Draft Israeli Bill Would Ban Commemoration of Nakba

Tobias Buck in Jerusalem
Financial Times
May 26, 2009

Israel’s rightwing government has become embroiled in fresh controversy, over a draft law that would ban the country’s Arab minority from commemorating the mass exodus of Palestinians from their homes and villages during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The draft bill would make it a criminal offence – punishable by up to three years in prison – for Israeli citizens to mark the “Nakba”. The term means catastrophe, and is used by Palestinians to describe the year of Israel’s foundation, when between 700,000 and 800,000 of them fled or were expelled by advancing Israeli troops. It is commemorated every year on May 15, and involves demonstrations and marches to destroyed Palestinian villages inside Israel.

The draft bill was introduced by the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, which forms the second-largest bloc in the current coalition government. Led by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, the party achieved a record haul of seats in the February general elections, largely on the back of a campaign that targeted the country’s Palestinian minority.

The Nakba Day bill passed an important milestone on Sunday, when it won the backing of a government committee that vets legislative proposals. However, it has not yet been debated in parliament, which would have to pass the bill for it to become law.

The committee’s decision provoked an outcry from human rights groups and from Israeli Palestinian leaders, who have long suspected the new government of harbouring anti-Arab sentiments. Their protests are likely to intensify as the government moves to debate another highly-controversial Yisrael Beiteinu proposal next Sunday – this time forcing all Israelis, including the Arab minority, to sign a pledge of loyalty to the state.

According to the draft proposal, anyone applying for an Israeli passport or ID card would have to commit to be “faithful” to Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state – a pledge that many Israeli Palestinians say they will refuse to make.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s drive to deliver on its campaign slogan – “no loyalty, no citizenship” – has also exposed a rift within the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister. Several ministers from the centre-left Labour party, another member of the coalition, said they opposed the Nakba Day proposal.

Sammi Michael, the president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, condemned the move in a statement on Monday as “the surest way to brutal oppression of everyone’s freedom of speech”. He added: “Marking the Nakba does not threaten the safety of the state of Israel, but is rather a legitimate and fundamental human right of any person, group or people, expressing grief at the face of a disaster they experienced.”

A spokesman for Yisrael Beiteinu on Monday defended the draft bill as a measure that would ensure the unity of the country. “The Israeli Arabs are still Israeli citizens. We don’t want to force people to celebrate [the foundation of Israel], but the law would forbid organised demonstrations.”

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