AP / March 30, 2023
HAIFA – Amal Oraby is usually a fixture at street protests. But as tens of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated for months against a contentious government plan to overhaul the judiciary, Oraby is sitting this one out.
An activist and lawyer, Oraby is one of the many Palestinian citizens of Israel who have stayed on the sidelines of some of the country’s largest and most sustained demonstrations — a glaring absence in a movement that says it aims to preserve the country’s democratic ideals.
“I don’t see myself there,” Oraby said.
As minorities long plagued by systemic discrimination, Palestinian Israelis have potentially the most to lose if the plan, which would likely weaken the judiciary’s independence, is implemented.
But the community harbors 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 include issues that matter to Palestinians and blind to the longstanding injustices against them.
The patriotic hallmarks of the movement have only reinforced for many Palestinian Israelis that there is no place for them: the ubiquitous Star of David flag, the national anthem about the yearning of the Jewish soul for Israel, and the heavy participation of former officials from the military, an institution Palestinian citizens view with suspicion, if not hostility.
“In this demonstration, we don’t talk about occupation. We don’t talk about racism. We don’t talk about discrimination,” said Sami Abou Shehadeh, a former legislator in Israel’s parliament. “And they call it a struggle for democracy.”
Organizers say they have repeatedly invited Palestinian Israelis to participate but are keeping their message focused tightly on the overhaul.
The massive, monthslong demonstrations and a general strike forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week to postpone the overhaul. But he did not scrap it, and the protests are expected to continue.
The plan as it currently stands would give the government control over who becomes a judge and limit judicial review on its decisions and legislation. Netanyahu’s government says the proposal would ease the lawmaking process and rein in a judiciary that it sees as having liberal sympathies.
Critics say it would damage the country’s system of checks and balances — and it galvanized opposition from a broad range of Israeli society, including leading economists, top legal officials and even the military.
While the protesters say their aim is to safeguard the Supreme Court, seen by Jews as a bulwark against tyranny, Palestinian Israelis see the court as having failed them repeatedly. They have long viewed Israel’s democracy as tainted by both the country’s treatment of them and its 55-year, open-ended occupation of lands the Palestinians seek for an independent state.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who make up one-fifth of its 9.6 million people, have the right to vote and have Arab representatives in parliament, with one Arab party even recently joining a governing coalition for the first time — but they have long suffered discrimination in a range of spheres, from housing to jobs.
Descendants of Palestinians who remained within the borders of what became Israel, they are seen by many Jewish Israelis as a fifth column because of their ties and solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and the 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 contentious law that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people, a law they claim discriminates against minorities. They say the court generally permits Israel to build on occupied land and regularly allows Israel to demolish the homes of Palestinian attackers.
Still, as a minority, they could have even more to lose were Israel to become more illiberal, said Muhammed Khalaily, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
Existing protections could be threatened. A senior member of Netanyahu’s government, for instance, once called for segregated maternity wards.
That grim potential future hasn’t been 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 never rallied against those injustices with the same fervor they have exhibited over the last three months.
“Where were you? Where were you during our struggle?” asked Oraby, the activist.
Protest organizer Shir Nosatzki said she recognized the complexities keeping Palestinian Israelis away, but added the movement has reached out to the community repeatedly and has had a growing number of Palestinians speak at the protests.
“There is no other group in Israeli society that’s been the target of so much effort to rope it into the protest,” said Nosatzki, who also heads a group fostering Jewish-Arab political partnerships.
But the reality is less welcoming for some. Former military officials have been constant presences, boasting of their battle achievements against Palestinians and others, claims that are painful for Palestinian Israelis to hear.
A small contingent of left-wing Israelis who oppose the occupation has been ostracized by other protesters for waving the Palestinian flag and trying to raise the Palestinian issue in the protests, for fear that it might push more nationalist Israelis away or be used by opponents to smear the protests as a cover for radical leftists.
The issue did elbow its way in after a rampage by West Bank Jewish settlers through a Palestinian town, Hawara, and what critics said was a muted response to it by Israeli security services. Protesters shouted at police: “Where were you in Hawara?” That became a recurring chant against the heightened police presence throughout the protests.
Some Palestinians support attending the protests, if only as a platform to share their perspective. Others have tried to piggyback on the demonstrations, creating their own movement demanding Israel treat all citizens equally.
Reem Hazzan, a political activist, said she accepted an invitation to speak at a protest last month in the northern city of Haifa but backed out at the last minute after she said organizers asked for changes to her speech, saying it was not the right tone for the demonstration. Nosatzki said all speakers submit their speeches in for review, which tends to cause tensions.
“It is a struggle that is lacking when it doesn’t discuss the root of the problems,” Hazzan said. “The real invitation for Arab citizens will be genuine when these protests will come and say, ’Friends, we want to build a future together, without occupation, with peace and with equality.’”