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.

Even in supposedly quiet periods, when the world is not paying attention, Palestinians from all walks of life routinely experience exasperating impossibilities and petty humiliations, bureaucratic controls that force agonizing choices, and the fragility and cruelty of life under military rule, now in its second half-century.

Underneath that quiet, pressure builds.

If the eviction dispute in East Jerusalem struck a match, the occupation’s provocations ceaselessly pile up dry kindling. They are a constant and key driver of the conflict, giving Hamas an excuse to fire rockets or lone-wolf attackers grievances to channel into killings by knives or automobiles. And the provocations do not stop when the fighting ends.

No homeowner welcomes a visit from the code-enforcement officer. But it’s entirely different in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians find it nearly impossible to obtain building permits and most homes were built without them: The penalty is often demolition.

Mohammed Sandouka amid the ruins of his home in East Jerusalem. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Mr. Sandouka grew up just downhill from the Old City’s eastern ramparts, in the valley dividing the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives.

At 19, he married and moved into an old addition onto his father’s house, then began expanding it. New stone walls tripled the floor area. He laid tile, hung drywall and furnished a cozy kitchen. He spent around $150,000.

Children came, six in all. Ramadan brought picnickers to the green valley. The kids played host, delivering cold water or hot soup. His wife prepared feasts of maqluba (chicken and rice) and mansaf (lamb in yogurt sauce). He walked with his sons up to Al Aqsa, one of Islam’s holiest sites.

In 2016, city workers posted an address marker over Mr. Sandouka’s gate. It felt like legitimation.

But Israel was drifting steadily rightward. The state parks authority fell under the influence of settlers, who seek to expand Jewish control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Citing an old plan for a park encircling the Old City, the authority set about clearing one unpermitted house after another.

Now it was Mr. Sandouka’s turn.

Plans showed a corner of the house encroaching on a future tour-bus parking lot.

Mr. Sandouka’s children salvaging household items as their home is demolished. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Zeev Hacohen, an authority official, said erasing Mr. Sandouka’s neighborhood was necessary to restore views of the Old City “as they were in the days of the Bible.”

“The personal stories are always painful,” he allowed. But the Palestinian neighborhood, he said, “looks like the Third World.”

Mr. Sandouka hired a lawyer and prayed. But he was at work a few months ago when someone knocked on his door again. This time, his wife told him, crying, it was a police officer.

The knock at the door is not always just a knock.

Badr Abu Alia, 50, was awakened around 2 a.m. by the sounds of soldiers breaking into his neighbor’s home in Al Mughrayyir, a village on a ridge in the West Bank.

When they got to his door, a familiar ritual ensued: His children were rousted from bed. Everyone was herded outside. The soldiers collected IDs, explained nothing and ransacked the house. They left two hours later, taking with them a teenager from next door, blindfolded.

He had taken part in a protest four days earlier, when an Israeli sniper shot and killed a teenager who was wandering among the rock-throwers and spent tear-gas canisters.

Continue reading

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.”

“The state views the development of Jewish settlement [segregated housing for Jews-only] as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”

  • Israel’s Basic Laws also bar political candidates and parties from advocating for a secular democracy in which all citizens are fully equal, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, by calling for an end to Israel’s system of Jewish privilege. In 2018, legislation calling for Israel to become a state based on full equality for all citizens introduced by Palestinian citizens of Israel was banned by a committee and prevented from even being debated by the Knesset. A Knesset legal advisor explained the bill was rejected because it included “several articles that are meant to alter the character of the State of Israel from the nation-state of the Jewish people to a state in which there is equal status from the point of view of nationality for Jews and Arabs.”

Confiscation of Palestinian property, destruction of Palestinian homes, ‘Judaization’ of Palestinian land in Israel

  • Since 1948 when the state was established, Israel has used laws such as the British Mandate-era Land (Acquisition for Public Purposes) Ordinance law and the Absentee Property Law to confiscate millions of acres of Palestinian land for the use of Jewish Israelis. The Absentee Property Law, passed in 1950, allows the government to expropriate land belonging to Palestinians, including Israeli citizens, who were forced from their homes during Israel’s establishment and prevented from returning. Israel also declared large amounts of land belonging to Palestinian citizens of Israel “closed military zones,” and then used a law dating from the Ottoman Empire era to take it over. According to one estimate, of 370 Jewish towns established by Israel between 1948 and 1953, 350 were built on confiscated Palestinian land.
  • After displacing tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel, destroying many of their homes and villages, and taking most of their land for the use of Jewish Israelis, Israel made it extremely difficult for them to build or expand their homes or the boundaries of their towns. In May 2020, Human Rights Watch issued a report entitled, Israel: Discriminatory Land Policies Hem in Palestinians; Palestinian Towns Squeezed While Jewish Towns Grow, concluding:

“Decades of land confiscations and discriminatory planning policies have confined many Palestinian citizens to densely populated towns and villages that have little room to expand. Meanwhile, the Israeli government nurtures the growth and expansion of neighboring predominantly Jewish communities, many built on the ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948.”

  • These restrictions have caused serious overcrowding in many communities. When Palestinian citizens of Israel are then forced to build without government approval to meet the natural growth of their families, Israel destroys the structures. In 2018, Israel passed the “Kaminitz Law” to expedite the process of destroying Palestinian homes built without official permission. According to the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, as of 2020 there were an estimated 15%-20% of Palestinian homes in Israel lacking difficult to obtain permits, and between 60,000 and 70,000 homes at risk of being totally destroyed by Israel as a result. As of 2015, 97% of the demolition orders issued by Israeli courts were against Palestinian citizens of Israel, even though they only made up about 20% of the population.
  • The expropriation of Palestinian land, restrictions on the growth of Palestinian communities, destruction of Palestinian homes, and simultaneous promotion of segregated Jewish communities, form part of a policy of “Judaization.” In recent decades, Palestinian communities in the Galilee in the north and the Negev in the south have been targeted by the government for Judaization. In the Negev, entire Bedouin villages are being destroyed to make way for Jewish towns. In one prominent case, Palestinian Bedouins in the village of Umm al-Hiran were forced out to make way for a new town for Jewish Israelis called Hiran. In 2019, Israel announced a plan for the Negev that will displace some 36,000 Palestinian Bedouin from their homes.
  • In February 2018, then-Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked defended the policy of Judaization from critics who say its racist and a violation of the human rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, declaring:

“I think that ‘Judaizing the Galilee’ is not an offensive term. We used to talk like that. In recent years we’ve stopped talking like that. I think it’s legitimate without violating the full rights of the Arab residents of Israel… There are places where the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish state must be maintained and this sometimes comes at the expense of equality.”

  • Since the founding of the state in 1948, Israel’s government has established more than 900 localities for Jewish Israelis, but none for Palestinian citizens of Israel except for a small number of government-planned towns intended to house Palestinians displaced from their original communities by Israel. There are also dozens of Palestinian villages and communities in Israel, some of which pre-date the establishment of the state, that are unrecognized by the government, receive no government services, and are not even listed on official maps. As of 2017, only about 3% of all land in Israel is under the jurisdiction of Palestinian municipalities, even though Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 21% of the population

Discrimination in access to land & housing

  • The Israeli government directly controls 93% of the land in Israel and systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel in its allocation through official agencies like the Israel Land Authority and quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund. Combined with the discriminatory Admissions Committee Law, approximately 80% of state lands are off-limits to Palestinian citizens of Israel, who face significant legal obstacles in gaining access to this land for residential, agricultural, or commercial development. 
  • In 2011, the Knesset passed the “Admissions Committees Law,” which allows more than 300 small majority-Jewish towns to exclude applicants for residency who don’t meet vague “social suitability” standards. As noted by Human Rights Watch in a statement entitled Israel: New Laws Marginalize Palestinian Arab Citizens:

“The measure anchors in law a practice that has been the basis for unjustly rejecting applications by Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel as well as members of socially marginalized groups such as Jews of non-European ancestry and single-parent families… Parliamentary statements indicate that the law's sponsors intended it to allow majority-Jewish communities to maintain their current demographic makeup by excluding Palestinian Arab citizens, an act of discrimination on the basis of their race, ethnicity, and national origin.”

Discrimination in family reunification & immigration

  • The Nationality and Entry into Israel Law prevents Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza (including those who were expelled from towns and villages that became Israel in 1948) who are married to Palestinian citizens of Israel from gaining residency or citizenship status. The law forces thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel to either leave Israel or live apart from their spouses and families.
  • Continue reading

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:

    The problem is, however, once you accept unequal treatment of citizens based on ethnicity and religion in some respects, it becomes a slippery slope. Where do you draw the line? 2

Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, has published “The Discriminatory Laws Database” which has more than 50 laws “enacted since 1948 that directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures.” 3

Arab Israeli citizens do not enjoy equal rights in Israel. Here are some examples:

  1. There is a law discriminating between Jewish and Palestinian Israeli citizens regarding rights to recover property in Israel owned before the 1948 War. The 1950 Absentees Property Law says that Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes by Jewish forces, but are currently known as citizens of Israel, are deemed “present absentees”. Present absentees are regarded as absent by the Israeli government because they left their homes, even if temporarily and involuntarily. Israeli law allows Jews to recover their land, but not Palestinian Israeli citizens.1 “The Israeli Absentees Property Law of 1950 declared expropriated Palestinian absentee property, even of Palestinian Israeli citizens, as state land, and continues to refuse the return of the refugees.” 11

  2. There is a law allowing Jews who lost property in East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the 1948 war to reclaim it. Again, Palestinian Israeli citizens who lost property in West Jerusalem or the state of Israel in the 1948 war cannot recover their properties. Israeli legislation allows Jewish Israeli citizens to recover their land, but not Palestinian Israeli citizens.1
  3. There is a law that denies citizenship and Israeli residence to Palestinians who reside in the West Bank or Gaza Strip and who marry Israelis. While the stated justification was to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, it allows Israel “to maintain the state’s democratic nature, but also its Jewish nature” — its Jewish demographic majority. Critics say the law disproportionately affects Arab citizens of Israel, since Palestinians in Israel are more likely to have spouses from the West Bank and Gaza Strip than other Israeli citizens.1
  4. There are laws that establish separate educational systems that are funded unequally.2 According to a 2005 study by Hebrew University, three times more was spent on the education of Jewish children than on Palestinian Israeli children.1
  5. There is a law that empowers hundreds of local Jewish communities to exclude applicants based on ethnicity or religion. Israel’s Supreme Court upheld this law in September 2014.3 Palestinian Israeli citizens are barred from living in 68% of all towns in Israel by admissions committees.5
  6. The Israeli government is more restrictive in issuing building permits in Palestinian Israeli communities than in Jewish, and omits Palestinian Israeli towns from specific government social and economic plans.1 Buildings without permits are illegal, and this is a commonly cited reason for demolishing Arab buildings.
  7. There is a law prohibiting anyone from calling for a boycott of Israel, its institutions, or any person because of their affiliation with Israel, including the settlements in the occupied territories. The law was upheld by Israel’s Supreme Court on April 15, 2015.3
  8. There is a law that bans any political party that denies the existence of Israel as a “Jewish” state. A party advocating equal rights for all Israeli citizens regardless of ethnicity is illegal.3
  9. The Israeli government has promoted programs like the Prawer plan which will displace tens of thousands of Bedouin Israeli citizens from their homes in the Negev desert, forcing them to relocate and lose land. At the same time, the government is offering incentives for young Jews to build new Jewish communities in the Negev.4

Americans are too willing to assume that the only democracy in the Middle East has a written Constitution and Bill of Rights like theirs. The examples above are legal discrimination by the Israeli government. This unequal treatment under the law applies to over 1.7 million Israeli citizens in Israel, more than 21% of the population.1 By comparison, African Americans are only 13% of the U.S. population.12 Whether this discrimination is apartheid is still strongly debated, because that label has frightening implications for the Jewish state of Israel.

Related Articles

  • Israel announces new resettlement plan for Negev Bedouins, Ma’an News Agency, July 26, 2016.
  • Endnote:
    Israel operates under a combination of legal precedents, common law, and the Basic Laws of Israel. As of today, the Basic Laws do not cover all constitutional issues, and there is no deadline for a constitution.10 As the Israel State Archives notes

      Israel, famously, has no constitution. Fact. The reason, according to general opinion, is that back in 1948, the religious parties didn’t want one, because it might conflict with the Bible, so the secular politicians humored them at the time, and what started as a temporary act of politics became a permanent condition.” 9

    1 “Arab citizens of Israel”, Wikipedia, accessed June 23, 2016
    2 “The Adalah database of 50 discriminatory laws in Israel”, Roland Nikles, Mondoweiss, June 14, 2015
    3 “The Discriminatory Laws Database”, Adalah, May 30, 2012
    4 “Discrimination Against Israeli Arabs Still Rampant, 10 Years On”, Ron Gerlitz and Jabir Asaqla, Haaretz, October 2, 2013
    5 Identity Crisis: the Israeli ID System, Visualizing Palestine, June 7, 2014. Different population groups under Israeli sovereignty today are segregated based on a system of colored ID cards controlled by the Israeli Ministry of Interior.
    6 Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid? A re-assessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law, Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, May 2009
    7 Israel and the apartheid analogy, Wikipedia, accessed July 3, 2016
    8 Poll: Israelis support discrimination against Arabs, embrace the term apartheid, Noam Sheizaf, +972, October 23, 2012
    9 Who Needs a Constitution? Israel State Archives, April 25, 2013
    10 Basic Laws of Israel, Wikipedia, accessed July 3, 2016
    11 Nakba Fact Sheet, Jewish Voice for Peace, accessed July 4, 2016
    12 The Black Population: 2010, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2011