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Ben-Gurion University
Oren Yiftachel "The Palestinians in Israel": Ghettoized citizenship, a stratified system of “creeping apartheid”

Editorial Note

Oren Yiftachel (BGU) is one of the intellectual architects of a paradigm that classifies Zionism as a colonial project and compares Israel to the apartheid state of South Africa.  His new article is one more example of an effort to present historical facts and statistics to support this paradigm.  A number of issues bear attention.


Yiftachel does not see fit to mention the opinion of scholars who demonstrate that the 1947 United Nations Partition proposal did envisage the creation of a Jewish state.  These and other experts have noted that, within certain constrains, Israel functions as both Jewish and democratic.  Yiftachel makes a similar paradigmatic choice when he fails to note that the Palestinians rejected the U.N. proposal and started a war that Israel had the good fortunes to win.  In this context, the issue of Palestinian refugees is more akin to the German population that either fled or was expelled from Poland, the Soviet Union and former Czechoslovakia in the wake of WWII.


No reasonable person would argue that the Israeli Arabs have been fully integrated into fabric of Israeli society or that they suffered no discrimination. But again, the issue should be examined in a comparative way; there are dozen of countries that feature either the cross or other religious symbols, and there are even countries that give their Diaspora preferential treatment in acquiring citizenship. 


 Yiftachel's "creative" use of statistics - from land expropriation to a dire lack of presence in the scientific realm- is perhaps the stronger indicator of his paradigmatic choice.  Not all the statistics can be attributed to a malevolent state policy of discriminating against its Arab citizens.  Had Yiftachel consulted legal experts on land expropriation, he would have come to a different conclusion.  As for lack of proper participation  in the scientific realm, there are intervening factors of culture that play a role;  the same factors that make Arabs countries greatly underrepresented in scientific endeavor are apparently present here.   


Yiftachel's list of references- composed only of scholars who are part of the paradigmatic community - is most indicative of the systemic bias of the  essay.  This comes as no surprise, as post-Zionist scholars, like their neo-Marxist, critical colleagues elsewhere,  have created their own epistemic community replete with publication outlets and a self-contained peer review systems, which act as an echo chambers for their grand idea that Israel is a colonial-apartheid state.





Prof. Oren Yiftachel

Oren Yiftachel. Urban studies and political geography at

Ben-Gurion University. Email: yiftach@bgu.ac.il





Palestinian Arab Citizenship in Israel

Oren Yiftachel * 



This essay briefly reviews the status of Palestinian Arab citizenship in Israel.1 Democratic citizenship is defined as full and equal membership in a political community, and entails a combination of legal, political, economic, and cultural rights and capabilities. In most recent formulations, full citizenship also means the extension of collective rights to national, ethnic and religious minorities.


As this essay will show, Arab citizenship in Israel has been structurally constrained by the state’s ethnocratic regime and the associated hegemonic and colonizing Judaization project. Since the 1990s, certain liberal trends have positively affected the minority’s formal status and rights, but material, military, and economic developments have, at the same time, further constrained the Arabs’ ability to exercise these rights. The Arabs in Israel are hence trapped by the contradictions of the Israeli regime–that is, between the state’s self-proclaimed “democracy,” and the persisting oppressive and exclusive practices toward the Palestinians, both in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and in Israel proper.


The civil status of the Arabs in Israel may be conceptualized as being that of ghettoized citizenship, situated within a stratified system of “creeping apartheid.” 

This undeclared system of control stretches over Israel proper and the occupied territories, and sees groups such as Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza; the Druze and Bedouin within the Green Line; Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jews; Jewish settlers; new Jewish immigrants (termed  Olim in the Israeli Zionist lexicon); and migrant workers all enjoying different  de jure and de facto “packages” of rights and capabilities. The civil status of these groups is determined by their ethnicity, religiosity, and location (Yiftachel, 2006). The shaping of Arabs’ citizenship within the Green Line can only be understood as part of this system.


Oren Yiftachel is Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental development, Ben  Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva. He is the founding editor of the international journal “Hagar/Hajar: Studies in Culture, Polity and Space,” and currently works as a planner for the Regional Council of Unrecognized Bedouin Villages.

1 In most cases in this article Israel’s Palestinian citizens are referred to as “Arabs in Israel,” in order to clearly distinguish between them and their brethren in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and the Diaspora, as well as to unequivocally include the Druze and Bedouin communities. The use of the term does not exclude them, of course, from being part of the Palestinian people.



Israel’s continuing violent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the settlement of more than 450,000 Jews beyond the Green Line including in occupied eastern Jerusalem (Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 2009), have exacted a high toll on Israel’s Arab minority: their expressions of natural support for their Palestinian brethren have, in turn, increased Jewish anti-Arab racism, especially in times of violent conflict. The persistent Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also denied the Arabs the possibility to raise their grievances in the Israeli public discourse, and has deprived them of precious material and symbolic resources needed for development and empowerment. 


Conditions of citizenship 

Israel was established in 1948 following the Nakba, when two-thirds of Palestinians were expelled and became long-term refugees. The 160,000 Palestinians who remained within independent Israel (13% of the state’s population) formed a weak and fragmented “enemy-affiliated” community. Israel granted them formal citizenship, but placed them under military rule for 18 years. Since then, the minority has grown eight fold, reaching 1.15 million in 2005, or 17% of the citizenry (CBS, 2009). 


State policies have traditionally attempted to weaken the minority through segmentation (by separating the Druze and Bedouin communities), denial of most collective cultural or political rights, and pervasive material deprivation. 

The Arabs have, however, developed a collective political agenda based on grounding their status as a national homeland minority. They are determined to protect their property and heritage and to achieve equality and recognition. 


Yet, formal citizenship and growing demographic weight have not translated into significant societal integration or political empowerment in Israel. Despite staging a long and non-violent campaign for equality and recognition, Palestinian Arabs in Israel have made few achievements. During six decades of Israeli independence, Arabs have had only negligible impact on Israeli politics. One notable exception was the 1993 Oslo Accord, which was passed in the Knesset only due to Arab support. Yet the precarious status of Arab citizenship was perhaps truly reflected when Rabin’s (the head of the government) assassin, Yigal Amir, declared Arab support of Oslo as a reason for the assassination (Shafir and Peled, 2002).



Several examples illustrate Arab marginalization:2


Power sharing. 

•  In Israel’s 31 governments, an Arab party was never a member of a ruling coalition. 

•  Among 676 overall ministerial appointments, only two Arabs have ever served as government ministers.

•  Out of 55 Supreme Court judge appointments since 1948, only one Arab has ever been appointed a Supreme Court judge. 

•  Arabs are virtually excluded from Israel’s scientific and business elite, comprising less than 1% of university professorships and similar percentage of membership to boards of directors. 


Land ownership. 

•  Arabs have lost more than half the land they owned in 1948 to state confiscations and have remained locked in their small geographical enclaves, where they control only 2.5% of the state’s area (Kedar, 2003).

•  No new Arab settlement has been allowed since 1948, except for coerced urbanization of the Bedouin. About half of the Bedouin of the Naqab region still reside on unrecognized villages on their ancestors’ lands and are denied basic services and facilities (Yiftachel, 2000).

Economic well-being. 

•  The 1990-2005 average income of Arab workers is only 68% of that of their Jewish counterparts.

•  The Arabs’ mean level of higher education qualifications reaches only one-third of the Jewish rate. 

•  Their levels of negative social indicators, such as incarceration and infant mortality, are substantially higher than national average. 



2  Unless otherwise specified, based on official government publications.



Killing by the state.

•  The Israeli state has pervasively used violence against the minority, most conspicuously in events such as the Kufr Qassem massacre in 1956, when 49 Arab citizens were killed; and state reaction to mass protest events like Land Day (Yawm al-Ard) in 1976, when six Arab demonstrators were killed by the police; and the October Events of 2000, when 13 more were killed.

•  By contrast, state authorities have killed one Jew in six decades of very active (and much more extensive) Jewish political protest (Shafir and Peled, 2002).


Judaization and the Arab minority 

The inability of the Arabs to translate their formal citizenship into substantive and equal membership stems,  first and foremost, from the state ethnocratic structure. Judaization–and the associated de-Arabization–is the result of the Zionist hegemonic project, which dictates the goals, resources, and policies of state institutions and wide-ranging racist attitudes towards the Arab minority. 

Judaization is the state’s main ideology, which overrides its formal commitment to democracy. Despite its gradual waning in recent years in the face of growing globalization, the Judaization ideology is still dominant, and is fueled by the ongoing dialectics of violence between Jews and Palestinians. 


The later liberalizing trend within the Israeli regime in the nineties has seen the enactment of basic laws on several civil rights and liberties, such as human dignity and liberty, gay rights, and freedom of occupation. This has prompted most Israeli scholars to define the state as a democracy. However, as the ethnocratic (and non-democratic) Judaization project continues, the new liberties, which have positively affected groups such as homosexuals and women, have had little material effect on the Arab minority. 


Let us briefly examine how the ethnocratic regime structurally marginalizes Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens in key societal arenas:


Demography. Virtually, Israel allows only Jewish immigration. The lynchpins of the system have been the Law of Return, and the parallel denial of return for Palestinian refugees. According to the Israeli Ministry of Immigration Absorption, Israel has to date received 2.8 million Jewish immigrants, and it continues to actively and globally encourage Jewish immigration. At the same time, Israel prevents the return of Palestinian refugees and imposes very strict constraints on the entry of any Palestinian, including a recent law (The Nationality and Entry into Israel Law) prohibiting family reunion between Arab citizens and their Palestinian spouses from abroad. 


Space. Since 1948, Israel has pursued the maximal transfer of land control to Jewish hands, the settlement of Jews in all parts of Israel/Palestine, and the segregation and ghettoization of Arabs in a systematic manner coupled with the severe restriction of Palestinian-Arab settlement and development. At present, Palestinian Arabs, who form 17% of the state’s population, control only 2.7% of the state’s municipal jurisdictions, and own only 3.5% of the land area (Kedar and Yiftachel, 2006). State land, by and large, is used for exclusively Jewish purposes. 

Since 1948, the state has established more than 700 new Jewish settlements and not one Arab settlement. The only exceptions are the towns established for coerced concentration of the Bedouin (Yiftachel, 2000). 


In the 2000 Qaadan ruling, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the right of all citizens (including Arabs) to purchase state land, but this is yet to have an impact on Arab mobility or spatial equality. The exclusion of Arabs from most IsraeliJewish space is augmented by the official role allocated to international Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Jewish Agency, in Israel’s formal system of planning and development. Jews who do not live in Israel have broader land rights than Palestinian citizens in Israel.


Armed forces. “Security” (that is, Jewish security) is known as Israel’s “second religion” and enjoys an extremely powerful position in dictating state policies and practices. The armed forces have been totally dominated by Jews, while Israel’s Arab citizens have not been drafted to the Israeli army except for the co-opted Druze and some Bedouin. Except for the Druze, Arabs are exempt from serving in the Israeli army or other communal services. At the same time, this exemption is used to justify their civil discrimination. This has diminished their ability to pursue personal mobility and seriously constrained their mobility in many areas, especially in employment and housing opportunities.


Development. Policies guiding development and capital accumulation in Israel have also weighed heavily in favor of Jews, evidenced in the patterns of developmental incentives, industrial and employment location, water allocation policies, subsidizing projects and employment practices. The state’s recent liberalization and global outlook, and subsequent retreat from state regulation, have further deepened the economic gaps between Arabs and Jews.


Law.  Until the 1980s, the legal system, by and large, backed the Judaization of the country. This included implicit support for the 1948-1966 military government, and for the occupation and settlement of the occupied territories in 1967 (Kimmerling, 2004). With regard to civil law, religious regulations were adopted by the state that prohibited civil marriage, thereby deepening the chasm between Jewish and Arab citizens. Since the 1990s, with the advent of a liberal tending “judicial activism,” the system has increased its independence and protection of civil rights, although this has not seriously challenged the practices of Judaization, as most recently noted by the passing of the law prohibiting Arab family reunification, which violates a basic human right in the name of ethnic engineering. 


Public culture. State symbols, such as the flag, national anthem, ceremonies, and logos all stress the Jewishness of the state, as do national holidays and weekends, which are all structured around the Jewish calendar. Hebrew is used in nearly all bureaucratic and legal forums. Arabic is also an official language, but is rarely used for official state business. Place names, maps, road signs, state media, and the arts are all predominantly Hebrew and Jewish. The public discourse and culture have often been dominated by racist undertones towards the Arab citizens, with concepts such as “voluntary transfer,” “demographic problem,” “population exchange” and the minority being referred to as a “cancerous” growth being routinely discussed by leading personalities, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Housing Minister Ephraim Eitam, and Welfare Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs Elli Yishai. 


Ghetto citizenship

As we have seen, despite Israel’s self-definition as Jewish and democratic, it is in effect a Judaizing state, with democracy being subordinated to the (often racist) project of Judaization in all central societal arenas–legal, institutional, material, and executive. The Judaization project has framed the meaning of Israeli citizenship, and worked to both exclude and marginalize the state’s Arab citizens.


Israel’s settler colonialism and violent oppression of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has further marginalized the status of the Arabs in Israel, given their natural support for the Palestinian resistance. The “separate and unequal” citizenship structure actively prevents the creation of an integrated civil Israeli political community.


The result has produced a discriminatory and deeply flawed Israeli citizenship structure, with the allocation of stratified “packages” of rights and capabilities based on ethnic origins. Obviously, there are serious gaps between this reality and the notion of equal democratic citizenship outlined above. One prime example is the 2009 appointment of MK Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beteinu (Israel, Our Home) party–despite his open support for the forced removal of Arab localities from Israel–as Deputy Prime Minister in the Israeli government.


Therefore, Palestinian Arab citizenship in Israel can be characterized as existing in a ghetto. This ghetto is multifaceted–political, cultural, economic, and administrative. Consequently, it is also spatial. The Palestinian Arabs in Israel are officially part of society, yet structurally they are isolated into enclaves and weakened by domination, exclusion, and disempowerment, the end of which does not appear to be in sight.




Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). (2009). Statistical abstracts of Israel. Jerusalem: Government Printers.

Kedar, A. (2003). On the legal geography of ethnocratic settler states: Notes towards a research agenda. In J. Holder and C. Harrison (Eds.), Law and geography (pp. 16-135). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kedar, A., & Yiftachel, O. (2006). Land regime and social relations in Israel. In H. de Soto and F. Cheneval (Eds.), 

Realizing property rights: Swiss human rights book (pp.129-146). Zurich: Rueffer & Rub.

Shafir, G., & Peled, Y. (2002). Being Israeli: The dynamics of Israeli citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yiftachel, O. (2000). Land, planning and inequality: The division of space between Arabs and Jews in Israel. TelAviv: Adva. (Hebrew and English).

Yiftachel, O. (2006). Ethnocracy: Land and identity politics in Israel/Palestine. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Penn Press.


Kimmerling, B. (2004). Immigrants, settlers, natives: The Israeli state and society between cultural pluralism and cultural wars. Tel-Aviv: Am-Oved. 

Additional Readings


Ghanem, A. (2000). The Palestinian Arab minority in Israel, 1948-2000: A political study. Albany:  SUNY Press. 

Ghanem, A. (2003). The status of the Palestinians in Israel in the era of peace: Part of the problem but not part of the solution. Israel Affairs, 9(1-2), 263-289.

Smooha, S. (2002). The model of ethnic democracy: Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Nations and Nationalism, 8(s4), 475-503.

Sultany, N. (2004). Citizens without citizenship: Mada’s first annual political monitoring report–Israel and the Palestinian minority 2000-2002. Haifa: Mada al-Carmel—Arab Center for Applied Social Research. 

(Arabic, English and Hebrew).


Swirski, S., & Konor-Attias, E. (2007). Israel: A social report. Tel-Aviv: Adva Center.

Available at: http://www.adva.org/uploaded/tmunatmazav2007final.pdf

Yonah, Y. (2005). In virtue of difference: The multicultural project in Israel. Tel-Aviv & Jerusalem: Hakibbutz 

Hameuchad & Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.137

The Palestinians in Israel: Readings in History, Politics and Society

Relevant Websites






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