By Edmund Sanders
Reporting from Jerusalem
Israel's conservative-led Knesset adopted two controversial laws Wednesday that critics warn will worsen discrimination against the country's Arab minority and make it easier to prevent Arab citizens from moving into hundreds of Jewish towns and villages.
One law legalizes the practice of using "admissions committees" in small towns in the Negev and Galilee to reject would-be residents based upon their social "suitability," a vague term that opponents fear will also be used to bar gays, black Israelis, single women, Christians and secular families.
The second law is aimed at imposing fines on Arab towns and organizations that commemorate so-called Nakba Day, which falls on Israel's Independence Day. Some Arab Israelis mourn the day as a "catastrophe" because it resulted in the displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians.
"This is not just a racist law, it's an oppressive law," said Hassan Jabareen, founder of Adalah, an Israeli advocacy group focusing on legal rights of Arab citizens. "It sends the public message that Israel not only doesn't respect the history and memory of the Palestinian people, but they now prohibit Palestinians living under their regime from commemorating their own history and identity."
He said the laws are the latest example of state-condoned discrimination against Arab citizens, who also receive unequal treatment in their ability to purchase or lease land and to obtain citizenship for spouses. He said the laws would heighten tensions inside Israel's Arab minority, which accounts for about 20 percent of the population.
During a spirited Knesset debate that began Tuesday night and continued into early Wednesday, Arab lawmakers condemned the measures as "racist" and "anti-democratic."
"This is a black night," said Jamal Zahalka, of the Arab-led Balad Party. "We will turn to the world for protection from your government, which acts with hostility toward the Arab public."
Zahalka said the admissions-committee law will effectively prevent Arabs from living in 70 percent of the country and that the Nakba law will "trample" free speech.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the laws and said Israel's commitment to free speech and democracy was evident in the fact that Zahalka and other Arab lawmakers are able to stand in the Knesset and voice their criticisms.
"Their claims sound hollow when we see what's going on around us," Netanyahu said, referring to the recent regional unrest in the Mideast. "There is no Arab country where Arabs have the rights and democratic freedom to express themselves as they do in the state of Israel."
Supporters of the admissions-committee bill said it was intended to preserve the culture and identity of small towns. They noted that the law contains explicit bans on discriminating against would-be residents based upon race or religion. But critics say the ambiguity over the term social "suitability" gives the privately-run committees -- consisting of local residents and representatives of national Jewish organizations -- wide latitude over public lands.
Arab and civil rights groups are already challenging the legality of such committees, which currently function in more than 500 Israeli towns. During a Supreme Court hearing last month, justices expressed reservations about the practice.
An earlier version of the Nakba bill would have imposed jail time on violators and banned the use of the term "Nakba." The final version requires the government to fine local bodies and groups that mark Nakba Day, support armed resistance or racism against Israel, or debase the Israeli flag.