Israel moves to downgrade Arabic from official language status

A new bill passed by Israeli ministers defines Hebrew as the 'national language'. If passed, the controversial legislation would become part of the country’s so-called basic law, which is similar to a constitution.

An Israeli sign, written in Hebrew, Arabic and English, at the entrance of the Qalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / February 9, 2014
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JERUSALEM // Israeli ministers approved a controversial bill on Sunday that would define the country as the “national home of the Jewish people” while downgrading Arabic as an official language.

If the bill eventually becomes law, Arabic would be defined as having special status, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported. Arabic speakers would "have the right to language-accessible state services" but it would not be an official language.

Hebrew is defined as the "national language" in the bill, which would become part of the country's so-called basic law, which is similar to a constitution, Haaretz added.

Ministers confirmed that the proposed legislation had been approved by a cabinet committee, allowing it to move on to parliament.

Some 17.5 per cent of Israel’s population are Arab. Public signs and government services are typically in Hebrew as well as Arabic and it was unclear whether the new bill would change that.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is seen as the most right-wing in the country’s history, and Israel’s Palestinian citizens are already widely discriminated against.

Parliament member Ayman Odeh, who heads the mainly Arab Joint List alliance, said approving the bill would mean trampling on minority rights. It will “legally transform us into second-class citizens”, he said.

Defining Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people” has also raised concerns among rights activists and others worried over discrimination and attempts to further mix religion and state.

Haaretz said the most recent version of the bill would not subordinate democracy to Israel's Jewish character, unlike previous versions.

The bill was sponsored by Avi Dichter, a member of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party who said it was necessary to “set in law our national identity while remaining a democratic state”.

Also on Sunday, a Palestinian teenager was shot dead by Israeli police at the Damascus Gate entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health identified the teen as 16-year-old Fatima Afif Abd Al Rahman Hjeiji from the village of Qarawat Bani Zeid, near Ramallah, the Palestinian Maan news agency reported.

Israeli authorities claimed Hjeiji had tried to stab officers, but no police injuries were reported.

The 16-year-old’s death brings the number of Palestinians killed by Israelis this year to 20, including seven minors, according to Maan.

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press