Israel is not the only democracy in the Middle East. In fact, it's not a democracy at all.
In the eyes of many Israelis and their supporters worldwide - even those who might criticize some of its policies - Israel is, at the end of the day, a benign democratic state, seeking peace with its neighbors, and guaranteeing equality to all its citizens.
Those who do criticize Israel assume that if anything went wrong in this democracy then it was due to the 1967 war. In this view, the war corrupted an honest and hardworking society by offering easy money in the occupied territories, allowing messianic groups to enter Israeli politics, and above all else turning Israel into an occupying and oppressive entity in the new territories.
The myth that a democratic Israel ran into trouble in 1967 but still remained a democracy is propagated even by some notable Palestinian and pro-Palestinian scholars - but it has no historical foundation.
Israel Before 1967 Was Not a Democracy
Before 1967, Israel definitely could not have been depicted as a democracy. As we have seen in previous chapters, the state subjected one-fifth of its citizenship to military rule based on draconian British Mandatory emergency regulations that denied the Palestinians any basic human or civil rights.
Local military governors were the absolute rulers of the lives of these citizens: they could devise special laws for them, destroy their houses and livelihoods, and send them to jail whenever they felt like it. Only in the late 1950s did a strong Jewish opposition to these abuses emerge, which eventually eased the pressure on the Palestinian citizens.
For the Palestinians who lived in prewar Israel and those who lived in the post-1967 West Bank and the Gaza Strip, this regime allowed even the lowest-ranking soldier in the IDF to rule, and ruin, their lives. They were helpless if such a solider, or his unit or commander, decided to demolish their homes, or hold them for hours at a checkpoint, or incarcerate them without trial. There was nothing they could do.
At every moment from 1948 until today, there had been some group of Palestinians undergoing such an experience.
The first group to suffer under such a yoke was the Palestinian minority inside Israel. It began in the first two years of statehood when they were pushed into ghettos, such as the Haifa Palestinian community living on the Carmel mountain, or expelled from the towns they had inhabited for decades, such as Safad. In the case of Isdud, the whole population was expelled to the Gaza Strip.
In the countryside, the situation was even worse. The various Kibbutz movements coveted Palestinian villages on fertile land. This included the socialist Kibbutzim, Hashomer Ha-Zair, which was allegedly committed to binational solidarity.
Long after the fighting of 1948 had subsided, villagers in Ghabsiyyeh, Iqrit, Birim, Qaidta, Zaytun, and many others, were tricked into leaving their homes for a period of two weeks, the army claiming it needed their lands for training, only to find out on their return that their villages had been wiped out or handed to someone else.
This state of military terror is exemplified by the Kafr Qasim massacre of October 1956, when, on the eve of the Sinai operation, forty-nine Palestinian citizens were killed by the Israeli army. The authorities alleged that they were late returning home from work in the fields when a curfew had been imposed on the village. This was not the real reason, however.
Later proofs show that Israel had seriously considered the expulsion of Palestinians from the whole area called the Wadi Ara and the Triangle in which the village sat. These two areas - the first a valley connecting Afula in the east and Hadera on the Mediterranean coast; the second expanding the eastern hinterland of Jerusalem - were annexed to Israel under the terms of the 1949 armistice agreement with Jordan.
As we have seen, additional territory was always welcomed by Israel, but an increase in the Palestinian population was not. Thus, at every juncture, when the state of Israel expanded, it looked for ways to restrict the Palestinian population in the recently annexed areas.
Operation "Hafarfert" ("mole") was the code name of a set of proposals for the expulsion of Palestinians when a new war broke out with the Arab world. Many scholars today now think that the 1956 massacre was a practice run to see if the people in the area could be intimidated to leave.
The perpetrators of the massacre were brought to trial thanks to the diligence and tenacity of two members of the Knesset: Tawaq Tubi from the Communist Party and Latif Dori of the Left Zionist party Mapam. However, the commanders responsible for the area, and the unit itself that committed the crime, were let off very lightly, receiving merely small fines. This was further proof that the army was allowed to get away with murder in the occupied territories.
Systematic cruelty does not only show its face in a major event like a massacre. The worst atrocities can also be found in the regime's daily, mundane presence.
Palestinians in Israel still do not talk much about that pre-1967 period, and the documents of that time do not reveal the full picture. Surprisingly, it is in poetry that we find an indication of what it was like to live under military rule.