Israel’s ‘Nation-State Bill’: a divergence from international law?
Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have long faced a humanitarian crisis because of expansionist Israeli policy. More recent victims, however, are the Druze minority, who form part of the country’s 20.9% Arab population. In 1957, the government designated them as a separate ethnic group at the request of its communal leaders. In July, Israel’s legislative body enacted a law known fully as ‘Basic Law Proposal: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’, or, informally, the ‘Nation-State Bill’. While there has been significant criticism of the law in terms of its human rights implications, the law is also legally problematic because it disregards Israel’s obligations under international law.
The law’s brevity – it contains such clauses as Section 2(a): “The name of the State is ‘Israel’” – leaves no doubt as to its purpose. As a matter of international law and human rights law, the Nation-State Bill is unsettling chiefly because it does not attempt to hide its disregard for the protected status of Palestinians and other minorities in international law.
Two sections have the symbolic purpose of affirming Israel’s national identity as exclusively Jewish. Section 1(a) defines Israel as the “historical homeland of the Jewish people”; Section 1(b) affirms that“[Israel] is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.” These clauses appear to be legislative window-dressing, designed to appeal to Israel’s religious right. They are an indication that the government is shifting away from the pretence of religious liberty and equality it had previously maintained. The Declaration of the Establishment of Israel (1948) asserts that, “[the State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion…” In contrast, the ‘Nation-State Bill’ is conspicuously absent of any mention of religious equality or liberty, despite the fact that Israel ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) on the 10th of December 1978. Article 2 of the UDHR guarantees the right of all persons, irrespective of the country or territory to which they belong, to the rights and freedoms of the Convention, and Article 18 asserts the right to freedom of religion.
Though Article 4(b) of the Bill does provide the Arabic language with a “special status”, this is somewhat insignificant in the face of clauses such as Article 1(c), which provides that “The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People”, and Article 7, which defines “the development of Jewish settlement” as a “national value” which the State will “encourage and promote [in] its establishment”. These two clauses are the most significant in terms of international human rights law. The ICJ’s Advisory Opinion (Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory) of 9th July 2004 determined that the building of a wall by Israel in occupied Palestinian territories was in breach of international law. More significantly, however, the ICJ also recognised the people of Palestine’s “right to self-determination”. Although as an Advisory Opinion the decision is non-binding, it is significant that Israel should choose to disregard it, as well as the 1991 EC Guidelines on the Recognition of New States in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, which affirms the Member States’ recognition of the principle of self-determination.
There is a clear discrepancy between Israel’s historical position on religious equality and its current reality. In 1978, Golda Meir reiterated the role of Jewish lawyers in the protection of international human rights, yet in 2018 the ‘Nation-State Bill’ normalises grave infringements of human rights and contempt for international law. Continued disenfranchisement of Israel’s Palestinian and Druze minorities will merely fuel religious extremism and polarisation in the Occupied Territories. More concerningly, the new law embodies Israel’s complete disregard for the decisions of the UN and other Member States. A de-escalation will require open discussion and debate about this law, as it is only by drawing attention to its defects that Israel can be held to account.
You can read the full ‘Nation-State Bill’ here.