Demonstrators attend a rally to protest against the 'Jewish Nation-State Bill' in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv (AFP)

Accompanied by a stormy debate, the Israeli parliament on Wednesday took one step closer to passing a highly contentious piece of legislation that prioritizes rights for Jews, both domestic and foreign, over Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens of Israel.

The “Nation-State” law, which successive governments led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have attempted to implement since 2011, is set to receive its third and final reading in the Knesset later Wednesday night or early Thursday morning.

The draft bill has drawn the ire of Palestinian citizens of Israel, liberal Jewish Israelis, Israels president and rights groups, some of whom have said the law would amount to apartheid.

“Twenty percent of the citizens will be discriminated against, by definition. What is that if not apartheid? This is racist and unprecedented legislation from a government that has lost all shame,” tweeted Joint List party chair Ayman Odeh earlier in the week, anticipating the laws passage.

“This is a mortal wound for Arab citizens [of Israel], and for democracy, no less.”

Fellow Joint List lawmaker Aida Touma-Suleiman slammed the bill, saying it would “establish Jewish supremacy” and “wipe the word equality from the political lexicon in the State of Israel.”

The Palestinian members of the Knesset, Israels parliament, were joined by Jewish liberal lawmakers and about 2,500 demonstrators on Saturday night, in a march through the main streets of downtown Tel Aviv to protest the bill.

'No country in the world today is defined as a democratic state where the constitutional identity is determined by ethnic affiliation that overrides the principle of equal citizenship'

Adalah

Rights groups say Israel has been discriminating against its non-Jewish citizens ever since the state was founded in 1948, pointing to dozens of Israeli laws that mandate preferential treatment to Jews.

However, if passed the Nation-State law would have greater, more lasting impact as it would enshrine a two-tiered system of rights in a basic law.

In Israel, basic law is the local equivalent of constitutional law, requiring government bodies to interpret policy accordingly.

In the language of the draft law, “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

The law also gives Hebrew superior status over Arabic, making the former the states only official language and demoting the latter to merely a language with a “special status”.

It accords exclusive “national self-determination” rights – the right to decide Israels national priorities, of both symbolic and practical importance – to Jewish people, wherever they may live, in Israel or abroad, and whether or not they even hold Israeli citizenship.

The law does not, notably, say that Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens of Israel are entitled to equal treatment under the law.

Coalition concessions

While Netanyahus government has ignored the protests of Palestinian parliamentarians and left-leaning Zionist lawmakers, it altered the laws language in recent weeks in order to secure common ground between the centre-right and far-right factions of the cabinet.

The far-right religious bloc insisted on altering a clause committing the government to “strengthen the affinity between the state and the Jewish people,” ensuring that it would only apply to foreign Jews. The religious parties feared that if, as in its original language, the bill applied to Israeli Jews as well, it would legitimate liberal streams of the Jewish religion, and weaken their own monopoly on issues of synagogue and state.

The centre-right members of Netanyahus coalition government worried that, were the law to include language which could be easily understood as enshrining racial discrimination into law, it could further sour Israels relations with the worlds western democracies, who are still its most important international allies and largest trading partners.

The centre-right were accommodated, and a clause permitting “followers of a single religion or members of a single nationality to establish separate communal settlement” was watered down, while still mandating state support for Jewish-only communities.


Demonstrators attend a rally to protest against the 'Jewish Nation-State Bill' in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv (AFP)

Prior to the laws passing, over 900 locales in Israel – approximately three-quarters of all townships in the country – already forbade non-Jews from living within their municipal borders.

Sanctioning the state to diminish the property rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel is seemingly backed by widespread popular support. An Israel Democracy Institute poll published in November found that two-thirds of Israeli Jews believe that the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to buy land in the country should be curtailed, while a quarter of Israeli Jews said any such purchases should be forbidden altogether.

In recent weeks, a family of Palestinian citizens of Israel who purchased a home in the northern city of Afula was protested by hundreds of locals, including the former mayor, who told local press, “'the residents of Afula don't want a mixed city, but rather a Jewish city, and it's their right. This is not racism.”

Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, has panned the Nation-State law, saying it “discriminates against the Arabs in the fields of citizenship, property and land, language and culture, and justifies their inferiority in all spheres of life by excluding them from the political community that constitutes the sovereign in their homeland.”

“No country in the world today is defined as a democratic state where the constitutional identity is determined by ethnic affiliation that overrides the principle of equal citizenship,” the group said in a statement.

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