The Inequality Report: The Palestinian Arab Minority in Israel 2011

Reference: Adalah

March 2011


Inequality in Israel takes many forms. Some of the major fault-lines that divide Israeli society, creating relatively privileged and deprived groups, are (Ashkenazim) versus (Mizrahim); men versus women; Israel-born Jews (Sabar) versus new immigrants (Olim); Orthodox versus secular Jews; rural versus urban dwellers; rich versus poor; left-wing versus right-wing supporters; and gay versus straight people. This report focuses on inequalities between Jewish citizens of Israel—the majority—and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, a national, non-immigrant minority living in its historical homeland.1


Today, Palestinian citizens of the state comprise 20% of the total population, numbering almost 1.2 million people.2  They remained in their homeland following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, becoming an involuntary minority. A part of the Palestinian people who currently live in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Diaspora, they belong to three religious communities: Muslim (82%), Christian (9.5%) and Druze (8.5%).3 Their status under international human rights instruments to which Israel is a State party is that of a national, ethnic, linguistic and religious minority.


However, despite this status, the Palestinian minority is not declared as a national minority in the Basic Laws of Israel. In 1948, Israel was established as a Jewish state. The definition of Israel as “the Jewish State” or “the State of the Jewish People” makes inequality a practical, political and ideological reality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are marginalized and discriminated against by the state on the basis of their national belonging and religious affiliation as non-Jews. They are frequently and increasingly viewed as a “fifth column” as a result of their Palestinian identity and national, religious, ethnic and cultural ties to their fellow Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and surrounding Arab and Muslim states, a number of which are considered “enemy states” by Israel.4 Furthermore, this perception is not restricted to the state authorities: according to the Israel Democracy Institute, in 2010 53% of the Jewish public maintained that the state was entitled to encourage Arabs to emigrate from Israel.5


Numerous groups of Palestinian citizens of Israel face “compound discrimination” or multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of both their national belonging and their membership in one or more distinct subgroups. For instance, Arab women in Israel face discrimination as members of the Arab minority and as women, and Arab Bedouin face an additional layer of institutional and social discrimination. Some individuals are subjected to multiple forms of discrimination, for instance disabled female Arab Bedouin children living in the unrecognized villages in the Naqab (Negev), referred to by the state as “illegally constructed villages” or “illegal settlements”. With regard to certain marginalized groups, Israel has some of the world’s most forward-thinking and progressive laws and policies. Israel’s Knesset, for example, has legislated strong anti-discrimination legislation and legal protections for women and disabled persons.6 However, the same has not been done for the Palestinian minority in Israel. As a result, Palestinians who are also members of other marginalized groups do not receive the full benefit of such protections. Moreover, according to a recent poll, just 51% of Jewish citizens of Israel support full equality in rights between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.7 The same attitude prevails among Jewish youth, with 49.5% of Jewish 15- to 18-year-olds responding negatively, in a poll carried out in 2010, to the question of whether Arab citizens should be granted rights equal to those of Jews.8


This report details some of the main legal, political and policy structures that institutionalize discrimination against the Palestinian minority in Israel, and entrench inequalities between Palestinian and Jewish citizens. It provides indicators of inequalities, including official state data, and explains how specific laws and policies work to exclude the Palestinian minority from state resources and services, as well as the structures of power. It further demonstrates how the State of Israel, as an ethnocracy or “ethnic nationstate”, is systematically failing to adopt effective measures to redress the gaps that exist between the Palestinian minority and the Jewish majority and, moreover, how, by privileging Jewish citizens in many fields, the state actively preserves and even widens these gaps. Finally, the report reflects on the impact of inequality on the Palestinian minority in Israel and its ramifications for the state as a whole.


This report is part of a project on inequality. In addition to the report, Adalah has produced three videos on the subject of inequality in Israel. The first of these videos, Targeted Citizen, surveys discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel.9 The second and third videos focus on case studies of discrimination in land and planning rights and in employment rights, and considers the effect of these inequalities on Israeli society as a whole.


The report is organized into chapters and includes a section on “Main Findings”. The following subjects relating to inequalities between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel are surveyed:


  • The legal framework of inequality
  • Citizenship rights
  • Income/poverty
  • Redistribution of resources and social welfare
  • Employment, Economic assets: land
  • Educational access/attainment
  • The Arabic language
  • Health
  • Political participation

Main Findings

The legal framework of inequality

  • Inequalities between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel span all fields of public life and have persisted over time. Direct and indirect discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel is ingrained in the legal system and in governmental practice.


  • The right to equality and freedom from discrimination is not explicitly enshrined in Israeli law as a constitutional right, nor is it protected by statute. While Supreme Court justices have interpreted The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty as comprising the principle of equality, this fundamental right is currently protected by judicial interpretation alone.


  • The definition of the State of Israel as a Jewish state makes inequality and discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel a reality and a political project. The pairing of “Jewish” and “democratic” both codifies discrimination against non-Jewish citizens and impedes the realization of full equality.


  • Numerous groups of Palestinian citizens of Israel face “compound discrimination” or multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of both their national belonging as Arabs/Palestinians and their membership in one or more other distinct subgroups, such as women, the disabled and the elderly.


  • More than 30 main laws discriminate, directly or indirectly, against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the current government coalition has proposed a flood of new racist and discriminatory bills which are at various stages in the legislative process.


Citizenship rights


  • Palestinian citizens of Israel are afforded differential and unequal treatment under Israeli law in the field of citizenship rights. The most important immigration and nationality laws—including the Law of Return (1950) and the Citizenship Law (1952)—privilege Jews and Jewish immigration.


  • If the spouse of a Palestinian citizen of Israel is a Palestinian resident of the OPT, it has been virtually impossible for him or her to gain residency or citizenship status in Israel since May 2002. This ban on family unification is totally disproportionate to the alleged security reasons cited by Israel to justify it; rather, it is motivated by the state’s desire to maintain a Jewish demographic majority.


  • A new law makes it possible to strip Israeli citizenship for various reasons related to alleged “disloyalty” to the state or “breach of trust”, indirectly targeting the citizenship rights of Palestinian citizens. Several attempts to pass additional laws that grant the authority to revoke citizenship and impose further loyalty oaths are currently pending in the Knesset.




  • Arab families are greatly over-represented among Israel’s poor: over half of Arab families in Israel are classified as poor, compared to an average poverty rate of one-fifth among all families in Israel. Arab towns and villages are heavily over-represented in the lowest socio-economic rankings, and the unrecognized Arab Bedouin villages in the Naqab are the poorest communities in the state.


  • Gaps in income and poverty rates are directly related to institutional discrimination against Arab citizens in Israel.


Redistribution of resources and social welfare


  • Although the right to equality demands that states take positive steps to bridge the gaps between the various population groups, the State of Israel actively seeks to promote and direct resources to Jewish citizens as a privileged majority within the “Jewish State”. In many policy areas, including the designation of “National Priority Areas” and the use of the military-service criterion to allocate resources, the state actively preserves and perpetuates inequalities between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.


  • The state has consistently failed to take adequate and effective action to address the phenomenon of absolute and relative poverty among the Arab minority in Israel. Where it has initiated development programs targeting the Arab minority, such as the “Multi-Year Plan”, the state has tended to implement them partially, gradually, or not at all.


  • Direct state policy measures to reduce poverty disproportionately target Jewish citizens, with the result that poverty rates have fallen far more sharply among Jewish citizens than among their Arab counterparts, and inequalities have consequently persisted.




  • Palestinian citizens of Israel often face discrimination in work opportunities, pay and conditions, both because of the inadequate implementation of equal-opportunity legislation and because of entrenched structural barriers, which particularly affect women, and include poor or non-existent public transportation, a lack of industrial zones, and a shortage of state-run daycare centers. Palestinian citizens are also excluded from the labor force by the use of the military-service criterion as a condition for acceptance for employment, often when there is no connection between the nature of the work and military experience.


  • Unemployment rates remain significantly higher among Arab than among Jewish citizens, and the rate of labor-force participation among Palestinian women citizens of Israel, at just about 20%, is among the lowest in the world.


  • Palestinian citizens of Israel in general, and women in particular, continue to be sorely underrepresented in the civil service, the largest employer in Israel (in total, Arabs constitute just around 6% of all civil service employees), despite affirmative-action legislation stipulating fair representation for the Arab minority and for women.


  • The lack of development and investment in Arab towns and villages inside Israel and the unexploited or under-exploited human resources of the members of the Palestinian minority inhibit the growth of the Israeli economy. The lost potential to Israel’s economy has been estimated at around US$ 8 billion per year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).


Economic assets: land


  • In continuation of a pattern that was established with the founding of the state in 1948, Palestinian citizens of Israel continue to be deprived of access and use of the land under long-standing and more recent land laws and policies. Furthermore, new measures—including a new land reform law from 2009 and an amendment to the Land Ordinance from February 2010—aim at confirming state ownership of land confiscated from Palestinians in perpetuity and blocking Palestinian restitution claims.


  • Admissions committees operate in around 700 agricultural and community towns and filter out Arab applicants, on the basis of their “social unsuitability”, from future residency in these towns. The operation of admissions committees contributes to the institutionalization of racially segregated towns and villages throughout the state and perpetuates unequal access to the land.


  • The Jewish National Fund (JNF)—a body with quasi-state authority that operates solely for the interests of the Jewish people and controls 13% of the land in the state—continues to wield decisive influence over land policy in Israel, having been allocated six of a total of 13 members of the newly-established Land Authority Council.


  • Arab towns and villages in Israel suffer from severe overcrowding, with Arab municipalities exercising jurisdiction over only 2.5% of the total area of the state. Since 1948, the State of Israel has established approximately 600 Jewish municipalities, whereas no new Arab village, town or city has ever been built.


  • While the Arab Bedouin population in the Naqab stands at around 170,000 persons, or 14% of the total population in the Naqab, the combined areas of the government-planned and newly-recognized Arab Bedouin towns and villages in the Naqab account for just 0.9% of the land in the district.


  • Israel is currently intensifying its efforts to forcibly evacuate the unrecognized villages in the Naqab (referred to as “illegal clusters”), including by demolishing entire villages, as recently witnessed in the repeated demolition of the village of Al-Araqib. In pursuing this policy, the state has rejected the option of affording recognition to these villages, many of which predate the establishment of Israel. Between 75,000 and 90,000 Arab Bedouin live in the unrecognized villages in the Naqab, whom the state characterizes as “trespassers on state land”.


Educational access/attainment


  • The Ministry of Education retains centralized control over the form and substance of the curriculum for Arab schools, with few Arab educators wielding decision-making authority. The State Education Law sets educational objectives for state schools that emphasize Jewish history and culture.


  • The current under-investment in Arab schools in Israel threatens to sustain the gaps between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in the future. Since Arab children account for 25% of all children in Israel, the unequal investment in their education and development can be expected to act as a major brake on the Israeli economy in the coming generation.


  • State funding to Arab schools in Israel falls far behind that provided to Jewish schools. According to official state data published in 2004, the state provides three times as much funding to Jewish students as to Arab pupils. This underfunding is reflected in many areas, including relatively large class sizes and poor infrastructure and facilities.


  • There are few elementary schools in the unrecognized Arab Bedouin villages in the Naqab, severely overcrowded and poorly-equipped, and not a single high school. Despite a settlement reached by the state with Adalah to establish the first high school in the unrecognized village of Abu Tulul by 1 September 2009, no school has yet been opened.


  • Arab students are dramatically underrepresented in Israel’s universities and other institutes of higher education. Arab academics constitute only about 1.2% of all tenured and tenure-track positions in Israeli universities, leaving Arab citizens marginalized in the production of knowledge in society.


  • The Ministry of Education’s policies actually act to entrench the gaps between Arab and Jewish school children, since special programs to assist academically weak or gifted children, such as the “Shahar” academic enrichment programs, are disproportionately awarded to Jewish schools.


The Arabic language


  • While Arabic is an official language in Israel, there is clear inequality in the opportunities granted to Arabic-speakers as compared to Hebrew-speakers to enjoy and use their language in official and public fora. In practice, the status of Arabic is vastly inferior to that of Hebrew in terms of the resources dedicated to its use, despite Israel’s duty under international human rights law to protect the language rights of the Arab national minority in Israel.




  • Arab citizens of Israel can expect to live shorter lives than Jewish citizens (about four years less) and face significantly higher mortality rates, particularly after the age of 60. The rate of infant mortality among Palestinian citizens is approximately double that among Jewish citizens, and higher still among the Arab Bedouin population in the Naqab (Negev), where it reaches more than 15 per 1,000 live births.


  • While Israeli law provides that equitable, high-quality health services should be provided to all residents of Israel, various barriers—including the lack of clinics and hospitals in Arab towns and villages and limitations on mobility—mean that Palestinian citizens are frequently unable to exercise their right to the highest sustainable standard of health.


  • The health situation is most critical in the unrecognized Arab Bedouin villages in the Naqab, where health services are either limited or nonexistent. The inadequate provision of health services in the unrecognized villages is a deliberate policy of neglect on the part of the state, which is seeking to evacuate them and relocate their residents, in part by creating intolerable conditions.


Political participation


  • Palestinians citizens have unequal access and lower levels of participation than Jewish citizens in all spheres of public life and decision-making, from the judiciary, the legislature, and government to the civil service. As a result, they have limited access to decision-making processes and centers of power, and a diminished ability to redress inequality and discrimination.


  • Recent election cycles have witnessed attempts by the Attorney General (2003) and right-wing political parties and MKs to disqualify Arab parties and MKs from the Knesset, aimed at severely limiting the Palestinian political voice in the legislature. In 2003 and 2009, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned decisions of the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Arab political parties and Arab leaders from participating in the national elections.


  • The Arab voice has become increasingly delegitimized in the Israeli political and legislative process: according to recent polls around one third of Jewish citizens agree that Arab citizens should be denied the rights to vote and to be elected to the Knesset, and more than half of Jewish teenagers would deprive Arabs of the right to be elected to the Knesset.


  • The criminal justice system is regularly used as a means of delegitimizing political acts and expression by Palestinian citizens of Israel, including their elected political leadership. Several Arab MKs have been indicted or had parliamentary privileges revoked for legitimate political activities and speech that falls within the scope of their work as elected representatives.


  • A series of Israeli laws institute a range of restrictions on freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and access to the political system, including ideological limitations on the platforms of political parties and severe restrictions on travel by MKs to Arab states classified as “enemy states”. Such laws are used predominantly to curb the political freedoms of Palestinian citizens and their elected representatives and are steadily shrinking the space for political action available to them.


  • The police routinely use force and arrest against Arab demonstrators as a deterrent in order to silence voices of protest. Anti-war protestors against the Israeli military operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza—mainly Arab citizens, including many minors—were subjected to serious police violence. They further encountered disproportionate and systematic mass arrests, primarily on the pretext of their mere presence at the scene.


  • Until today, ten years after the fact, no police officer, commander or political leader has been held accountable for the killings of 13 unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel in October 2000 during demonstrations staged against Israel’s brutal policies in the OPT.


  • Years of deliberate discrimination, unequal citizenship and a limited voice in the political system have left Palestinian citizens of Israel with a sense of vulnerability, marginalization, insecurity, and distrust of and alienation from the state. Consistently lower voter turn-out rates among Palestinian citizens are one result: in the 2009 elections, the voter turn-out rate was 64.7% overall and 53% among Arab voters.


  • By approaching the Arab minority in Israel as a “fifth column” to be controlled and contained, at times employing state violence and draconian legal measures against them, Israel is ultimately undermining the emergence of genuine stability and a culture of respect for democracy, good governance and human rights norms. It also risks relegating issues of human rights to “threats” to security and sovereignty, to be dealt with by the state.

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