From Jim Crow to ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement:’ The legal and soft barriers to equality and integration of citizen-Palestinians in Israel

By Gershon Shafir, University of California, San Diego

* This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” workshop, February 6, 2015 


For the first two decades after 1948, most members of the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel lived under a military government that regulated their freedom of movement and enforced legalized barriers that prevented their free access to land and to employment in the Jewish-run economy. These legal barriers then came down one at a time: In 1959 the exclusion from the Histadrut labor union ended, the military government was abolished in 1965, and exclusion in land allocation was struck down by the Supreme Court of Israel in 2000. It seemed that an exclusionary ethno-national citizenship was giving way to a liberal citizenship framework that would encompass both Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Nevertheless, citizen-Palestinians, who currently make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population, remain poorer, less-educated, and concentrated at the lower rungs of the occupational hierarchy. The government appointed Or Commission of August 2003, concluded that: “Israel’s Arab citizens live in a reality in which they are discriminated against as Arabs.”

During the years of Oslo process, parallel with negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin also undertook efforts to begin to remedy systemic discrimination against citizen-Palestinians. These were years of “unparalleled openness” in Yousef T. Jabareen’s words, expressed through expanded budgets and the Supreme Court decision mentioned above. However, with the decline and collapse of the hopes for a peace accord, Israel has taken a turn toward a more nationalist and ethnocentric citizenship discourse. The older legal barriers have been, in part, replaced by softer barriers. Since the 2009 legislative elections there has been a discernible backlash against the expanding liberal citizenship discourse that was expressed in attempts, such as the proposed “Nation-State Law” of late 2014, to reconstruct legal barriers as well. Even so, the attempt to close the socio-economic gaps have not completely abated on the governmental level and new integrative initiatives have been put forth by the internationally-oriented parts of the private sector.

This goal of this research project is not to record the massive disparities in the socio-economic status of Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens; these are well documented. Nor it is to evaluate the relative effect of the social structure of Palestinian Arab communities versus official discrimination in maintaining these disparities; a great deal of work has been done on such comparisons as well. My goal is to identify and inquire into the concrete mechanisms that maintain the exclusion of and discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens even in the absence of legalized segregation and exclusion. Some of these mechanisms use republican virtue, others ethno-national, and ironically even liberal, neo-liberal, and multi-cultural citizenship incorporation to achieve exclusion. My hypothesis is that soft barriers, especially of the recent local (regional and municipal) and consumer-based variety, emerge with the termination of state-level boycotts and legal barriers but produce similar results to the earlier legal exclusions. What was Jim Crow now becomes a so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” though plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it stays the same).

Barriers to Land:

One of the most significant barriers has been the exclusion of Palestinians from public land that was owned or run on behalf of the pre-state colonizatory bodies, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Jewish Agency, and by the Israel Land Authority (ILA). Palestinian citizens are, therefore, unable to purchase or lease land on around 80 percent of Israel’s territory on the basis of their nationality.

The Qaadans, a citizen-Palestinian couple, petitioned the Supreme Court in 1995 to intercede on their behalf after the ILA refused to lease them land in Katzir, a “community settlement” established by the Jewish Agency. In a path-breaking decision in March 2000, the Supreme Court, led by Court President Aharon Barak, determined that it was illegal for the state to discriminate between its Jewish and Arab citizens in the allocation of land, even when that discrimination was affected indirectly, through Jewish “national institutions” (the Jewish Agency in this case). The ethno-national Zionist interest in “Judaizing” various regions of the country, Barak ruled, could not overcome the liberal principle of equality and, in effect, affirmed the distinction between the national and private spheres. The court pursued an integrationist approach, asserting that “a policy of ‘separate but equal’ is by its very nature unequal … [because] separation denigrates the excluded minority group.” Even so, the court did not hand down a principled but only an ad hoc ruling, instructing the ILA to reconsider its previous decision.

There were several, but interconnected, responses to the Supreme Court Decision which, for all practical purposes replaced the legal barrier with a soft one. In a meeting of the representatives of agencies in charge of land policy, the ILA’s director general argued that “if the JNF land cannot contribute to the [state’s] Jewish character, then it shall be [done through] the structure of settlements’ Admission Committees.” These Admission Committees were first established in 1989 and tasked with admitting only individuals suitable for a communal life style. Committee members are drawn from the settlement’s founders, the regional council, and the Jewish Agency. In 2005, it was decided that the committee would remain in operation not only until it has 150 but 400 families per locale, thus approving large numbers of Jewish families before throwing the community open to Arab families. Such Admission Committees operate in 695 locales, which account for 68.5 percent of Israeli towns and 85 percent of villages. 

Landed Barriers to Employment and Benefits:

A standing aim of Israeli policy has been enhanced state control of areas within the 1949 Green Line boundaries by increasing their Jewish population. For a long time this policy was carried out by the construction of new towns along Israel’s borders and the direction of waves of immigrants to them.

Since February 1998, Israeli governments have provided priority and subsidies in housing, development, educational, cultural, sport, and environmental protection funds through its relevant ministries to communities designated as National Priority Areas (NPA) on the basis of three criteria: 1) geographic distance from the center of the country, 2) location in ‘friction zones,’ and 2) low socio-economic ranking. The NPA designation is a “main channel for allocating additional resources” to local communities. This list is regularly revised and updated.

In 2006, Justice Barak’s Supreme Court rejected the use of geographical criterion for the designation of NPA, which had been employed to provide such status to some 550 Jewish and four Arab communities. The Court rejected the criterion because it “is contaminated by one of the most suspect distinctions, which is distinction based on race and nationality.” On July 14, 2009, the Law for Enhanced Economic Efficiency introduced a new mix of criteria, including the enhancement of the state’s social-security immunity (khosen). Though, the new law established whole geographical regions as NPAs areas – within which 40 percent of the population lived in Arab communities – it simultaneously decided that individual ministers have exclusive jurisdiction to decide whether a community located within a NPA region will, in fact, be entitled to the corresponding benefits. In effect, the new law separated the classification of a community as a NPA from the allocation of benefits to it by muddying the selections process.

Barriers to Employment:

Another powerful but less visible barrier to equality and integration is the use of security, in particular military service criteria, to award benefits to individual citizens in a way that excludes Arab citizens. This is commonly a two step-exclusion: In the first stage, most Palestinian citizens are exempted from military service and, in a second stage, they are found ineligible for benefits allocated to veterans. These benefits have to be earned and are available only to those who, according to a republican virtue tradition of citizenship, attend to the common good which, however, is defined in terms of ethno-nationalist citizenship.

Military service is viewed as a broad filter of trust, rather than a qualification required for the performance of many jobs. Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Beit, has to provide security clearance to employees in the public sector, however the criteria for determining appropriate security fit remain covert. In the past, the Electric Company, the Telephone Company (Bezek), and the Airport Authority have rejected Arab applicants for security reasons, using national origin as a proxy for security clearance instead of examining the suitability of individual candidates.

Veterans enjoy preferential treatment under the 1994 Absorption of Veterans Law that authorizes universities to prioritize veterans in the allocation of university dorms and other benefits. Similarly, the Ministry of Construction and Housing uses among its criteria for loans and grants to new couples not only length of marriage, number of siblings, number of children, and location of the home, but also the duration of each spouse’s military service. Since the ministry’s declared goal is to help the socio-economically disadvantaged, military service is an arbitrary criterion of allocation.

Israel has forbade discrimination by its Labor Exchanges since 1959. In 1981 it legislated an Equal Employment Opportunity Law, and in 2008 Israel established the Equal Employment Opportunity Authority to enforce existing legislation. Even so, only 2 to 4 percent of the complaints that reach the Authority seek remedy for discrimination based on national origin and only a handful of these have yielded results in favor of the plaintiff. The reason is that they focus on single instances rather than on the structural causes of discrimination, which require structural remedies.

Between 1992 and 1995, when Rabin was prime minister, policies were instituted to reduce Jewish-Arab socio-economic gaps. These efforts are still continuing. In the past decade and half, several affirmative action programs to build industrial parks and foster vocation training, have been enacted in response to the Or Commission Report’s criticism. Though some progress has been made, only a portion of the new budgets were expanded. Plans to increase participation in the public sector, by setting designated target rates for both Arab men and women, have also not been very effective. Since 2007 there have been several private sector initiatives to promote the integration of Arab college graduates into the private sector and create high-tech hubs in Arab municipalities. Though there have been notable individual successes, it is difficult to assess how effective these programs have been and how they stack up against the legal and soft barriers examined here.

Other, more recent soft, but hard-edged barriers, are put up by agents or social movements that actively seek to promote employment discrimination against citizen-Palestinians. These range from calls by Rabbi Chaim Kenievsky on other yeshivot to fire Arab employees after a bombing in Yeshivat Harav to Rabbi Dov Lior’s injunction not to employ Arabs or rent them housing as ways of fighting against terrorism. More recently, local movements, such as Hebrew Labor discourage the employment of Palestinian Arabs in Jewish-owned shops, while others, such as Lehava seeks to halt intermarriage to prevent ‘assimilation,’ and some of its members firebombed an Arab-Jewish school.


It seems that legal and soft barriers, as well as practically every citizenship framework , can, and have, been used to discourage or prevent equality or integration of citizen-Palestinians into Israeli society. Maintaining separation, through a top-down centralized national Ministry of Education plays an important role in upholding an ethno-nationalist citizenship framework and thus makes discrimination easier through differential allocation of resources. Frequently, exclusion and differentiation are based on a notion of republic citizenship that rewards contribution to the common good. And more recent decentralized, community-level, multiculturalist policies, allow for closing of Jewish communities to Arabs who wish to live in mixed towns.

The rulings of the liberal Barak Supreme Court have done the most to break the legal barriers to integration. It would seem that a liberal citizenship incorporation framework, which uses neutral, individual criteria would be immune to, and maybe itself be a barrier to discrimination. In fact, the transition in Israel to a neo-liberal, though frequently monopolistic, economy led to a particularly high poverty rate of 19.8 percent compared to OECD states, second only to Mexico, above the 17.4 percent of the US, and certainty above the OECD average of 11.1 percent for 2010. Over time, Israel’s poverty has risen at differential rates: from 18 percent in 2002 to 20 percent in 2011, but among Jews the rise was from 13.9 percent to 14.1 percent while among Arabs it was especially large, from 47.6 percent to 53.5 percent. A weak welfare state is particularly punishing for lower-class minorities.

Gershon Shafir is a professor in the department of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He is the co-author of Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship (Cambridge University Press, 2002) as well as co-editor of Lessons and Legacies of the War on Terror: From Moral Panic to Permanent War (Routledge, 2013) and Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel (University of California Press, 2012).


Recommended Readings:

Adalah, “The Inequality Report: The Palestinian Arab Minority in Israel,” Haifa, March 2011,

Belikoff, Michal & Safa Agabria, “From Deficits and Dependence to Balanced Budgets and Independence: The Arab Local Authorities’ Revenue Sources,” Sikkuy & Injaz, Jerusalem, April 2014

Jabareen, Yousef T., “Political and Legal Attacks on the Palestinian-Arab Minority in Israel: Historical Progression, Current Threats and Future Actions Needed,” Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Tel Aviv, January 2013

Khattab, Nabil & Sami Miaari eds., Palestinians in the Israeli Labor Market: A Multidisciplinary Approach, New York, NY, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Mada: Arab Center for Applied Social Research, “Israel and the Palestinian Minority: Political Monitoring Report,” November-December 2010, No. 12, 2011,

Mossawa Center, “The New Wave of Israel’s Discriminatory Laws: The Legal Status of Palestinian Arab Citizens of Israel over the Last Decade,” September 2014,

Or Commission, “National Commission of Inquiry for the Examination of the Confrontations between the Security Forces and Israeli Citizens in October 2000,” Jerusalem, August 2003.

Rouhana, Nadim N. & Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, “Settler Colonial Citizenship: Conceptualizing the Relationship Between Israel and Its Palestinian Citizens,” Settler Colonial Studies, 2014, pp.1-21.

Swaid, Hanna, “Land, Planning and Housing Plight Facing the Arab Citizens of Israel,” Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Tel Aviv, October 2010

Steiner, Talya, Breaking the Inequality: Confronting the Discrimination of Arabs in the Israeli Labor Market, Israel Democracy Institute, Jerusalem, May 2013 (in Hebrew)

Tzfadia, Erez, “Abusing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Recognition and Land Allocation in Israel,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2008, Vol. 26, pp.1115-1130.

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