x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Israel draft law would bar Nakba ceremonies

Legal experts say the bill that would forbid Arabs marking the day of mourning is likely to be thrown out.

TEL AVIV // Palestinian and left-wing Jewish parliamentarians, leading Israeli intellectuals and human rights activists yesterday vowed to fight the government's approval of a draft law that would make it illegal for Arab citizens of Israel to mark the state's establishment as a day of mourning. On Sunday, a government ministerial committee endorsed a motion by Yisrael Beiteinu, an ultra-nationalist party, that would punish anyone caught commemorating the 1948 creation of Israel as "the Catastrophe," or Nakba, with up to three years in prison.

The bill targets Israel's Palestinian citizens, who, along with their brethren in the Gaza Strip, occupied West Bank and abroad, hold ceremonies in memory of more than 700,000 Palestinians who lost their homes in the war that led to Israel's founding. Critics yesterday slammed the initiative as the latest step taken by Israel's new government, which was sworn into office in late March, to stifle the country's Palestinian citizens, who make up one-fifth of the population and have long faced discrimination.

Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian legislator, pledged that the law would be defied should it pass. "It's an insane law of an insane government," he said. "How will they prevent people from expressing sorrow on this day? Will they arrest anyone who wears black? They expelled our people, destroyed our villages, robbed our lands, and now they say we cannot be sad about it." Mr Zahalka said that although such a bill has been proposed in parliament in the past, this was the first time it was approved by a governmental panel. The ministerial committee's nod would now make it likelier for the legislation to pass the required three parliamentary votes before becoming law, he added.

However, legal experts warned the law would violate the constitutional freedom of expression and would probably be slammed down by Israel's Supreme Court. Eyal Gross, a constitutional law expert at Tel Aviv University, was quoted in the Israeli press as saying: "I do not know of similar laws in any other democratic country. This is the type of law that tries to impose on everyone to think in the same way."

Sammi Michael, a prominent Israeli author and president of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, warned that the bill's approval was "a sign of a democracy losing its bearings". "It extends far beyond the issue of the legitimate rights of the Arab minority. It crushes the moral boundaries we have set for ourselves and points to the surest way to brutal oppression of everyone's freedom of speech."

It is perhaps of little surprise that the bill was proposed by a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, which became Israel's third-largest party in February's national elections after targeting the country's Palestinian population with the slogan "No Loyalty - No Citizenship". The party is led by Avigdor Lieberman, a Moldovan-born politician who now serves as Israel's foreign minister and who has been dubbed a "racist" and "fascist" for his anti-Arab diatribes.

The so-called Nakba Day bill is not likely to be the last attack by Mr Lieberman's party against Palestinian citizens. Yesterday, Yisrael Beiteinu said it would introduce a bill that would make citizenship contingent on a loyalty oath to Israel as a "Jewish, Zionist and democratic" state. The motion, which the party said would be presented for approval to a government panel on Sunday, would also allow the revocation of citizenship of anyone who does not carry out military or national service, which are seldom performed by Palestinian citizens.

Although such initiatives have always existed, they appear to stand a better chance of approval now that Israel is ruled by a predominantly hawkish governing coalition, most of whose members oppose the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the division of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In defence of the Nakba Day bill, Danny Ayalon, deputy foreign minister and a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, yesterday was quoted on Israeli radio as saying: "Any other country in the world would not stand by while its celebrations of independence are turned into a memorial service."

Israeli Jews celebrated the country's Independence Day this year on April 29, in accordance with the Hebrew lunar calendar. Palestinians around the world mark the Nakba on May 15, the day after the British mandate over Palestine ended in 1948, although Israeli Palestinians also hold some Nakba events on Independence Day itself. Even if passed, the law would probably be disregarded by Israel's Palestinian citizens. Abir Kobty, a prominent activist, cautioned in a column on the popular news website Ynet that the proposal "will not intimidate the Arab population".

She added: "We will not be afraid, and will continue marking the Nakba. As hard as it will try, the government will not succeed in erasing an entire history with a racist law." vbekker@thenational.ae