One group of people who get very little attention in the Middle-East are the Arab citizens of Israel. One in five Israelis are Arabs, but as either Muslims or Christians they are effectively second-class citizens in what is, after all, a Jewish State. Even if a utopian reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians were to take place, a two-state solution would still leave discrimmination of Arab Israelis unaddressed.
Israel claims to be an open democracy, but certain recent events remind us of an authoritarian streak that must be tempered if the country wishes all its citizens to live in peace. On Christmas Day, the renowned writer Antwan Shalhat received a travel ban issued by Israel’s Department of Interior. No explanation for why the ban was placed has been given, no time-scale is specified, and the reasons given are “secret”. Furthermore, according to Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, a travel ban violates Mr Shalhat’s constitutional right to leave the country under Article 6 of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.
Antwan Shalhat has translated many texts between Hebrew and Arabic, including the work of Yeshayahou Leibowitz. What is most bizarre is that he has no plans to go overseas at present, for speaking engagements or otherwise. The ban seems arbitrary, unjust, and does nothing to engender confidence in the government.
The treatment of Mr Shalhat is not an isolated case. Last autumn, a string of Arab Israeli journalists were detained and interrogated by the Israeli General Security Services (GSS/Shabak). Those detained included Hassan Muwasi, correspondent for Lebanese newspaper, al-Mustaqbal, and Ahmad Abu Hussein, head of www.arabs48.com. The men are not suspected of any illegal activity, but were questioned about their relationships to journalistic contacts, who are in turn suspected to have links with Hezbollah. In addition, the journalists were asked questions unrelated to state security, regarding details of their professional work and political affiliations.
I’lam, the Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel, believes these ‘security interrogations’ constitute a breach of Israeli Penal Code Section 114D which specifies that persons in contact with ‘outside agents’ cannot be charged if their intentions do not threaten state security. The journalists have not been secretive regarding their activities, and assert that any contact they have had with people who have, in turn, had links to Hezbollah, are purely professional. I’lam’s press statement says:
[the interrogation] subsumes the professional and cultural rights of Arab journalists to the assumed security needs of the Israeli state. There is no consideration of the crucial role relationships between Arab journalists in Israel and the wider Arab world play in the professional, informational and cultural life of Arab citizens of Israel, nor is there any consideration of the rights of Arabs in Israel to freedom of expression, association and information.
Hamas looks set to win a large proportion of the vote in the imminent Palestinian elections. To ensure that the organisation chooses politics over violence, the freedom of movement for Arab journalists in Israel and Palestine is of vital importance.