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The true nature of Israel’s existential threat

In a New York Times Guest Essay, “Israel’s real existential threat” (17 May 2021), Yossi Klein Halevi points to an important aspect of the recent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, namely, the interethnic violence that broke out in many of the so-called mixed cities inside Israel. Halevi finds particularly disturbing the fact that the worst of the unrest took place in Lod, “a mixed Arab-Jewish working-class town minutes from Ben Gurion Airport.” Equally disturbing for him is the fact that this outbreak of interethnic violence came in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic which “brought Arab citizens [of Israel] closer than ever to the mainstream.” Pointing to the fact that “the Israeli health system [is] one of the most integrated areas in our society [with “Arabs” constituting] 17 percent of doctors and 24 percent of nurses,” Halevi wonders how images of “doctors in hijab and coexistence in the respirator wards” were replaced by images of “Arab mobs and Jewish mobs roam[ing] the streets, beating and lynching, destroying “Jewish” shops and “Arab” shops, destroying a fragile but enduring equilibrium.”

Halevi points out that Israel’s founders defined it as both Jewish and democratic. Sandwiched between Israeli right-wingers who insist that Israel’s democracy is unnecessary, and left-wingers who are not as keen on its Jewish identity as they are on its democratic one, Halevi “insists on holding both.” For him, Israel’s existential threat resides in the inability of Israelis –“Arabs” and Jews—to ask hard questions: “What is it like to be a Palestinian citizen of a Jewish state that occupies your family? What is it like to be a Jew who has finally come home, only to love under constant siege?”

Far from offering a correct diagnosis of Israel’s existential threat, let alone a remedy to, Halevi’s essay is itself symptomatic of this very threat. Its inability to call a spade a spade or to point out the essentially discriminatory and racial policies of Israel is what renders Halevi’s argument inconsistent and his position untenable.

For one, Halevi does not see the irony of choosing Lod as an example of an “enduring equilibrium” gone awry. More than Haifa, Yafa or Akka, Lod — or to use its original Palestinian name, Lydd – is not so much a “showcase of our coexistence” as a cite of one of the ugliest heinous acts committed in the 1948 War. On 13 July 1948 David Ben-Gurion ordered the unleashing of Operation Dani whose purpose was to capture the twin cities of Lydd and Ramleh and to empty them of their Palestinian populations. On that day, Jewish soldiers fired at Lydd’s Palestinian defenders who had taken refuge in the city’s largest mosque, the Dahamish Mosque, killing 426 men, women and children. The following day, Jewish troops went from house to house, forcing residents out of their homes, and marched about 50,000 of them towards the West Bank. Far from being an example of coexistence, Lod is a reminder of one of the worst ethnic cleansing operations witnessed in the 1948 War, the Nakba, or Catastrophe.

But the Nakba, as the Palestinians constantly remind us, is not an event that happened in the past; it is a process that continually unfolds in the present. It unfolds not only in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip where more than five million Palestinians live under military occupation, or in the wider world where more than seven million Palestinians live in the diaspora prevented from returning to their home, but also inside Israel proper where nearly two million Palestinians live as second-class citizens in the State of Israel. And there is no better place to see the impact of Israel’s racist, discriminatory policies than in the health care system that is repeatedly flouted as an example of peaceful coexistence between Israeli Jews and what Israel insists on calling Israeli Arabs, denying them their Palestinian identity.

Palestinians may constitute 17 percent of doctors and 24 percent of nurses, but as Osama Tanous, himself a Palestinian pediatrician from Haifa, reminds us, only 23 percent of Palestinians currently in practice in Israel studied in the country, compared to 85 percent of Jewish-Israeli physicians. This is, in turn, due to a segregated and heavily defunded Arab school system. Palestinian physicians are prevented from using Arabic even among colleagues and with their patients. “The Palestinian citizens of Israel,” he insists, “continue to be the object of prejudice, suspicion, discrimination, overt racism and forms of state violence that range from the underfunding of Palestinian-majority schools to the unequal status before the law.”

But it is when we move out of the sanitized hospital wards which themselves are far from being paragons of coexistence, to the wider Palestinian population inside Israel, that Israeli racist policies pertaining to health care are most manifest. Palestinian citizens of Israel, who constitute one-fifth of the population, are discriminated against in all criteria used to measure equity in healthcare provision. Jews are 2.4 times more likely to use ambulatory care than Palestinians. Life expectancy of Palestinian citizens of Israel is way lower than that of Jewish Israelis. This is due to the prevalence among them of high incidences of obesity and smoking, as well as a high rate of poverty. 

These stark discrepancies in healthcare statistics are not accidental; they are the direct result of Israel’s racist policies. Despite constituting one-fifth of the population, Palestinians are forced to live on only 3 percent of the land; the other 97 percent is controlled by the Israeli state. Since its foundation, Israel has authorized the creation of some 900 Jewish communities. No new Palestinian town has been established in more than 70 years. The over crowdedness of Palestinian neighborhoods in “mixed-cities” is, therefore, the reason for these neighborhoods’ unhygienic conditions and for the stark contrasts in their residents’ life chances compared with those of Jewish Israelis. This to say nothing about the far worse situation of Palestinians under occupation who have been denied a vaccine against the coronavirus; of Palestinians in the West Bank where “Israel’s policies inhibit the construction and maintenance of medical infrastructure and essential services to promote health, particularly water, sanitation and electricity;” or of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip where, as Osama Tanous again points out, 97 percent of water is undrinkable and 10 percent of children have stunted growth due to malnutrition, both a direct result of the blockade that Israel and Egypt have been imposing on the Strip for 15 years.

As Halevi pointed out, Israel’s existential threat does not reside in the missiles, the Katyusha rockets, the suicide bombings or the stabbing sprees from which its Jewish population suffers. Nor does it reside in its insistence to see itself simultaneously as a democratic state and as a Jewish one. And it certainly does not reside in the inability of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis to empathize with each other. Rather, as is shown by the flagrant discrepancies between healthcare provision to its 9 million Jewish citizens and to the 7 million Palestinians living under its domination, Israel’s existential threat resides in two essential characteristics that are incompatible with both its Jewishness and its alleged democracy: colonialism and racism.  

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