Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - A new law that provides for distinct representation for Christian and Muslim Israeli Arabs has been labelled racist by both Jews and Palestinians.
On Monday, the Knesset approved a minor bill expanding the equal opportunities commission from five to ten members, giving separate seats to Christians, Muslims, Druze and Circassians.
Some MKs (Members of the Knesset) have immediately slammed the law as "useless" because Israeli society has a duty to provide jobs to all Arabs, not specifically to Christians or Muslims.
Statements by the bill's sponsor, Likud MK Yariv Levin, has led to a heated debate. Interviewed by the newspaper Maariv a few weeks ago, he explained that the purpose of the law is "To grant separate representation and separate treatment to the Christian community, which will be distinguished from the Muslim Arabs."
"This," he explained, "is a historic and important move that could help balance the State of Israel, and connect us and the Christians, and I'm being careful about not calling them Arabs because they aren't Arabs."
"We and the Christians have a lot in common," he added. "They're our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within."
Israel's Arab community has its roots in the 160,000 Palestinians who remained inside Israel following its creation in 1948. Today they and their descendants number around 1.3 million (20 per cent) out of a total Israeli population of 7.9 million.
Israeli Arabs enjoy full citizenship and are allowed to vote but have long complained of official discrimination.
Adopted two days ago, the law is seen by many as an attempt to divide Israeli Palestinians on the basis of religion, pitting Christians against Muslims, in order to make the first the "allies" of the State of Israel.
For Meretz MK Issawi Freij, "an effort is being made to try to define the state according to religions. Here they are trying to say that there's a difference between Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs."
Balad party chief Jamal Zahalka also criticised the bill's sponsor. "Arab rights don't interest Yariv Levin," he said. "We will not be his lackeys."
"This law aims to create a new reality among our people based on religion and not national identity," Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement.
Today, an editorial in Haaretz also describes the law as racist because it separates "good Arabs" (Christians)" from "bad Arabs (Muslims)".
"Such a distinction is designed to spark conflicts between minorities in a divide-and-conquer style that breaches international agreements that Israel has signed," the paper writes.
Christian sources in Jerusalem told AsiaNews that the law itself does not make any substantial change to the situation since Christians are Arab by ethnicity and tradition.
Still, there is widespread fear that, as a result of the Knesset bill, Palestinian Muslims will look upon Christians as enemies and as allies of the Israeli state.
Backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a campaign is underway to enrol more Christians in the Israeli Defence Forces whilst excluding Muslim Arabs, thus contributing to this view.
In this regard, MK Basel Ghattas (an Orthodox Christian) wrote a letter to Pope Francis, which he gave to the Apostolic Nuncio Mgr Giuseppe Lazzarotto. The Holy Father is expected in the Holy Land in May.
In his letter, he slams the attempt to Israelise the Arab minority, a step that could erode Christians' identity in the country.
Ghattas calls on the pope to intervene with the Israeli government to end its "divide-and-conquer policy applied," which will "harm the Palestinian minority inside Israel."