For the first time in its history, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is marking Arabic Language Day – something certainly worth marking, yet the pomp and ceremony may be a little exaggerated If not slightly hypocritical. In practice, most state authorities operate in Hebrew only, and most official publications appear in Hebrew only, despite the fact that Arabic – still an official language in the country – is the language spoken by about a fifth of Israel’s citizens, and close to five million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, who are subjected to Israel’s control and laws.
Given this state of affairs, Gisha invests a lot of effort into getting Israel to make essential documents detailing laws, regulations, protocols, directives, forms and more, accessible to the Palestinian public in its own language. Two administrative petitions we filed against the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Civil Administration, which never published their operating procedures at all, ended with the first-ever publication of dozens of procedures in both Hebrew and Arabic. The State Attorney’s Office argued it had no obligation to publish the procedures in Arabic (but admitted that given the target audience, it would be appropriate to do so). The state then argued that budgetary and personnel constraints prevented it from translating the procedures into Arabic within a reasonable timeframe. It is important to recall that the Ministry of Defense budget – the part of it that the public knows about – is about 59 billion shekels, and it is a safe bet that thousands of Arabic speakers hold positions within the security establishment.
We’re glad we were able to put an end to a years-long practice whereby the Gaza District Coordination Office (DCO) would make Israeli citizens returning from Israel to the Gaza Strip (where they live with an Israel-issued permit) sign a declaration in Hebrew and English only. The form says the person signing understands the terms of the permit to enter Gaza and is aware of the sanctions they might face if they break these terms. Obviously, most of the people signing the form did not understand what they were signing, making their signature worth about as much as the paper it was written on. It was only in 2015, after much effort on our part, that the form was finally translated into Arabic.
Gisha has also contacted the Counseling and Legislation Department at the Ministry of Justice, which is in charge of translating all official publications into Arabic. Every time a directive or regulation is published that would mainly impact the Arabic-speaking public, Gisha contacts the department and encourages its translation. It has happened in the past that while COGAT evaded its duty to translate an important order into Arabic, like the one listing what items require special permission to be brought into the Gaza Strip, the Ministry of Justice quickly translated it following our request.
As proud as we are of our achievements, they are simply a drop in a bucket of discrimination and disregard. We hope that member of Knesset take action to fulfil the obligation to publish in Arabic as well, in the name of the law, and mostly in the name of fairness and the pursuit of equality.