“Free Arabs” Falls for Mendacious Maps, Fictitious Facts

Free Arabs is a web site with an independent streak. A self-described collection of “free-minded bloggers, journalists, and activists” who strive to promote democracy and oppose “Arab old-guard elites and the fundamentalists,” the site engages in some uncomfortable cultural self-criticism (a featured music video focuses on honor killings in Palestinian society, for example) and has a youthful, some might say childish, edge (“cultural appropriation is wrong,” readers are informed, and “if you disagree, you are being a dickhead”).

But on one topic, at least, Free Arabs seems unable to buck the trend. The site has little to say about Hamas, whose racism, extrajudicial assassinations and policies of gender segregation fly in the face of the values Free Arabs says it celebrates.  It has even less to say about Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority head who for a time served as democratically elected leader, but who in the five years since his term expired has continued to rule, undemocratically, as unelected leader. But about Israel, Free Arabs churns out the content, with hateful discourse and a disregard for facts that is far from fresh.
Consider “The Geography of Occupation,” a May 2014 article that promises a “purely fact-based” series of maps and messages about Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip but in fact is replete with errors and distortions.
Click on the illustration above for a larger image

The maps, prepared by a group called Visualizing Palestine, show huge swaths of land that are supposedly kept empty of Arabs, and speak about the impact of what Free Arabs describes a “grossly discriminatory Israeli ID system” in which the right to vote is seemingly granted and denied based on ethnicity.  

The second map in the series, for example, depicts gray areas that are supposedly empty of Israeli Arabs. “Palestinian citizens of Israel,” the accompanying text states, are “barred from living in 68% of all towns in Israel by admissions committees.” But both the map and the text are wrong. It is simply absurd to depict, as the map does, that an Arab resident of (blue) downtown Haifa is not permitted to move to (gray) downtown Jerusalem. Likewise, it is a lie to suggest Israel’s Arab citizens are barred from living in Ashdod or Ashkelon, two cities in the grayed portion of the map. (Just ask any of the hundreds of Arabs living there. 
The supposedly Jews-only gray area is also the site of Bir Hadaj, a new town Israel is developing for some of its traditionally nomadic Bedouin citizens.
And what of the “admissions committees” that the text claims make “68% of all towns in Israel” off limits to Arab Israelis? This, too, is false. The claim refers to a 2011 amendment to an old ordinance governing “cooperative societies,” which in effect allows communities with fewer than 400 families in the Galilee and Negev, relatively remote areas northern and southern Israel, to accept or reject prospective new residents. In many respects this is similar to how co-op boards in New York City are permitted to reject potential tenants. 
And as with co-op boards and the fair housing laws that they are expected to abide by, the Israeli amendment explicitly states that these small communities may not reject potential candidates based on race, religion, gender, nationality, disability, personal status, age, parenthood, sexual orientation, country of origin and several other factors. In other words, contrary to what the map claims, Israel’s Arab citizens are not legally barred from living in the hundreds of villages to which the amendment refers. (In the same way, it does not “bar” Jewish candidates whom admissions committees could potentially discriminated against — gay couples, Mizrachi Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews or the disabled.)
This of course does not mean the law isn’t controversial. It doesn’t mean admissions committees can not and do not hide behind loopholes in the law to illegally discriminate against candidates. And it doesn’t mean Israel’s courts might not strike down the law in response to legal challenges. But it does mean Arabs are not legally forbidden from living in towns governed by the law. Indeed, when one Arab couple suspected their rejection from a small town was due to illegal discrimination, they turned to Israel’s High Court, which ruled in their favor. Ahmad and Fatna Zabidat, with the weight of Israel’s legal system behind them, are now free to live in the town of Rakefet. Free Arabs and Visualizing Palestine are wrong. 
They are wrong again about the third map in the sequence, which visually illustrates that east Jerusalem Palestinians can’t live anywhere in Israel. While they can “access” most areas, the text concedes, their “ID may be revoked if living outside of Jerusalem.” The glaring omission is that Israel offered citizenship to residents of east Jerusalem after it reunified the city and imposed Israeli law there. Most residents chose not to apply for citizenship, though in recent years more and more are doing so. The larger error is that Israel does not revoke the residency rights of east Jerusalem Arabs who simply live outside the city. Only if they move out of the country and either acquire foreign citizenship or fail to return every several years to renew their exit documents is their residency status at risk.
Map number four does not fare any better. No, West Bank Palestinians are certainly not 
“barred from living in all but 40%” of the West Bank, with “Area C” being off limits, as the map shows. In fact, about 300,000 Palestinians live in this supposedly Palestinian-free zone.
It is not only Visualizing Palestine, which created the maps, that deserves blame. Free Arabs is responsible for the content it chooses to feature on the site. And it is certainly responsible for its own contribution — in this case an introduction written by a Free Arabs author, which unfortunately makes further errors.
Free Arabs claims “any Palestinian in exile is not authorized to enter Israel or Palestine.” False. It claims Palestinian residents of the West Bank and east Jerusalem are not allowed to “enter Israel.” Again false.
Perhaps most disingenuous is the rhetorical trick the author uses in comparing “Jewish Israelis” with “Palestinians,” a conflation meant to convince readers of Israeli discrimination. Naturally, the fair comparison would be of “Jewish Israelis” with “Palestinian Israelis,” two groups with the same rights under the law. Would Free Arabs have us believe there is anti-Jewish discrimination because Palestinian Israelis can vote in Israeli elections while Jewish Americans can not? Would it announce that the US discriminates against white people because black Americans can vote while white Russians cannot?
Despite its stated mission to spread democracy and oppose authoritarianism, Free Arabs seems, intentionally or not, to be following in the footsteps of those Arab autocrats whose hand-waving about the Israeli bogeyman serves to distract their subjects from problems at home. Shouldn’t reasonable, accurate and proportionate criticism of Israel and its Arab neighbors should be good enough? Shouldn’t Free Arabs liberate its readers from such inaccurate propaganda?

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