Arabs in Israel Fear Judicial Overhaul Will Worsen Discrimination

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As Israel’s far-right government pushes ahead with a controversial judicial reform that critics say will undermine democracy, many of its Arab citizens feel left out of the debate and fear the consequences for their rights.

The reform package, announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, aims to limit the power of the Supreme Court and other watchdogs over government decisions. It includes an amendment that would allow the court to strike down laws only if they are “manifestly unreasonable”.

The coalition, which includes extreme-right leaders with a history of anti-Arab rhetoric, has faced weekly protests from Israelis who see the reform as a threat to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.

But the Arab or Palestinian minority, which makes up around 20 percent of Israel’s population, has been largely absent from these rallies, which often feature Israeli flags that some find alienating. They have instead organized their own demonstrations, calling for equality and justice.

Samira Kanaan Khalaylah, 57, a school secretary from the northern Arab town of Majd al-Krum, said the reform package was “the worst ever” and would affect the minority more than anyone else.

“We are already on the sidelines of Israeli society and politics,” she said. “This will be very bad for us.”

Leah Tsemel, a lawyer who has represented many Palestinians in Israeli courts, said the minority had little faith in the legal system even before the reform.

She cited several rulings that have failed to protect their rights, such as the 2018 Nation State Law that enshrined Israel’s primary status as a state for Jews and downgraded Arabic as an official language.

She also pointed to the court’s approval of handing over east Jerusalem properties to settler organisations who claim past Jewish ownership, leading to the eviction of Palestinian residents.

“The court has been very disappointing for us,” she said. “But it was still better than nothing.”

Jafar Farah, the director of the Haifa-based Mossawa Center advocacy group, said the judicial overhaul would only worsen “the rights violations of the Arab minority” and further the occupation of Palestinian territories.

He said there was still “hope in Palestinian society that the court will intervene in unreasonable government decisions”, but that hope was fading fast.

He also warned that the erosion of the court’s powers would “deepen institutional corruption”, affecting both Arab and Jewish Israelis.

But he said the minority had little political leverage to stop the reform, as it had been marginalised by most mainstream parties.

He noted that an independent Arab party had only once been part of a coalition government, in 2021-22.

“We are not part of the decision-making process,” he said. “We are not even part of the opposition.”

The Judicial reform and its implications

The judicial reform package consists of several bills that aim to change the balance of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches in Israel.

One of them is the so-called “override clause”, which would allow a simple majority of 61 out of 120 Knesset members to re-enact laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds.

Another is the “reasonableness clause”, which would limit the court’s ability to invalidate government decisions or legislation on grounds that they are unreasonable. The court would only be able to do so if they are “manifestly unreasonable”, a term that is vague and subjective.

A third bill would change the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which selects judges for all levels of courts in Israel. The bill would reduce the number of Supreme Court justices on the committee from three to two, and increase the number of politicians from four to six. This would give more influence to political parties over judicial nominations.

The proponents of these bills argue that they are necessary to restore democracy and sovereignty to the elected representatives of the people, and to prevent judicial activism and interventionism by an unelected elite.

They also claim that these bills would make Israel more similar to other democracies, such as Britain or Canada, where parliamentary supremacy is respected and courts have limited powers.

However, critics say that these bills would undermine democracy and human rights in Israel, and create a constitutional crisis.

They argue that these bills would weaken the checks and balances that are essential for a healthy democracy, and give too much power to a narrow coalition that does not represent the majority of Israelis.

They also warn that these bills would endanger Israel’s international standing and reputation as a democratic state that respects human rights and international law.

They point out that Israel is different from other democracies because it does not have a written constitution or a bill of rights that protect its citizens from arbitrary government actions. Therefore, they say, Israel needs a strong and independent judiciary that can safeguard the basic rights and freedoms of all Israelis, especially minorities and vulnerable groups.

The Arab minority in Israel is one of those groups that would be most affected by the judicial reform, as they have often relied on the Supreme Court to challenge discriminatory laws and policies that affect their civil, political, social and economic rights.

For example, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Arab citizens in cases involving land rights, education, housing, employment, representation, religious freedom and cultural identity.

However, the court has also failed to protect the rights of Arab citizens in many other cases, such as the Nation State Law, the evictions in east Jerusalem, the demolition of Bedouin villages in the Negev, the citizenship law that prevents family reunification between Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, and the use of lethal force by police against Arab protesters.

Therefore, many Arab citizens have a mixed and ambivalent attitude towards the Supreme Court, as they see it as both a source of hope and a source of frustration.

Some Arab citizens have joined the protests against the judicial reform, hoping to preserve the court’s role as a defender of minority rights and a counterweight to the government’s policies.

Others have stayed away from the protests, feeling that they have nothing to gain from defending a court that has often disappointed them or ignored their plight.

They also feel alienated by the predominantly Jewish character of the protests, which display Israeli flags and sing national anthems that exclude them from the collective identity of Israel.

They prefer to focus on their own struggles for equality and justice within their communities and in solidarity with their Palestinian brethren in the occupied territories.

The judicial reform is still pending in the Knesset, as Netanyahu’s coalition faces internal divisions and external pressure over its legislative agenda.

The fate of the reform will depend on the outcome of the political negotiations and the public opinion in Israel.

The Arab minority in Israel will continue to watch closely and anxiously, as their rights and future hang in the balance.

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