TEL AVIV — Israel's parliament is weighing a law that would reserve almost one-seventh of the nation's land area for Jewish ownership, touching off a heated debate over whether the plan undermines Israel's democracy or is essential to preserve its Jewish character.
The land, comprising almost 1,000 square miles scattered around Israel, is owned by the Jewish National Fund — a public trust set up by the Zionist movement a century ago to purchase tracts in Palestine for Jewish settlement.
For nearly five decades, JNF land has been made available for purchase through the government-run Israel Lands Authority, which has given the JNF nearly half the seats on its board and honored the fund's policy of selling only to Jews.
But early next month, Israel's Supreme Court will hear three petitions from civil rights groups challenging the government's compliance with that policy, arguing that it discriminates against the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish.
The bill moving through parliament is an attempt to pre-empt the court, which is expected to rule against the JNF policy.
Backers of the legislation say it is necessary to protect land purchased with money donated by the Jewish diaspora to foster Jewish settlement.
The JNF law "is urgently needed to stop the anti-Zionist wave that has spread over Israel," said lawmaker Aryeh Eldad, whose colleagues in the far-right National Union Party introduced the legislation.
"This is Jewish land that was bought with Jewish money that was collected for generations, to liberate and redeem a land that was occupied and captured by others.
"Now the anti-Zionist legal figures and the people in charge of the legal system say that in the name of equity or democracy, one isn't allowed to differentiate."
The parliament agreed by a 64-16 vote last month to consider the legislation, though it has not yet been referred to a committee. But critics from both sides of Israel's political spectrum say it is a discriminatory law that threatens to taint the image of the Jewish state abroad.
The law is "a blatant violation of the norms of democracy," wrote Moshe Arens, a former Likud Party foreign and defense minister, in an op-ed article in the Ha'aretz newspaper. "In a democratic state, one cannot condone laws that discriminate between citizens on ethnic grounds. That was certainly not part of Herzl's vision of the Jewish state."
Theodor Herzl is honored as the founder of Zionism.
The Supreme Court case, which is scheduled for a hearing on Sept. 10, challenges an Israel Lands Authority decision in 2004 forbidding a real estate transaction and a public land tender that would have transferred ownership of JNF land to Israeli Arabs.
The Israel Lands Authority said it was under an obligation to honor a commitment to the JNF not to sell its land to non-Jews.
But Yoav Loeff, a spokesman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, argued that "the obligation of the Israel Lands Authority, as a governmental agency, to the principle of equality is absolute and much stronger than any other commitment to the JNF." Mr. Loeff's group is one of the parties to the court petition.
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has argued in a legal opinion that the Israel Lands Authority must give Israeli Arabs an equal opportunity to purchase land that is put up for auction, leading legal experts to believe the high court will rule against the practice of selling only to Jews.
Though the JNF bought up land in small tracts during the first half of the last century, after Israel was established, the government sold about 480 square miles of land — accounting for about half of its current holdings — that had been abandoned by Arabs displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Critics say that sale was illegal under international law.
In a response to the Supreme Court petition on its Web site, the JNF defends its practice protecting of Israeli land for Jewish use only: "One should not be ashamed of owning land that is designated for realizing the goals of Jewish settlement. ... If, in the Jewish state, there isn't a Zionist body to own land and designate it for Jewish settlement and development, what is the special value of its existence?"
The Arab civil rights group Adallah argued in a brief to the Supreme Court that the lands authority's policy encourages segregation between Jewish and Arab Israelis. Passage of the JNF bill would mark the first time Israel has ever enshrined anti-Arab discriminatory practices in law, argued Suhad Bishara, an Adallah legal advocate.
"This would be the first law in Israel that basically legalizes segregation," she said. "This would be really what prevailed in South Africa."