Life Under Occupation: The Misery at the Heart of the Conflict

An eviction in East Jerusalem lies at the center of a conflict that led to war between Israel and Hamas. But for millions of Palestinians, the routine indignities of occupation are part of daily life.


Israeli soldiers firing tear gas towards Palestinian protesters in the town of Kfar Qaddum. Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

David M. Halbfinger and Adam Rasgon, The New York Times, May 22, 2021

JERUSALEM — Muhammad Sandouka built his home in the shadow of the Temple Mount before his second son, now 15, was born.

They demolished it together, after Israeli authorities decided that razing it would improve views of the Old City for tourists.

Mr. Sandouka, 42, a countertop installer, had been at work when an inspector confronted his wife with two options: Tear the house down, or the government would not only level it but also bill the Sandoukas $10,000 for its expenses.

Such is life for Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation: always dreading the knock at the front door.

The looming removal of six Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem set off a round of protests that helped ignite the latest war between Israel and Gaza. But to the roughly three million Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and has controlled through decades of failed peace talks, the story was exceptional only because it attracted an international spotlight.

For the most part, they endure the frights and indignities of the Israeli occupation in obscurity.

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Fact Sheet: Palestinian Citizens of Israel

Fact Sheet: Palestinian Citizens of Israel
Palestinian citizens of Israel protesting the passage of the Jewish nation-state law. Tel Aviv, August 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), March 17, 2021

Basic facts & figures

  • There are 1.9 million Palestinian citizens of Israel (as of December 2019), comprising 21% of Israel’s population.
  • 83% of Palestinian citizens of Israel are Muslim, 9% are Christian, and 8% are Druze, according to Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
  • Most Palestinian citizens of Israel live in three areas: the Galilee in the north, the so-called “Little Triangle” in the center of the country, and the Negev desert (Naqab to Palestinians) in the south.
  • There are more than 60 Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
  • There are 60,000 to 70,000 homes (as of 2020) belonging to Palestinian citizens of Israel that are threatened with destruction by the government because they were built without official permission, which is extremely difficult for them to obtain.

Who are Palestinian citizens of Israel?

  • In 1948, approximately 750,000 indigenous Palestinians were expelled from their homeland by Zionist militias and the new Israeli army during Israel’s establishment as a Jewish majority state. Approximately 150,000 Palestinians remained inside Israel’s borders following the armistice that ended the resulting war, many of them internally displaced and denied the right to return to their homes, most of which were destroyed by Israel.
  • Most Palestinians who survived the expulsions were granted Israeli citizenship but between 1949 and 1966 they were governed by repressive military rule, forced into segregated “ghettos,” had most of their land taken from them for the use of Jewish Israelis, and severe restrictions were imposed on their freedom of movement, speech, and ability to earn a living. 
  • Military rule was lifted in 1966 but today Palestinian citizens of Israel continue to have their land taken from them and homes destroyed, and suffer from widespread, systematic discrimination affecting almost every aspect of their lives.

Systemic discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel

  • As part of an effort to maintain the Jewish majority created by the expulsions of 1948, Israel has passed a series of laws to limit the growth of the remaining Palestinian population and their towns and villages, and marginalize them politically. Today, there are more than 60 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel directly or indirectly, based solely on their ethnicity, impacting virtually every aspect of their lives, including housing, employment, education, healthcare, and who they can marry. 
  • In 2018, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) passed the “Jewish nation-state” law as one of the country’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, which was widely condemned as racist and entrenching apartheid in Israel. Among other things, it declares

The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

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Second Class Citizens

Kevin Walsh, July 6, 2016

A 2009 study of the legal status of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip concluded that Israel’s practices constitute colonialism and apartheid and are illegal under international law.6 The study took 18 months, and contributors included jurists, academics and international lawyers from Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, South Africa, England, Ireland and the United States.7

In fact, these conditions exist not only in occupied Palestine, but in Israel as well. A 2012 poll showed that the Jewish public supports ethnic segregation between Arabs and Jews, and 58% of Jewish Israelis called Israel an apartheid state. One commentator noted, “If the use of the term apartheid is anti-Semitic, as some of Israel’s PR agencies claim – then most Israelis are guilty of anti-Semitism.” 8

A 2005 letter to the Badger Herald argued that Israel was not South Africa:

    The divestment campaign in South Africa was appropriate and legitimate because it garnered international recognition of apartheid, an internal system of exploitation and segregation forced upon a black majority by a white minority. Divestment legitimately targeted corporations that profited from this egregious situation. While some have argued that Israel is conducting apartheid policies against the Palestinian people and Arab-Israeli citizens, this comparison is absurd. Arab-Israeli citizens retain the same civil and political rights that any Jew possesses in Israel, with the ability to vote in elections and serve their constituents as elected officials. (emphasis added)

Unfortunately, this is not true. Israeli laws, and the civil and political rights they define, are different for different Israeli citizens. Israel’s purpose in this is to maintain its status as a Jewish state, as Roland Nikles commented:

    In a 2010 interview, Peter Beinart — as liberal a Zionist as you’ll find — said: “I’m not even asking [Israel] to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.” 2

Then Nikles continued:

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