JERUSALEM: The Knesset (Israel’s parliament) on Thursday approved a controversial “national law”, which Arab assembly members have blasted as “anti-democratic” and “extremist” in nature.
The law was approved — in both its second and third readings — by a vote of 62 to 55 in a tumultuous Knesset session in which Arab lawmakers slammed what they described as “Israeli racism against the Arab minority”.
According to Israeli daily Haaretz, the law “officially defines Israel as the ‘national homeland of the Jewish people’.”
It further states that a “united Jerusalem” is the capital of Israel and that Hebrew is the country’s official language, stripping Arabic of its earlier designation as an official language but recognizing its “special status”.
The legislation’s most controversial article, however, which would have paved the way for the creation of “Jewish-only” communities in Israel, was removed from the draft before the vote.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hailed the legislation, describing its adoption by the Knesset as a “defining moment for Zionism and Israel”.
“One hundred and twenty-two years after [Zionist leader Theodore] Herzl articulated his vision, we have, with this law, determined the basic principle of our existence,” he said.
Netanyahu went on to describe Israel as the only country in the Middle East that “respects and honors the rights of its people”.
Following the vote, Arab lawmakers tore up copies of the bill while vocally criticizing its adoption, after which they were removed from the assembly.
As he was leaving, Arab MP Ahmad Tibi, addressing Netanyahu, yelled: “You are afraid of our Arabic language — that’s why you passed this racist law!”
Netanyahu swiftly retorted: “How dare you talk this way about the only democracy in the Middle East?”
Standing outside the assembly, Tibi described the legislation as the “final nail in the coffin of Israeli democracy”.
Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Knesset’s Joint Arab List, released a statement in which he said: “Israel has declared it does not want us here.
It has passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens.”
But, he added, “We refuse to be second-class citizens; we will not allow the majority to humiliate and destroy us.”
“Netanyahu’s regime is digging a pit of fear, racism and authoritarianism,” Odeh asserted. “But they can never erase us from the homeland.”
Speaking to Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, MP Avi Dichter of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, who sponsored the bill, answered the bill’s Arab critics: “The most you can do is live among us as a national minority that enjoys equal individual rights — but not equality as a national minority.”
According to Israel’s official statistics bureau, the self-proclaimed Jewish state’s total population stood at some 8.5 million as of the end of last year, roughly 20 percent of whom were Arab.
Some Israeli politicians, too, voiced open condemnation of the legislation.
Tamar Zandberg, chairwoman of the left-wing Meretz Party, described the law as “shameful”.
“Zionism is no longer a national movement, but a forceful nationalism that humiliates the minority and establishes racial supremacy,” she said.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) likewise condemned the bill and its passage.
PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat described it as “the consolidation and extension of [Israel’s] racist colonial legacy based on ethnic cleansing”.
“With this law,” Erekat said, “Israel has isolated itself from the international community.”
PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi, for her part, said in a statement that the national law “gives license to apartheid, discrimination, ethnic cleansing and sectarianism at the expense of the Palestinian people”.
She added: “Such racist and prejudicial legislation is illegal by all standards of international law, democracy, humanity, justice, tolerance and inclusion.”
Gaza-based resistance movement Hamas, meanwhile, said the legislation’s adoption “officially legitimizes Israeli racism”.
“This law targets the existence of Palestinians — and their historical rights — in their own land,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.
He added: “These extremist laws could not have been adopted [by the Knesset] if the world was not silent in the face of Israel’s ongoing crimes and unlimited U.S. support for Israel’s racist and extremist policies.” AA