Vol. 28 No. 8 · 20 April 2006


Ilan Pappe on the Israeli election and the ‘demographic problem’

1747 words

From left to right, the manifestos of all the Zionist parties during the recent Israeli election campaign contained policies which they claimed would counter the ‘demographic problem’ posed by the Palestinian presence in Israel. Ariel Sharon proposed the pull-out from Gaza as the best solution to it; the leaders of the Labour Party endorsed the wall because they believed it was the best way of limiting the number of Palestinians inside Israel. Extra-parliamentary groups, too, such as the Geneva Accord movement, Peace Now, the Council for Peace and Security, Ami Ayalon’s Census group and the Mizrachi Democratic Rainbow all claim to know how to tackle it.

Apart from the ten members of the Palestinian parties and two eccentric Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jews, all the members of the new Knesset (there are 120 in all) arrived promising that their magic formulae would solve the ‘demographic problem’. The means varied from reducing Israeli control over the Occupied Territories – in fact, the plans put forward by Labour, Kadima, Shas (the Sephardic Orthodox party) and Gil (the pensioners’ party) would involve Israeli withdrawal from only 50 per cent of these territories – to more drastic action. Right-wing parties such as Yisrael Beytenu, the Russian ethnic party of Avigdor Liberman, and the religious parties argued for a voluntary transfer of Palestinians to the West Bank. In short, the Zionist answer is to reduce the problem either by giving up territory or by shrinking the ‘problematic’ population group.

None of this is new. The population problem was identified as the major obstacle in the way of Zionist fulfilment in the late 19th century, and David Ben-Gurion said in December 1947 that ‘there can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60 per cent.’ Israel, he warned on the same occasion, would have to deal with this ‘severe’ problem with ‘a new approach’. The following year, ethnic cleansing meant that the number of Palestinians dropped below 20 per cent of the Jewish state’s overall population (in the area allocated to Israel by the UN plus the area it occupied in 1948, the Palestinians would originally have made up around 60 per cent of the population). Interestingly, but not surprisingly, in December 2003 Binyamin Netanyahu recycled Ben-Gurion’s magic number – the undesirable 60 per cent. ‘If the Arabs in Israel form 40 per cent of the population,’ Netanyahu said, ‘this is the end of the Jewish state.’ ‘But 20 per cent is also a problem,’ he added. ‘If the relationship with these 20 per cent is problematic, the state is entitled to employ extreme measures.’ He did not elaborate.

Israel boosted its population with two massive Jewish immigrations, each of about a million people, in 1949 and in the 1980s. This kept the Palestinian proportion of the population down and today Palestinians account for nearly 20 per cent of the population of Israel (not counting the Occupied Territories). Ehud Olmert, the leader of Kadima and acting prime minister, thinks that if Israel stays in the Occupied Territories and its inhabitants are included in the Israeli population, Palestinians will outnumber Jews within 15 years. So he advocates hitkansut – meaning ‘convergence’ or, better, ‘ingathering’ – a policy that would leave several populous Palestinian areas outside direct Israeli control. But even if this consolidation takes place, there will still be a very large Palestinian population inside the 88 per cent of Palestine in which Olmert hopes to build the future, stable Jewish state. How large exactly we don’t know: demographers in Israel belonging to the centre or the left provide a low estimate, which makes disengagement seem a reasonable solution, while those on the right tend to exaggerate the figure. But they all seem to agree that the demographic balance will not stay the same, given the higher birth-rate of Palestinians compared to Jews. Thus Olmert may well come to the conclusion that pull-outs are not the solution.

Once the ‘Arabs’ in Israel and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories came to be thought of in the West as ‘Muslims’ it was easy to elicit support for Israel’s demographic policies, at least where it counted: on Capitol Hill. But even in Europe there was no need, after 9/11, to explain why Israel has a ‘demographic problem’. On 2 February 2003 the popular daily Maariv carried a typical headline: ‘A quarter of the children in Israel are Muslims.’ The piece went on to describe this fact as Israel’s next ‘ticking bomb’. The increase in the ‘Muslim’ population – 2.4 per cent a year – was not a problem anymore, but a ‘danger’.

In the run-up to the election, pundits discussed this question using language akin to that employed in Europe and the United States in debates over immigration. Here, however, it is the immigrant community that decides the future of the indigenous population, not vice versa. On 7 February 1948, after driving to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and seeing the first villages that had been emptied of Palestinians on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, a jubilant Ben-Gurion reported to a gathering of Zionist leaders: ‘When I come nowadays to Jerusalem I feel it is a Hebrew city. This was a feeling I only had in farms and in Tel Aviv. Not all Jerusalem is Hebraic but there is already a huge Hebraic bloc – no Arabs in it. One hundred per cent Jewish. If we can persevere,’ Ben-Gurion added, this miracle will happen elsewhere.

But despite their perseverance, a sizable community of Palestinians remained. They are students at my university, where they attend lectures by professors who talk about the grave demographic problem. Palestinian law students – the lucky ones who constitute an informal quota – in the Hebrew University may well come across Ruth Gabison, a former head of the Association for Civil Rights and a candidate for the Supreme Court, who has come out recently with strong views on the subject, views that probably seem to her to reflect a consensus. ‘Israel has the right to control Palestinian natural growth,’ she has declared.

Away from the campuses, these students can’t escape the knowledge that they are seen as a problem. Whether from the Zionist left or the hard right, they hear daily that Jewish society is longing to get rid of them. And they will worry, and rightly so, whenever they hear they have become a ‘danger’. While still only a problem they are protected by a certain pretence to democracy and liberalism. Once they constitute a danger, however, they could be faced with emergency policies based on the British Mandate’s emergency regulations. Houses could be demolished, newspapers shut down and people expelled under such a regime.

The 2006 elections have brought to the Knesset a solid coalition determined to deal with the demographic problem: first and foremost, by disengaging from more of the West Bank; and second, by completing the network of walls around the rest of the Palestinian areas. The border between Israel and the West Bank is 370 kilometres long, but the serpentine wall will be double that length, and will strangle large Palestinian communities. In the Palestinian areas within Israel, segregation is ensured by construction programmes approved when Sharon was minister of national infrastructures: Jewish settlements overlook and encircle large Palestinian areas such as Wadi Ara and Lower Galilee.

On 31 July 2003, the Knesset passed a law prohibiting Palestinians from obtaining citizenship, permanent residency or even temporary residency when they marry Israeli citizens. The initiator of the legislation was a liberal Zionist, Avraham Poraz of the centrist party Shinui. He described it as a ‘defence measure’. Only 25 members of the Knesset opposed it and Poraz declared that those already married and with families ‘will have to go to the West Bank’, regardless of how long they had been living in Israel.

The Arab members of the Knesset were among those who appealed to the Supreme Court against this racist law. When the Supreme Court turned down the appeal, their energy petered out. The Arab members come from three parties: the Communist Party (Hadash), the National Party of Azmi Bishara (Balad) and the United Arab List drawn up by the more pragmatic branch of the Islamic movement. The Supreme Court ruling made clear their irrelevance, in the eyes of both the parliamentary and judicial systems. We’re always told that Palestinians should be pleased to live in the only democracy in the region, to have the right to vote, but that vote brings no power.

In the dead of night on 24 January this year, an elite unit of the border police seized the Israeli Palestinian village of Jaljulya. The troops burst into houses, dragging out 36 women and eventually deporting eight of them. The women were ordered to go to their old homes in the West Bank. Some had been married for years to Palestinians in Jaljulya, some were pregnant, many had children, but the soldiers were demonstrating to the Israeli public that when a demographic problem becomes a danger, the state will act swiftly and without hesitation. One Palestinian member of the Knesset protested, but the action was backed by the government, the courts and the media.

The ten members of the new Knesset from Palestinian parties will not be included in any coalition and will probably be sidelined and forgotten, as they were in the previous parliament (there are two other Arab members and two Druze members from Labour and Kadima). Haaretz sent a journalist to live for a few days in the ‘Arab areas’ in order to write – as an anthropological tourist – on the Palestinians’ reaction to the elections. Apart from this piece of reportage, the Israeli media had nothing to say about how the Palestinians voted. After all, they are the problem, not the solution. And if disengagement doesn’t ‘stop’ the growth in their numbers the Jaljulya operation could show the future.

No wonder many Palestinians now want the international community to intervene. But Israel ignored the ruling of the international court on the wall, and is unlikely to be moved by what it will see as interference in its internal affairs. There is another call coming, still hesitant, although it will grow in volume: a call for the creation of an autonomous parliament for the Palestinians in Israel. In a world that has marginalised this community twice over – both in the overall Palestinian polity and within Jewish society – the 1,300,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel have very little to lose by shunning the Knesset and opting for autonomy. Who knows, they may even convince the Jewish majority that they are ‘only’ a problem, not a danger.

7 April

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Vol. 28 No. 9 · 11 May 2006

Ilan Pappe quotes me as saying that ‘Israel has the right to control Palestinian natural growth’ (LRB, 20 April). I have never said anything of the sort, nor have I ever argued that the state has a right to ‘control’ the natural growth of any group, including, of course, Arabs living in Israel.

Ruth Gavison

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