absent without leave

They are there but not there at the same time. Almost a quarter of the Palestinians living inside Israel – that’s more than 300,000 Israeli citizens – are officially deemed “present absentees”.
It’s a quirk of Israeli law that bothers Mohammad Zeidan, of the Arab Association for Human Rights, a great deal. “They are present when it comes to their duties but absent when it comes to their rights,” is how he describes it.
The situation for so-called Israeli Arabs – or 1948 Palestinians as some of them call themselves – is more complicated than that of their compatriots living in the West Bank and Gaza.
During the upheaval of 1948, more than 520 Palestinian villages were destroyed and their inhabitants internally displaced. Not recognised officially as refugees, they were granted Israeli citizenship in the early 1950s.
Today, their descendants are often subtly discriminated against but lack adequate representation. “Oslo showed us that you cam have a peace agreement and not equality,” says Zeidan. “The struggle for human rights within Israel is not necessarily connected to the situation in the occupied territories.
“Israel sees us as citizens and the Palestinian authorities don’t deal with cases on this side of the border.”
There are important issues that need highlighting, though, such as the plight of the present refugees. Israel’s Absentee Property Law, which is still on the statute books, deems that any property from which the owner was absent from Nov 1947 to May 1948 – in other words the period of the war – became the property of the state. Those affected, the displaced who fled their villages with the intention of returning once the turmoil ended, found themselves landless and without rights – present but absent at the same time.
It’s just one example of the bias against Israeli Arabs that Zeidan claims can be broken down into four types.
“First is legal or direct discrimination – when the system itself talks about Jewishness as a criteria for rights. Jews get more rights in Israel than non-Jews,” he explains. “An example of this is the citizenship law, which gives any Jew living anywhere in the world the right to come and live in Israel.
“Then there is the unique status of Jewish organisations. The Jewish National Fund, a kind of NGO, is involved in land distribution. Even if it used to be my father’s land and they have built a house on it, I have no right to buy but Jews from Brooklyn do.”
Indirect discrimination occurs when those who are exempted from national service are denied benefits as a result.
Institutional bias is visible in the Arab areas of towns such as Nazareth or East Jerusalem, where the roads are in poorer condition and the school budgets lower than those in neighbouring Jewish quarters.
The final kind of discrimination relates more to public racism. Research by universities in Israel have shown that almost two-thirds of citzens believe civil rights such as the right to vote should be withdrawn from Palestinian Israelis.
Such issues, often forgotten amid the daily crisis of life within the occupied territories, will continue regardless of what happens in the peace process, according to Zeidan.
“Ninety-nine per cent of Palestinians living within Israel would stay here, no matter what happens,” he says. “This means this probem will continue even after the general Palestinian problem is resolved.
“Those who are looking for stability within the Middle East must take this into account. They need to recognise us as a minority and address the Jewishness of the state, because that is the source of this problem.
“It legitimises in the minds of the majority that it’s okay to discriminate against the minority – an indigenous minority. We believe we are the owners of this place and deserve better treatment from the state.
“The vast majority of people living here today are immigrants and Israel is trying to develop a system to push us to the margins in all aspects of life.”