virtues as a democracy while defining itself as a state only for Jews.

The research throws up disturbing facts about the operation of Israel’s parliamentary democracy. One survey, for example, shows that in the three years of the present Parliament eight of the nine members of the Knesset belonging to independent Arab parties have been regularly beaten by members of the security forces at demonstrations. Seven of the nine have had to be treated in hospital after attacks.

It is a sign of how unhealthy the Israeli body politic has grown that assaults on elected public representatives, if they are Arab, pass without comment among the majority Jewish public and in the Hebrew media. In fact, the general attititude prevails that there is no smoke without fire: that the Arab parliamentarians probably provoked the violence and therefore deserved their beatings.

Even if the behaviour of the Arab members could be characterised in this way, it would hardly justify incidents where soldiers or policemen have used potentially lethal force against them. At a demonstration against the invasion of Palestinian West Bank towns in April, a soldier fired a tear gas canister at Issam Makhoul from a distance of 2m, burning his leg; a stun grenade was fired into the face of Hashem Mahameed, while Ahmed Tibi was beaten with batons.

In none of these instances did the legislators pose any threat to the security of the state or physically threaten police or soldiers. Despite this, Israel has shown no interest in investigating these assaults on public representatives. Even in cases where the identity of the assailant is known, no action has been taken. Nothing has been done, for example, to discipline a policeman more than a year after he confessed to a judicial inquiry that he joined a mob that tried to burn down Bishara’s home.

The attacks contrast with the security forces’ treatment of Jewish legislators. Rightwing parliamentarians regularly attend demonstrations by settlers that end in clashes. The legislators and their supporters expect and receive “restraint” from the police and army.

Another survey in the report reveals that all nine of the Arab legislators have faced or are facing police investigations on charges of incitement, sedition or threatening behaviour during parliamentary sessions.

In most instances the cases have been quietly dropped for lack of evidence or because the political motive behind the charge was too overt. But the damage has been done: the Jewish public is left with the impression that the Arab parliamentarians are plotting against their country.

In some cases, however, the authorities have pushed ahead with legal proceedings. Most notably Bishara is currently involved in a protracted trial about free speech.

Tibi and Mohammed Barakeh have been investigated for verbally abusing and threatening policemen. They avoided prosecution after producing taped recordings of the incidents. It is a sign of how effective the delegitimisation of the Arab legislators has been that the testimony of low-ranking policemen was preferred over elected representatives. No proceedings were instigated against the policemen.

No investigations have been opened into comments made by Jewish legislators inciting against the Palestinan minority, including Cabinet minister Effi Eitam, who called the Palestinian citizens a “cancer”.

The treatment being meted out to the Arab parliamentarians appears to be designed to intimidate and silence them. In fact, new pieces of legislation passed by the Knesset this year will do just that. Israel’s election committee will now be able to ban any party that implicitly denies Israel is a Jewish and democratic state from runnning in elections.

Jonathan Cook is co-author of Silencing Dissent, a report into violations of the political rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel. See full report at

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