Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
Understanding ‘ethnocratic’ regimes:
the politics of seizing contested territories
, As’ad Ghanem
Department of Geography, Ben-Gurion University, 84105 Beer-Sheva, Israel
Department of Political Science, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
The paper proposes a preliminary political-geographical theory of ‘ethnocratic’ regimes. It
identiﬁes such regimes as a distinct type, neither democratic, nor authoritarian. The paper
deﬁnes and illustrates the evolution and characteristics of ethnocratic states, and examines
their impact on ethnic relations and political stability. While these regimes represent them-
selves as democratic, their main project promotes the ethnicization of contested territory
and power apparatus. Their logic, structure, features and trajectories are articulated and gen-
eralized, especially as regards key dimensions such as: democracy, minorities, ‘ethno-classes’,
ethno-nationalism and religion.
Three examples of ethnocratic regimes—in Sri Lanka, Israel and Estonia—are brieﬂy
described, analyzed and compared. On this basis, the paper constructs a tentative model,
identifying six ‘regime bases’ as constituting a hegemonic regime core, including: immi-
gration and citizenship, land and settlement, the role of the armed forces, the legal system,
the ﬂow of capital and public culture. These ‘bases’ largely determine the character of
‘regime features’, such as party politics, elections, gender relations and the media. But the
hegemonic status of these bases is frequently challenged by groups marginalized by the
expansion and control of the dominant ethnos. These groups attempt to exploit the ‘cracks’
emanating from the state’s self-representation as democratic. The ceaseless ethnocratic-
democratic tension typically results in chronic instability and prolonged ethnic conﬂict.
#2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Democracy; Ethnicity; Regime; Sri Lanka; Estonia; Israel; Palestine
Corresponding author. Tel.: +9728-6472011; fax: +9728-6472821.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (O. Yiftachel).
0962-6298/$ - see front matter #2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
The rapid transformation in the world political order during the last decade and
half has generated active debate on regime types in general, and democratization in
particular (see: Bermeo, 1997; Diamond, 2002; Harris, 2001; Huntington, 1997;
Linz & Stephan, 1996; Keating & McGarry, 2001). Yet, the academic discourse has
been unduly constrained by a binary democracy–non-democracy framework of
analysis. The emphasis by most western scholars on a formal–procedural deﬁnition
of democracy, on free markets and on various forms of constitutionalism, caused
many to overlook the persistence of an ethno-national ‘engine’ of political change.
This has obscured the on-going existence, and recent proliferation; of a regime type
we term here—‘ethnocracy’.
In this paper, we aim to address the deﬁciency by focusing on this type of
regime. We will deﬁne and illustrate a model of what we term ‘open ethnocratic’
regimes, and examine its impact on ethnic relations and political stability. Our
theoretical argument centers on the mechanisms of the regime, which explain both
the persistent patterns of ethnic dominance and its chronic instability. A related
theoretical contribution is the existence of ethnocratic regimes as a distinct identiﬁ-
able type, which promotes a central (political-geographical) project of ethnicizing
contested territories and power structures.
We contend that the logic, structure, features and trajectories of open ethno-
cratic regime can be articulated and generalized, and that the model we proposed
below can frame a new understanding of politics and geography in many states
embroiled in protracted ethnic conﬂicts. Such understanding forms a necessary step
in managing the typically volatile inter-group relations of ethnocratic societies. In
this vein, the paper attempts to make a theoretical, conceptual and practical contri-
bution to the understanding of deeply divided societies, and to illustrate the
dynamics of ethnocratic regimes, by brieﬂy comparing the relevant cases of Sri
Lanka, Israel and Estonia.
Our discussion focuses on regimes, which we deﬁne as frameworks determining
the distribution of power, values and resources. A regime reﬂects the identity,
goals, and practical priorities of a political community. The state is the main
vehicle for the regime, providing institutions, mechanisms, laws and legitimized
forms of violence to implement the projects articulated by the regime.
Ethnocratic regimes may emerge in a variety of forms, including cases of ethnic
dictatorships or regimes implementing violent strategies of ethnic cleansing, as
occurred in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo by means of control and exclusion as
The term ‘ethnocracy’ has appeared in previous literature (see Linz & Stephan, 1996; Little, 1994);
However, as far as we are aware, it was generally used as a derogatory term, with very little discussion,
or development into a theoretical model or concept, as formulated here.
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676648
happened in Sudan, pre-2003 Iraq or pre-1994 South Africa (Mann, 2000). In this
paper, however, we are interested in ethnocratic regimes, which represent them-
selves as democratic, and uphold several formal democratic mechanisms, although
they still facilitate a disproportional and undemocratic expansion of the dominant
ethno-nation. They can thus be described as ‘open ethnocracies’. Examples of such
regimes at present include states such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Estonia, Latvia,
Serbia, and Israel, as well as past cases such as 19th Century Australia or Canada
until the 1960s.
Our analysis of ethnocratic regimes ‘converses’ with a range of scholarly debates
and a number of disciplinary ﬁelds. We present below a combined political geogra-
phy and political science perspective, which seeks to contribute to debates on key
concepts such as nationalism (for key texts, see Brubaker, 1996; Hechter, 2000);
ethnicity (see Connor, 1994; Conversi, 2002), political regimes (Collier & Levitski,
1997; Linz & Stephan, 1996); political stability (Lustick, 1993; McGarry &
O’Leary, 1993, 1995), multi-cultural citizenship and the postcolonial condition
(Benhabib, 2002; Kymlicka, 2001). The knowledge accumulated in these ﬁelds
forms an important basis for our new formulations.
Ethnocracies: key components
We deﬁne ethnocracy as a regime facilitating the expansion, ethnicization and
control of contested territory and state by a dominant ethnic nation. ‘Open ethnoc-
racies’, on which we focus here, exercises selective openness: they possess a range
of partial democratic features, most notably political competition, free media and
signiﬁcant civil rights; although these fail to be universal or comprehensive, and are
typically applied to the extent they do not interfere with the ethnicization project.
Given this selective and partial openness, open ethnocratic regimes cannot be
classiﬁed as democratic (as elaborated below). Neither they can be classiﬁed as
authoritarian, given their extent of political freedoms and openings, which far
exceeds the typical range characterizing such regimes (see Linz & Stephan, 1996).
The most striking diﬀerences between open ethnocracies and autocracies are:
(a) the real possibility of government change in most ethnocratic regimes, as
opposed to long-term dominance of one ruler or party typifying autocracies; (b)
the strong emphasis on ethnic loyalties as a foundation of politics, not found in
The combination of democratic and ethnocratic features makes open ethnoc-
racies a particularly interesting, and not uncommon, case during the current age of
‘superﬁcial democratization’ (Zakaria, 1997). Instability is typically generated by
marginalized and oppressed minorities, who often use the partial openings granted
by the state to resist, mobilize and challenge the regime. But at the same time,
regime legitimacy is augmented by the introduction of democratic features, which
possess an appeasing eﬀect on restive minorities. The ethnocratic–democratic ten-
sions in open ethnocracies thereby creates a high level of regime dynamism and
649O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
instability, found neither in more oppressive ‘closed’ ethnocracies, such as pre-2003
Iraq or Sudan; or in liberal democracies, such as Denmark or Sweden.
As elaborated elsewhere (see Yiftachel, 1999) ethnocratic states emerge from the
time–space fusion of three main historical-political forces: (a) settler-colonialism,
which may be external (into another state or continent) or internal (within a state)
(Lustick, 1993; McGarry, 1998); (b) ethno-nationalism, which draws on the inter-
national legitimacy to national self-determination to buttress the political and terri-
torial expansionist goals of the dominant ethno-nation (Connor, 1994; Mann,
1999); and (c) a conspicuous ‘ethnic logic’ of capital, which tends to stratify ethnic
groups through uneven processes of capital mobility, immigration and economic
globalization (Sassen, 1998; Soysal, 1994). These settings mean that ethnocratic
regime reﬂect, and at the same time reproduce, patterns of ethnic stratiﬁcation and
discrimination. The parallel workings of these structural forces have shaped several
key regime characteristics—all enhancing the process of ethnicizing contested terri-
tory. These are
.Ethnicity, and not citizenship, forms the main basis for resource and power
allocation; only partial rights and capabilities are extended to minorities; there is
a constant ethnocratic-civil tension.
.The dominant ethnic nation appropriates the state apparatus and shapes the
political system, public institutions, geography, economy and culture, so as to
expand and deepen its control over state and territory.
.Political boundaries are vague, often privileging co-ethnic of the dominant group
in the Diaspora, over minority citizens; there is no clearly identiﬁed ‘demos’.
.Politics are ethnicized, as the ethnic logic of power distribution polarizes the
body politic and party system.
.Rigid forms of ethnic segregation and socioeconomic stratiﬁcation are main-
tained, despite countervailing legal and market forces.
A central point is that in ethnocratic regimes, the notion of the ‘demos’ is
crucially ruptured. That is, the community of equal resident-citizens (the demos)
does not feature high in the country’s policies, agenda, imagination, symbols or
resource distribution, and is therefore not nurtured or facilitated. But the ‘demos’
forms the necessary basis for the establishment of democracy (‘demos-cracy’), and
as a foundation for the most stable and legitimate form of governance known
to human society. Needless to say, the concept of the demos is open to many
interpretations, as evidenced by the variety of federal, multi-cultural or unitary
state structures. Yet, the structural diminution of the demos by ethnocratic regimes
The characteristics are worded as assertions which may be subject to further theoretical and
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676650
highlights their qualitative diﬀerence from the norms and practices of democratic
Notably, the ethnocratic model presented here is dynamic, depicting and inter-
preting processes, rather than ﬁxed reality, most notably ethnic expansion, and the
challenges and resistance it faces. One of our main arguments is the inherent insta-
bility of open ethnocratic regimes, born out of the dynamism of societies embroiled
in ethnic territorial conﬂicts. Let us now explore further the structure of ethno-
cratic regimes by elaborating on additional key dimensions, regarding territory,
religion and class.
Ethnocracies are driven, ﬁrst and foremost, by a concerted collective project of
exerting ethno-national control over a territory perceived as the nation’s (exclus-
ive) homeland. The regime is thus propelled by a sense of collective entitlement
among the majority group to control ‘its’ state, and ‘its’ homeland, as part and
parcel of what is conceived as a ‘natural’ right for self-determination. But given the
perennial existence of multi-ethnic and multi-national territories, the imposition of
ethnic control over a mixed territory (and at times beyond) is likely to cause bitter
and protracted conﬂicts generated by rival claims for the same territory made by
other groups, typically those controlling the areas in diﬀerent historical periods (see
Hakli, 2001; Murphy, 2002; Yiftachel; 2002).
While geographers and political scientists have compiled many studies of ethnic
politics and geographies (see Boal, 1987; Eyles, 1990; Peach, 1996), there has been
a relative paucity of studies linking questions of power, identity and ethnic conﬂict
to the dynamics of spatial expansion. Yet, the last years have seen several impor-
tant beginnings, with recent geographical studies beginning the task of systemati-
cally describing, theorizing and oﬀering critical evaluation of ethnocratic spatial
Penrose (2000a,b), for example, shows how the very structure of modern nation-
states (termed ‘nationalist democracies’) spawns societal projects, which ghettoize
and marginalize minority groups, and at the same time attempts to forcefully
assimilate them into the mainstream. Penrose theoretically and empirically exposes
the embedded contradiction between the claims of such states to be democracies,
and their systematic oppression of part of their citizenry
...systemic inequalities arise when the application of democratic principles is
constrained by the more fundamental need to demonstrate that the state repre-
sents a single, coterminous nation. Accordingly... eﬀorts to improve democ-
racies must begin with the assumption that the spaces and places in which this
ideology operates are not neutral. Instead, I suggest that [under the nationalist
order—OY] the context in which democratic principles are applied, and their
interpretation challenged, both produces and reﬂects ongoing, structural
unequal, power relations. (Penrose, 2000a,b: p. 35).
651O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
Likewise, geographers Paasi (1999, 2000), Herb and Kaplan (1999) and Murphy
(2002) provide detailed accounts on the historical evolution of the close nexus
between identity and territory as a fundamental basis for the existing dominant
political order. This nexus provides the normative ‘ideal’, and the political basis for
mobilization, which stand behind the making of the global nation-state order. Not-
withstanding recent processes of globalization and localization, which erode their
power, national states remain the main repository of political, violent and econ-
omic power, especially as regards minorities.
Paasi (2000) elaborates on the principles and methods of state building, which
invariably include a quiet, hegemonic, process of ‘spatial socialization’, whereby
cultural norms, oﬃcial cartography, military activity and education infuse the
taken-for-granted link of people to their exclusive ethno-national homeland. Sibley
(1996) and Sack (1993) address the phenomenon of territoriality, with Sibley add-
ing a critical psychological-spatial dimension by introducing the concept of ‘pure
space’, as a social desire apparent on all scales. This often contradicts with the dic-
tates of global capitalism, creating a spatial politics of diﬀerence, manifested per-
versely and often brutally, in the planning and making of the built environment:
The built environment assumes symbolic importance, reinforcing a desire for
order and conformity... space is implicated in the construction of otherness and
deviancy. ‘Pure space’ exposes diﬀerence and facilitates the policing of
boundaries... This xenophobia is based... on a puriﬁed national identity; (it)
sits uneasily with the ﬂows and cultural fusions, which are generated by global
capitalism. But the contradiction between a racist nationalism and the impera-
tives of capitalist economies is denied... The myth of cultural homogeneity
is needed to sustain the nation-state... It is convenient to have an alien other
hovering on the margins (Sibley, 1996: pp. 106–108).
Based on these theoretical foundations, we can proceed to observe the process of
ethnicizing contested territory as involving several key steps: (a) structural segre-
gation, without which the expansion of the majority group would not be possible;
(b) the construction of minorities as a ‘threat’ or ‘enemies’ to the project of ‘purify-
ing’ ethnic spatial control, embedded in the model of the national state, from
which ethnocratic regimes receive their ultimate internal, and at times inter-
national, legitimacy; (c) the formulation of public policies and practices, in the ﬁeld
of land, development and planning, which enhance ethnocratic spatial control; (d)
the structural, and hence enduring, discrimination of minorities in the ﬁelds of land
control, planning rights, development and access to decision-making powers.
The manipulation of ethnic political geographies is hence one of the most central
pillars of all ethnocratic regimes; that is, the ethnicization of political space. The
legal, political, cultural and demographic ‘bases’ of the regime, as elaborated
below, all facilitate this collective goal. But the geographical process in which
ethnocratic regimes are enmeshed, also expose their long-term weakness: as shown
by the recent work of social and political scientists such as Brubaker (1996),
Gurr (2000), Mann (2000), McGarry (1998) and Hechter (2000), the process of
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676652
state-led ethnic territorial expansion may and marginalize minorities to such an
extent, that their resistance often generates serious threats to the regime, most com-
monly on a regional or transnational scale. The remaking of ethnic geography is
also closely related to another key component of most ethnocratic regime—the
reigning of religion to advance the ethnic project.
While the main mobilizers of politics in ethnocratic states is deﬁnitely ethno-
nationalism, in most cases, the ‘national’ question is intimately involved with an
institutionalized and politicized religion, because the religion held by the dominant
majority is often an ‘ethnic religion’. This creates reciprocal relations, where religi-
on is inﬂuenced by contemporary ethnic and national struggles, while the nature of
the ethno-national struggle is, in turn, shaped by religious motives. The expansive
type of ethno-nationalism typical to ethnocracies is thus able to develop resilient
forms of internal legitimations, based on the mutual reinforcement of nationalism
Examples of the intimate connection between religion and ethno-national segre-
gation are rife in ethnocratic states, and are evident in the cases of Sri Lanka (with
a major Buddhist–Hindu division), Israel/Palestine (Jewish–Muslim), Serbia (East-
ern Orthodox–Catholic), Northern Ireland (Protestant–Catholic), Estonia
(Lutheran–Russian Orthodox) and Malaysia (Muslim–Confutes). Yet, our analysis
of the ethnocratic model still points to the general subordination of religion vis-a-
vis ethno-nationalism. This is the reason our terminology and explanation stress
the ethnic and national ‘engines’ of mobilization, through which religion assumes
its contemporary political and cultural potency.
Signiﬁcantly, religious narratives, norms and practices enhance in most ethno-
cratic societies the project of ethnic spatial expansion. This is mainly due to the
sanctiﬁcation of space, common in areas of ethnic and religious conﬂict. This pro-
cess sees religious texts and norms reinterpreted so as to make the exclusive claim
to territory a matter of divine truth. This gives rise to a range of religio-spatial
practices on all major scales. On the urban level, as well illustrated by Shilhav
(1991), and Kong (2001) religious discourses constantly inform the making of
‘sacred urban spaces’. These may include neighborhoods and quarters where
enough religious people congregate, so as to elevated their religious customs to the
level of public norm. This relates to customs such as dress, eating, gender mixing,
content of signs and billboards, the aesthetic, vocal and physical prominence of
places of worship.
On regional and national scales too, religious practices, such as the demarcation
and celebration of sacred sites, the association of certain areas with religious mira-
cles or major mythical events, movements or wars, are coupled with ethnic claims
for that region or state as a homeland. These tend to eﬀectively fuel the struggle
for exclusive territorial control. As shown by Stump (2000) and Akenson (1992),
religious narratives and goals in conﬂict situations are inherently spatial, with con-
stant mobilization to widen inﬂuence and control.
653O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
Winichakul (1994) and Smith (2002a,b) elaborate further on the impact of religi-
on on the national scale, by noting that the ‘layered’ and ‘selective’ historical inter-
pretations of many modern nations is commonly based on popular religious myths,
which emphasize ‘our’ control over the land. Such selective collective memories are
then extrapolated into present day political territorial claims. Hence, the present
(often tacit) coalescence of religious leaders and discourses with the national frame-
work creates a process of sanctiﬁcation of the entire state territory, which becomes
a complete and holy ‘geobody’, embodying, symbolizing and mobilizing the nation.
Hence, despite the putatively secular foundation of nationalism (Anderson,
1991), the histories, identities and boundaries of the dominant groups in ethno-
cratic societies are never very far from their religious aﬃliation. The religious logic
is instrumental for most ethnocratic regimes by generating an essentializing dis-
course of rigid political and social boundaries. The existence of such boundaries is
commonly justiﬁed in public opinion, in politics and the media as stemming from
divine or ancient roots, and is thus portrayed as ascriptive and insurmountable
The reinforcement of boundaries by nationalism and religion thus assists the
dominant and expanding ethnic nation to segregate and marginalize peripheral
minorities. Moreover, since ethno-nationalism is enmeshed in the deﬁnition of the
state, and since it often has clear religious undertones, the entry of marginalized
minorities to a ‘common good’ deﬁned by the state is extremely diﬃcult. The
regime can also use religion to create formal and informal diﬀerentiation between
citizens, where ‘objective’ or ‘god-given’ religious criteria function as a basis
for discriminatory policies; in the allocation of resources, power and prestige
But—signiﬁcantly—the close association between ethnocratic regimes and
religious institutions is never totally congruent, because at a structural level, religi-
on and nationalism advance competing hegemonic projects. The ﬁrst is structurally
bound to the state, and regards its development and power as a goal in itself. The
latter (religious institutions), however, promotes a competing regime of truth and
power, which holds a global or international ‘redemptive’ vision, often ‘in waiting’
for the right historical circumstances. For religious movements, particularly of the
fundamentalist kind, control of state territory is never an end-state goal, but rather
a stepping stone towards a grander vision of broader salvation and control, which
may make the nation-state redundant (see Lustick, 2002; Stump, 2000).
Hence, religions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Eastern Orthodox Chris-
tianity—found in most ethnocratic societies—also commonly hold uneasy relations
with their state governments. As shown below, in cases such as Sri Lanka and
Israel, the bands holding together the Statist and religious projects has been under
increasing strain, with religious forces, buoyed by the past support of the ethnic
state, now threaten to undermine their territorial, social and political stability.
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676654
The power of religion and ethnic struggle tend to overshadow class politics in
ethnocratic societies, although socioeconomic considerations are still central in the
shaping of political struggle over resources. Typically, such considerations are
expressed indirectly by the politics of religion and ethnicity, with a general associ-
ation between poverty, religion and nationalism. But as noted above, ‘the ethnic
logic of capital’ operates constantly in ethnocratic societies, and puts in train
mechanisms, which generally result in persisting ethnic stratiﬁcation. These
mechanisms include the ‘cultural division of labor’ (Hechter, 2000), the ﬂow of
international and domestic capital, which tends to favor the more educated groups,
the uneven pattern of urban and industrial development, the typically skewed dis-
tribution of governmental assistance and incentives, and the tendency of capital to
avoid risks. All these combine to create a socioeconomic map, which tends to sep-
arate ethnic groups, thereby fueling inter-ethnic tensions.
Consequently, we observe that politics in ethnocratic states operates on two
main and distinguishable levels: ethno-nations and ethno-classes (for a fuller dis-
cussion, see Yiftachel, 1998). This begins with an ethnic logic of politics, which is
generated by the national struggle, where ‘our’ ethnic nation is routinely elevated,
while rival groups are demoted (Connor, 1994). This logic is often diﬀused into
both majority and minority communities, bestowing legitimacy for the use of hier-
archical ethnicity as a political and distributive category, and causing various
forms of ethno-class divisions. Hence, ethnocratic regimes do not only promote the
dominance of a speciﬁc ethnicity, but also the general dominance of ethnicity as a
political and socioeconomic category.
The two levels of ethnicity operate with diﬀerent social eﬀects. Typically, the
ethno-national discourse attempts to unite the various groups in the nation (as
deﬁned by the dominant group, barring ‘external’ of ‘foreign’ minorities); while the
ethno-class logic tends to fragment groups within the nations according to their
socioeconomic status and/or regional locations (see Hechter, 2000). Needless to
say, there is never a clear-cut division between ethno-national and ethno-class stra-
tiﬁcations, but the analytical distinction helps us trace the central role of ethnicity
in both national and economic lines of demarcation, and account for its various
manifestations in the ‘thick’ political struggles prevalent in ethnocratic societies.
Consequently, the contours of political mobilization and organization within
each ethnic nation often combines ethnic, religious and class aﬃliation. The pat-
terns of ethno-class stratiﬁcation typical to ethnocracies has been explained and
elaborated elsewhere (see Stasiulis & Yuval-Davis, 1995). Its importance for the
present discussion is the inherent tension it exposes between the parallel projects of
nation- and state building, and the attention it draws to the material aspects of eth-
nic struggle, frequently overlooked in recent scholarship on politics memory and
The tension between the use of ethnic and civil categories is highly evident during
the process of nation-building, which usually entails an active exclusion of groups
who are constructed as ‘external’ by the prevailing discourse of the dominant
655O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
nation, a status reiﬁed by a combination of legal measures, public policies and cul-
tural norms. The excluded are usually indigenous peoples or peripheral minorities,
but also collectivities marked as ‘enemies’ or ‘foreigners’. Yet, at the same time,
these groups are incorporated (often coercively) into the project of state building.
The crises emanating from the process of ‘incorporation without legitimation’
(Mann, 1999; Soysal, 2000) is at the heart of the chronic instability experienced by
ethnocratic regimes, to be discussed further below.
The making of ethnocratic regimes: three illustrations
The following section will brieﬂy illustrate the process of ethnicization in three
representative states—Sri Lanka, Estonia and Israel. The common political-
geographical elements emerging from these three examples will then assist to create
a more robust and reﬁned model of the ethnocratic regimes, to which the following
sections are devoted.
As in all comparative analyses, there are obvious diﬀerences between the three
states, in history, economy, culture and geography. However, the main common-
ality, which makes these cases comparable, is the institutionalization of an ethno-
cratic project ‘within’ a self-declared democratic setting. Hence, several important
democratic characteristics, such as separation of powers and elections, exist along-
side a state project of deepening ethnic control. This combination sets ‘open’ eth-
nocratic states, including the three following cases, apart from most other nation-
This point requires some elaboration. It is often claimed that most nation-states
advance a project of ethnic domination (see Brubaker, 1996), thereby diminishing
the distinctiveness of the ethnocratic type (see Smooha, 2002a,b). However, we
claim that there exists a qualitative diﬀerence between what Brubaker terms ‘natio-
nalizing states’, and between ethnocratic regimes. This diﬀerence lies in the deliber-
ate undermining of the political demos. As elaborated below, ethnocratic regimes
work ceaselessly to prevent the making of an inclusive demos—a community of
equal citizens within a deﬁnable territory. Instead—they use a rhetoric of the
nation-state, but do not allow minorities any feasible path of inclusion. Indeed, the
ethnocratic project is often constructed speciﬁcally against these minorities. There
is no attempt to assimilate ‘external’ communities of citizens, quite the contrary—
their identity is well demarcated and structurally marginalized.
Put diﬀerently, contrary to most nation-states, ethnocratic regimes actually work
against the project of universal citizenship. The universal project is of course
incomplete in most nation-state, and often involves oppressive policies and prac-
tices, such as forced assimilation, discrimination or state-led economic stratiﬁ-
cation, the state framework, de-jure, still leaves members of minority communities
an option of integration.
Ethnocracies, on the other hand, annul this inclusionary option. The state is con-
structed so as to prevent the integration of minorities, typically through the rejection
of citizenship, limiting personal laws, restriction on immigration and land rights or
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676656
denial of accessibility to decision-making powers. This is a signiﬁcant structural dif-
ference, which sets ethnocratic regimes apart from most ‘normal’ nation-states.
Hence, one may point to the zone on a continuum between actively exclusionary
and inclusionary regimes, as the ‘tipping zone’ between democracy with an ethnic
bias, to ethnocracy. It is analytically diﬃcult to sharply deﬁne this zone which may
concurrently contain contradictory movements towards democracy and ethnocracy,
as evident by the Israeli case below. However, when the political demos has been
fundamentally undermined by the state’s ethnocratic laws, policies and institutions,
the regime can be said to have crossed the ethnocratic threshold, as evident in Sri
Lanka. Estonia, on the other hand, appears to be moving across the tipping zone in
the other direction, from ethnocracy to democracy. The three brief cases outlined in
the following pages were selected to demonstrate the above processes.
The three cases were also chosen because of the diﬀerent potential trajectories of
the ethnocratic project they display—from deterioration into an open ethnic war,
to the possibility of peaceful democratization. In Sri Lanka, deepening oppression
and intensifying minority resistance have led to a virtual collapse of state into a
protracted civil war. In Estonia, the opposite process of non-violent democratiza-
tion and gradual inclusion of the Russian minority has been gathering pace; while
Israel is caught between the conﬂicting logics of ethnicization and democratization.
Its relative openness and high standard of living, as well as the weakness of the
Palestinian-Arab minority, have so far halted the eruption of open ethnic conﬂict,
but it is positioned at a historical juncture of delicate fragility.
The diﬀerent trajectories of political development are highlighted by the political
and cultural freedom index data, compiled by the Freedom House project
(www.freedomhouse.org). Estonia scores low on political and cultural freedoms
during the early 1990s (3 on both assessment, on a scale of 1–7, with 1 being most
free). But it signiﬁcantly improves in the last few years, scoring 1 and 2, respect-
ively in 2003. On the other hand, Sri Lanka scored relatively well during the 1970s
with 2 on political freedom and 3 on cultural. The situation deteriorates during the
1990s, when Sri Lanka scores a very low pair of 4 and 5, only to improve slightly
during 2003, scores of 2 and 3. Israel remains relatively stable since the 1970s, scor-
ing around 2 on each count for the entire three decades. These three cases then
illustrate a wide spectrum of development possibilities apparent under ethnocratic
Finally, it should be emphasized that we see the development of ethnic relations
and regime structure as dialectical. That is, state actions and majority politics in
ethnocratic states are informed and fueled by minority activity and mobilization.
While the dialectics are commonly asymmetrical (with the state having far more
power than marginalized minorities), the evolution of these regime cannot be
understood without acknowledging the role of minority mobilization, especially as
regards the use of violence and terror, and the articulation of dissenting, often
threatening, collective narratives.
657O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
Sri Lanka: from biethnic democracy to Sinhalese ethnocracy
The island state of Sri Lanka (previously Ceylon) is composed of two main
ethno-national groups. Sinhalese, who are mainly Buddhist, make up 75% of
the state’s 19 million inhabitants. Tamils, who are mainly Hindu, make up 18%.
Sri Lanka gained its independence from Britain in 1948, after an anti-colonial
struggle dominated by the Sinhalese groups, but shared by Tamils, as well as other
small ethnic groups on the island. However, in the decade following independence,
the state gradually turned towards a Sinhalization strategy. This orientation inten-
siﬁed due to Tamil resistance and an ensuing process of ethnic polarization.
Sri Lanka was formed as a democratic state, with formal institutions and
governing procedures following, initially, the Westminster model (Little, 1994). But
in later years, the Sri Lankan state was gradually appropriated by the Sinhalese
community, mainly due to its demographic advantage and strong sense of ethno-
nationalism (de Silva, 1996; Uyangoda, 1994). The Sinhalese used their dominance
in the legislative, judiciary and executive arms of government to advance an
explicit Sinhalization process. As declared in 1983 by the Sri Lankan development
minister (Nissan, 1996: p. 176):
Sri Lanka is inherently and rightfully a Sinhalese state... this must be accepted
as a fact and not a matter of opinion to be debated. By attempting to challenge
this premise, Tamils have brought the wrath of the Sinhalese on their own
heads; they have themselves to blame.
This approach found expression in several key policies and programs, beginning
in the 1950s with the adoption of religious Buddhist state symbols, which denote,
in the Sri Lankan context, a purely Sinhalese aﬃliation. Another major step was
taken in 1956 when Sinhalese was declared the only oﬃcial state language. The
state’s oﬃcial culture was also developed around a series of Buddhist ‘‘invented’’
histories, symbols and values, glorifying the link between Buddha and the Sinha-
lese ‘guardians’ of ‘his’ island (Little, 1994), and glorifying the images of the Sin-
hala nation as the indigenous ‘sons of the earth’, and hence the only rightful
owners and controllers of the state (Uyangoda, 1994).
A further aspect of the Sinhalization strategy was evident in Sri Lanka’s
citizenship policies. Over a million long-term Tamil residents who migrated to the
island during the period of British rule, mainly as plantation workers, have been
denied citizenship as part of the Sinhalization approach, by being oﬃcially classi-
ﬁed as ‘Indian Tamils’. This forced large sections of this community to leave the
island and settle in India during the 1950s and 1960s. Many from this group who
remained on the island have remained to date. The Sinhalese majority has thus
managed to contain the size of the Tamil community, and reinforce geographical
and political intra-Tamil cleavage between ‘Indian’ and ‘Sri Lankan’ Tamils. Geo-
graphically, Indian Tamils mainly reside in the central heights, while Sri Lankan
Tamils inhabit the island’s northern and eastern regions. Politically,
the disenfranchised Indian Tamils became totally dependent on the Sinhalese
regime for basic rights and services, and hence remained politically immobilized.
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676658
Consequently, Indian Tamils have rarely participated or assisted in the militant
resistance staged by Sri Lankan Tamils against the Sinhalizing state.
The island’s ethnic geography has also been the main cause of another notable
ethnocratic policy—the Sinhalization of contested space. The British rulers had
already encouraged the Tamils to immigrate into Sinhalese areas, breaking a cen-
turies-long tradition of (mainly voluntary) spatial separation. Likewise, the
Sri Lankan government encouraged Sinhalese to settle in the island’s central and
eastern regions, which previously were dominated and claimed by Tamils as part of
their ‘own’ regions.
This has been most evident in the large-scale Mahaweli irrigation and settlement
project carried out predominantly during the 1970s and 1980s (Roded, 1999). The
project opened up large tracts of agricultural land in the island’s central and north-
eastern regions, which were oﬀered mostly to landless or impoverished farmers. By
1993, 1.1 million people (the vast majority Sinhalese) were resettled in these
regions, creating a new Sinhalese regional lower-class collectivity and exacerbating
the conﬂict with the Tamils, who considered the region as part of their historical
‘Elam’ homeland (Peiris, 1996).
Subsequently, the regions in question became a destination for large-scale (and
mainly unauthorized) Tamil counter-settlement. As the two populations increas-
ingly intermingled in competitive settings (largely as a result of settlement initia-
tives like the Mahaweli project), antagonism and discrimination against the
minority deepened, intensifying the breakdown of social and political order since
the early 1980s.
The civil (ethnic) war, which has dominated the Sri Lankan state since the early
1980s, has brought to the fore the military as a major agent in the Sinhalization of
contested space, and the reinforcement of Sinhalese dominance in Sri Lankan poli-
tics. The army gradually extended state (that is, Sinhalese) control north and east-
wards, conﬁning the resisting Tamil groups to the Jaﬀna Peninsula, at the state’s
northeastern end. It has also caused a major internal refugee problem, with some
550,000 residents losing their homes during the ﬁghting, 78% of them Tamils (de
Silva, 1996). During the same time, a series of emergency and ‘security’ legislation
reduced the protection of Tamil citizens against arbitrary state oppression
(Uyangoda, 1994). A parallel constitutional move increased the powers of a popu-
larly elected president at the expense of the previously powerful legislature. Finally,
in 1978, several Tamil parliamentarians were disqualiﬁed on the basis of ‘acting
against the Sinhalese state’, reducing the already limited Tamil political power
The accumulating alienation of Tamils from the Sri Lankan state drove many of
them to boycott the political process altogether. From 1978 until 2001, the
majority of Tamils boycotted the Sri Lankan elections and only rarely participated
in other state aﬀairs. The state, on its part, did little to induce the Tamils back into
the political arena until 1987, when further constitutional reforms attempted to
ease ethnic tensions by decentralizing state authority and granting autonomy to
regional authorities. However, the Tamils did not accept the plan that was pre-
pared without their participation, claiming that: (a) it compromised their drive for
659O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
self-determination, and (b) it legitimized the ‘unlawful’ Sinhalese domination of the
eastern regions (Nissan, 1996). Further, the state maintained ultimate control by
classifying ‘national projects’ that could bypass the proposed decentralized forms
of decision-making (Gunasekara, 1996).
The Sinhalization strategy generated widespread Tamil resistance. The Tamils
initially struggled for territorial-political autonomy within the Sri Lankan state,
but following the state’s ethnocratic policies, began a campaign to reinstate their
vision of Tamil Elam—an independent Tamil state. Tamil disengagement from the
state further polarized the two groups, culminating in increasing inter-communal
mistrust, Tamil withdrawal from state politics and eventually the breakout of a
civil war. The ﬁghting, which had been ﬂuctuating since 1982, reached a peak of
widespread inter-ethnic violence during the mid-1990s, and exacted a toll of 70–
80,000 casualties, most of them civilians.
Only in 2002 was a ceaseﬁre declared, when the Tamil leadership agreed to
return to negotiations after the Sinhalese promised serious constitutional amend-
ments and made a more genuine attempt to include the Tamils in devising a new,
highly devolved state structure. However, during late 2003 and early 2004, follow-
ing serious negotiations between the government and the LTTE for substantial
Tamil autonomy, Sri Lanka was thrown into a deep political crisis. The ensuing
elections of April 2004 returned to power the United People’s Freedom Alliance,
traditionally opposed to a federated Sri Lankan state. At the same time, a major
split occurred in the LTTE. These developments appear to usher another period of
political instability and ethnic conﬂict.
The case of Sri Lanka illustrates well the emergence of ethnocracy and
the inherent tensions between formal democratic procedures and a parallel state
project of ethnicizing contested spaces and political institutions. It also demon-
strates the inability of an ethnocracy to be sustained for the long term, and its need
to structurally reform in order to survive as a state.
Estonia: from communism to (democratizing?) ethnocracy
The independent Estonian state re-emerged during the collapse of the Soviet
Union in the 1989–1992 period. It is situated on the Baltic Coast, and has a popu-
lation of 1.5 million, of whom 65% are ethnic Estonians, 14% Russians with cit-
izenship and 25% non-citizen residents (mainly Russian speaking) (EHDR, 2000).
The new polity was formed as a result of an anti-Soviet (and by implication anti-
Russian) struggle, which followed ﬁve decades of often-brutal Soviet rule. It has
since adopted an explicit program of Estonization (de-Russiﬁcation), designed to
reinstate the ethnic and national situation existing during a previous period of
independence 1918–1939). During that period, ethnic Estonians dominated the
state—politically, demographically, economically and culturally. The Soviet Union
subsequently promoted a process of Russiﬁcation and encouraged Russian immi-
gration to Estonia, thereby threatening Estonian demographic and cultural domi-
nance in their homeland.
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676660
Since oﬃcial independence was declared in 1992, state building has assumed eth-
nocratic characteristics. For example, in 1992, the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu)
decided not to grant citizenship to ‘non-ethnic’ Estonians. It classiﬁed them as
‘aliens’, thus excluding them from the 1992 referendum on a new constitution.
Estonian state policies in the 1989–2000 period clearly aimed to ensure the polit-
ical, territorial and cultural dominance of ethnic Estonians by focusing on
citizenship, culture, language and land.
In 1992, Estonia adopted the new Constitution, according to which the bearers
of the supreme power are ‘the people’ (that is, the citizens; art. 1). The consti-
tutional preamble contains a clause obliging the state to ensure the preservation
of the (ethnic) Estonian nation and culture. Courts have actively referred to this
preamble in a variety of rulings on citizenship and property matters.
Hence, the new Constitution includes special clauses concerning the priority of
ethnic Estonians, Estonian culture and language (Ruutsoo, 1998: p. 176). Every
Estonian is entitled to preserve his/her national identity, but no special minority
rights are recognized by the Constitution. Some state symbols are of purely ethnic
character (e.g. ﬂag, anthem, stamps and oﬃcial letterheads). The state holidays
include Protestant sacred days, not Russian Orthodox. There is no State Church in
Estonia, but the majority of ethnic Estonians are (Protestant) Lutheran, and Esto-
nian nationalism is widely associated with a Lutheran way of life, as an antithesis
to the Orthodox Russian inﬂuence. During the Communist years, the population
became largely secular, but since the return of Estonian nationalism as a legitimate
ideology, the church has increased markedly its public proﬁle (www.estonica.org).
The issue or citizenship (and by association culture and language) has been most
central to the Estonization project. The Citizenship Law of 1992 (amended 1995)
granted citizenship to all pre-1940 citizens and their descendants and prohibited
dual citizenship. Because in 1940, the state was 92% ethnic Estonians, this law
actually granted superior citizenship rights to ethnic Estonians (in and outside the
state) over the state’s own Russian residents.
The law sets a diﬃcult path for acquisition of citizenship by non-Estonians,
including long-term state residents who previously had full (Soviet) citizenship
rights and are now considered ‘aliens’. Such ‘aliens’ are required to reside in Esto-
nia for at least ﬁve years, pass demanding language tests, prove command of the
Estonian constitution, have a steady income, establish permanent residency and
pledge allegiance to the state and its (ethnic) character (The Aliens Law, 1989;
2000; Human Rights Watch, 2000).
The ethnicization strategy is also evident in Estonia’s language policies, which
have reinforced the imposed dominance of the Estonian language in most spheres
of life, including education, street signs and government services. This dominance
was deepened by a new language law, introduced in 1989 (and amended in 1995,
1999 and 2000), which demoted Russian to the status of a ‘foreign’ language,
similar to dozens of other languages used by immigrants and minorities. The
requirements of the new law severely restricts the public usage of any language
except Estonian. For example, ‘foreign’ languages are prohibited in all street and
commercial signs, and all TV broadcasts must have Estonian subtitles. Estonian is
661O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
the compulsory language in the parliament and local councils, for state employees
and for government dealings in both public and private sectors. The only exception
is minority language usage in territories where they form a majority, but this is
implemented in a very restrictive manner.
In 1993, the Riigikogu enacted a new law for Cultural Autonomy of National
Minorities (Estonian Government, RT 1993, 71,1000). But the law deﬁned a min-
ority as consisting of citizens only. Thus, the state did not recognize special rights
of the vast majority of the non-Estonian population. Previously, the Soviet Law on
National Rights allowed minorities full enjoyment of certain rights obtainable
through special autonomous organs and under the supervision of the State.
Ethnicization has also been prominent on the political level. After 1992, right-
wing nationalist parties have dominated the Riigikogu. A process of ethnic political
polarization has seen electoral competition revolving around the intensity of the
Estonization (and de-Russiﬁcation) process. Changes of government during the
1990s did not result in any signiﬁcant change in Estonia’s policies toward its Russian
minority. Russians have suﬀered persistent political under-representation: in the
1992 Parliament, there were no ethnic Russians, while in 1995 and in 1999, their
numbers rose to only six members (out of 100). In the Riigikogu, Russians have
always belonged to the opposition and have had no signiﬁcant inﬂuence on the
Ethnic Estonian dominance is also expressed in denial of state recognition of the
local Orthodox Church under its pre-war name (Estonian Apostolic Orthodox
Church; see Theile, 1999). That means the deprivation of the church pre-war pro-
perty in the process of property restitution, as noted below. In 1993, the Govern-
ment registered the EAOC an ‘exile’ entity whose legitimacy is highly disputable.
As expected, and as planned by Estonian policymakers, the laws created consider-
able diﬃculties for non-ethnic Estonians to acquire citizenship, and have caused sub-
stantial emigration, mainly into Russia, with some 133,000 Russians leaving Estonia
during the 1990s (Statistical Oﬃce of Estonia, 2000). By 1999, only about 38% of
this group received Estonian citizenship, while 19% have retained foreign (mainly
Russian) citizenship, and 43% have remained stateless. Non-citizens are excluded
from many political and economic arenas in Estonian life, and are prohibited from
voting or being elected at a national level. The Russians have voting rights for local
elections, but cannot stand for mayorship (EHDR, 1999;Hallik, 1998).
The discrepancy between citizenry and the residential composition of Estonian is
highlighted by the following ﬁgures: in 1999, ethnic Estonians constituted 81% of
the citizenry, but only 65% of the population. Likewise, Russians were 28% of the
residents, but only 14% of the citizenry. However, due to pressure from the
European Union, into which Estonia seeks to integrate, and from international
human rights organizations, Estonia introduced in the beginning of the 2000s sev-
eral measures which open a path of naturalization for the Russians, evolving
mainly around language acquisition, military service or contribution to the Esto-
nian public (Berg, 2002; Pettai & Hallik, 2002).
The Estonian government also attempted to reinforce ethnic land control, by res-
urrecting the traditional ‘indigenous’ Estonian system of family farms to replace
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676662
the Kolchoz and Sobchov Soviet system of collective cultivation. This was aided by
the Law for Land Reform (1992), the Law of Agrarian Reform (1994) and a com-
plex system of ﬁnancial incentives designed to assist the restitution and privatiza-
tion of land, while at the same time restrict the beneﬁts of this process chieﬂy to
ethnic Estonians (Anderson, 1999).
In sum, like Sri Lanka, but within diﬀerent historical and geographical settings,
Estonia demonstrates the deep logic of ethnicization behind ethnocratic structure
and policies. Estonia adopted a structure of an ‘open’ formal democracy, but at
another level has set into motion an ethnic transformation of the state from a Rus-
siﬁed communist republic into an ethnic Estonian state. The new state structurally
discriminates against most of its long-term Russian residents, and actively facil-
itates the Estonization of institutions, politics, culture and territory. However,
unlike Sri Lanka, the ethnicization process has not been violent, and appears to be
waning, mainly due to the inﬂuence of the European Union and the globalization
of ethnic politics (Berg, 2002). Hence, Estonia appears to be an ethnocracy under-
going a gradual process of democratization.
Israel: an ethnocratic settler-state
Following half a century of Jewish colonization of (mainly Arab) Palestine,
tacitly supported by the British rulers, Israel gained its independence in 1948. This
followed a failed UN partition attempt, rejected by the Arabs, and a Palestinian–
Jewish war, in which some 700,000 Palestinians ﬂed or were driven out of their
homeland. Israel seized control over 78% of Mandatory Palestine, about 40% lar-
ger than the territory allocated to it by the UN plan. This area—known as ‘Israel
Proper’ (the sovereign state within its pre-1967 borders)—is the focus of our analy-
sis here, not including the occupied Palestinian territories. We do acknowledge, of
course, that the occupation and on-going Jewish settlement in Palestinian terri-
tories have had an immense impact on ethnic relations, but for comparative and
methodological reasons, ‘Israel Proper’—where Israeli sovereignty is inter-
nationally recognized—is a more appropriate scale of analysis. This, without
diminishing the signiﬁcance of the increasingly oppressive regime imposed by Israel
in the Palestinian occupied territories for nearly four decades, and the waves of
mutual violence it generated.
In 1949, only 160,000 Palestinian-Arabs remained in Israel, and received state
citizenship. In the next ﬁve decades, Israel absorbed some 2.7 million Jewish refu-
gees and immigrants, and prevented the return of the Palestinian refugees, who
remained chieﬂy in surrounding Middle-Eastern states. In the year 2002, Palesti-
nian-Arabs have become 18% of Israel’s population of 6.3 million.
Both ethno-national groups claim to have historical rights over the country. The
Palestinian-Arabs claim continuous residence as indigenous people, and a natural
right for self-determination in a national homeland. The Jewish-Zionist justiﬁ-
cation rests on the existence of ancient Israelite kingdoms on the land before
the Jews were forcefully exiled, and on sacred Jewish texts, which promise the land
to the Israelite ‘chosen people’. The Zionist movement claims that Jews maintained
663O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
in their diasporas a continuous bond with the ‘promised land’, and that following
the eruption of genocidal European anti-Semitism, the Land of Israel (Palestine)
became the rightful and natural site in which to build a safe, independent, Jewish
state (Kimmerling, 2001).
On a formal level, Israel formed a democratic regime in 1948, but in parallel
initiated a concerted project of Judaizing the land and the polity. Israel’s Declar-
ation of Independence, for example, stresses the Jewish connection to an ancient
homeland, and its expression as political control over this contested land:
In the Land of Yisrael the Jewish people was created. Here its spiritual, religious
and political identity was shaped... the people kept faith with it throughout
their dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return... According
to our natural and historical right... we are hereby declaring the establishment
of a Jewish state in this Land of Israel...
The Judaization project, which turned Israel into a ‘frontier state’ (Shaﬁr &
Peled, 2002) was signiﬁcantly aided by Jewish diaspora, which not only funded
many Israeli projects, but also circumvented the state apparatus by forming and
maintaining Jewish organizations, which operate in Israel oﬃcially as ethnic arms
of the states. These organizations—notably the Jewish National Fund and/or the
Jewish Agency—enabled the implementation of ethnocratic ‘Jews only’
policies in the allocation of key resources, powers and land, thereby structurally
undermining the notion of equal citizenship (Rouhana, 1997; Kretzmer, 2002).
Until 1966, Israel’s Arabs citizens were placed under military rule. In the follow-
ing decades, and against the on-going conﬂict with their Palestinian brethren,
Israel’s enacted a series of laws, which enshrine the legal, institutional and political
dominance of Jewish goals and interests. Despite small advances in the last decade,
discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens has remained rampant, leading a
recent comprehensive study as to label the minority as ‘citizens without citizenship’
Judaization took many substantive forms, including the mass expropriation of
Arab land in Israel (Kedar, 1998), the building of over 700 Jewish settlements,
often on the sites of the hundreds of Arab villages destroyed after the 1948 war (see
Falah, 1996, 2003), the Hebraization of the landscape and erasure of its Palestinian
Arab past (Benvenisti, 2001), and the establishment of a highly centralized econ-
omy and political systems in which the Arab minority was marginalized and weak-
ened. Expansion of Jewish control continued after the 1967 war, with the conquest
and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, but also in Israel’s own outlying
regions, mainly the northern Galilee and southern Negev, where hundreds of thou-
sands of Jews were settled in close proximity to Arab towns and villages. This was
facilitated by the Israeli land and planning systems which have worked consistently
for the transfer of spatial control from Arab to Jewish hands, and have legitimized,
planned and funded large-scale projects of Jewish settlement (see Benvenisti, 2001;
Yiftachel & Kedar, 2000; Yacobi and Yiftachel, 2003).
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676664
Notably, then, despite the formal appearance of the Israeli regime as democratic,
the state has advanced an ethnocratic strategy in key bases of the regime. For
example, immigration policies, governed by the Jewish Law of Return, allow any Jew
and his/her immediate family to enter Israel and receive citizenship. At the same
time, the immigration and naturalization of non-Jews, those born on the land or
married to an Arab Israeli has been made extremely diﬃcult (Kretzmer, 1990).
Other building blocks of Israel’s Judaization strategy are manifest in the state’s
development policies, which have consistently privileged Jewish capital and local-
ities over their Arab counterparts. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), too, is in
essence a Jewish army, and military service is a prerequisite for substantial beneﬁts
in employment, education, land allocation, and access to the state’s centers of
power. Jewish-Israeli Hebrew culture is the dominant force in shaping Israel’s pub-
lic spaces. While Arabic is an oﬃcial state language, it is virtually impossible to
deal with the Israeli bureaucracy, legal system, arms of government or national
media in Arabic (Ghanem, 1998; Rouhana, 1997).
The state culture also reﬂects a deep connection with the Jewish religion: Jewish
holidays and the Sabbath are Israel’s main rest days, no public transport or free
commerce is available on these holidays, and all public (and most private) food
outlets observe Jewish dietary laws. Personal matters are run according to religious
laws, giving the Arab citizen a measure of religious autonomy. Arabic is also an
oﬃcial language, used in the separate Arab education stream. But despite these
measures, Jews control decision-making in most educational and religious arenas,
meaning that communal autonomy is severely restricted. The above measures are
hence often interpreted as preserving institutional communal segregation between
Jews and Arabs (Shaﬁr & Peled, 2002).
In addition, while Israel lacks a formal constitution, the state’s legal system has
reinforced its Jewish character, with legislation privileging Jewish interests and goals.
According to a recent study, 18 laws explicitly discriminate against Israel’s Palesti-
nian-Arab citizens, rupturing the notion of the ‘demos’ as a political community of
equals. This despite concerted legal activity, especially through appeals to the Israeli
High Court, which have managed to outlaw or contain several legal obstacles to
Arab civil equality (Adala, 1998, 2003). It is worth noting that even the 1992 new
and putatively liberal basic Laws—hailed as signaling a ‘civil revolution’ (Barak,
1998)—still ambiguously declare the state’s character as Jewish and democratic.
Israeli-Jewish culture fostered an exclusive Jewish bond to the land, and for
many years denied, delegitimized and ignored the existence of Palestinian national-
ism, and hence the minority’s collective territorial or political rights. Following the
1993 Oslo agreement and the mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian
‘national rights’, the rhetoric has somewhat changed, although Jewish settlement
and expansion of land control has continued in parallel to contraction in several
heavily populated Palestinian areas.
Like in Sri Lanka, oppression has met with increasing minority resistance. This
has been expressed by continuing waves of large-scale protest against state policies,
which reached a notable height in October 2000, when 12 Arab citizens were killed
by state forces during mass demonstrations in support of the Palestinian al-Aqsa
665O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
Intifada. Political polarization has also deepened between the two ethnic groups,
with increasing votes going to non-Zionist Arab parties, reaching 70% in 1999, and
an all time high of 81% in the 2003 elections. In the special Prime Ministerial elec-
tions of 2001, and following the killing of 12 Arab demonstrators, 82% of
Arab citizens boycotted the vote, signaling again the intensifying process of polar-
As we can see, although Israel managed to project a democratic image, mainly
because of a competitive electoral system and relatively independent judiciary and
media, in eﬀect it became a state dedicated to the expansion and control of one
ethnic group, at the expense of a homeland minority community, and with signiﬁ-
cant undermining of basic democratic principles (see Ghanem, et al., 1998).
date, the Judaization strategy had remained a main foundation of the Israeli ethno-
Ethnocracy and regime components
The foregoing accounts of Sri Lanka, Israel and Estonia highlighted the chan-
ging ethnic relations in states undergoing a planned process of ‘ethnicization’. The
three illustrative cases facilitate the next step of our exploration: a discussion of the
relationships between ethnocracy and key regime components—namely, democ-
racy, minority status and political stability.
Ethnocracy and democracy
The ‘open’ ethnocratic regimes studied here combine partial elements of both
authoritarian and democratic systems. But regardless of the formal political
system, they enhance a rule by, and for, a speciﬁc ethnos. As such, they cannot be
classiﬁed as democracies in a substantive sense, as they structurally privilege one
group of citizens over all others, and strive to maintain that privilege.
Ethnocracies are, therefore, neither democratic, nor authoritarian (or ‘Herren-
volk’) systems of government. The lack of democracy, as noted above, rests on the
rupture of the concept of the ‘demos’, on their unequal citizenship, and on their laws
and policies that enable the seizure of the state by one ethno-national group. They
are not authoritarian, as they extend signiﬁcant (though partial) political rights to
While most Arabs (62%) returned to vote in the 2003 elections, the Arab turnout was the lowest
among all ethnic groups in the country and the second lowest in history after 2001.
It should be noted, however, that Israel’s electoral system has not been universal since the 1970s,
given the voting rights granted to Jewish settlers (who reside outside the state’s sovereign area), and the
denial of such rights from all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The settlers have determined the
outcome of several key elections and are over-represented in Israel’s government apparatus. This clearly
breaks the concept of universal suﬀrage, which calls for an overlap of territory, citizenship and voting
power, and has further marginalized the Arab citizens politically. In addition, Israel’s electoral laws pro-
hibit any party opposed to Zionism from contesting the elections, placing another serious breach of the
concept of universal and free elections.
The following two sections are summarized from Yiftachel (2000).
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676666
Importantly, we do not treat the term ‘democracy’ uncritically, recognizing that
it is a contested concept, widely abused, particularly in multi-ethnic states (see
Mann, 1999). This is not the place to delve deeply into democratic theory. Suﬃce is
to note that several key principles have emerged as foundations for achieving the
main tenets of democracy—equality and liberty. These principles include equal cit-
izenship, protection of individuals and minorities against the tyranny of states,
majorities or churches, and a range of civil, political and economic rights (Held,
1990). A stable constitution, periodic and universal elections and free media gener-
ally ensure the attainment of these rights (Dahl, 1995). In multi-ethnic or multi-
national polities, as illustrated by the seminal works of Lijphart (1977), Kymlicka
(1995) and Rawls (1999), a certain parity, recognition and proportionality between
the ethnic collectivities is a pre-requisite for democratic legitimacy and stability.
While no state ever implements these principles fully, ethnocratic regimes are con-
spicuous in breaching the spirit, purpose and major tenets of the democracy ideal.
Generally, ethnocratic regimes emphasize the procedural aspects of their self-
deﬁned democracy, but attempt to draw attention away from substantive matters,
such as privileges for the dominant group in the allocation of resources, political
representation, territorial control or preference by the law. The emphasis on pro-
cedural aspects also diverts attention from the substantive limitations placed on
minority rights and capabilities, and from the lack of equal treatment by state poli-
cies, laws and institutions.
To further fathom the workings of ‘open’ ethnocracies, and drawing on Grams-
cian-informed analysis, we diﬀerentiate analytically between regime features and
structure. As noted in Fig. 1, ethnocracies demonstrate ‘visible’ democratic fea-
tures, such as periodic elections, free media and autonomous judiciary that pro-
tects, and (some) human rights legislation. But these tend to work on a ‘surface
level’, while the deeper structure of such regimes it undermines key democratic
principles, such as civil and legal equality within agreed state boundaries, protec-
tion of minorities, maintenance of equality and a measure of proportionality
between the state’s main ethnic groups.
The analytical diﬀerentiation between ‘features’ and ‘structure’ highlights the
selective and often hollow use of the term ‘democracy’ by the dominant ethnic
group. The democratic discourse, partial as it is, often has the eﬀect of legitimizing
the regime, especially in the eyes of the majority, as evident so vividly in Sri Lanka,
Israel and Estonia.
A hallmark of the ethnocratic hegemony is the common waging of political
struggles around the ‘shallower’ state features, while relatively few battles are
fought over the ‘deeper’ ethnic (and class) hegemony, which is painted as ‘natural’
The distinction between ‘features’ and ‘structure’ is, needless to say, never overt or stable, with a
constant ﬂow of reciprocal inﬂuences. However, during the intense process of state building, the ethno-
cratic logic of the regime structure generally dictates the terms of much of what transpires in the more
visible arenas of political features.
667O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
and universal. As powerfully argued by Antonio Gramsci (1971); as synthesized by
Sasoon (1987: p. 232), a ‘moment’ of hegemony is marked by:
...the unquestioned dominance of a certain way of life... when a single concept
of reality informs society’s tastes, morality, customs, religious and political
principles...’(Sasoon, 1987: p. 232).
Drawing on the cases of Sri Lanka, Israel and Estonia discussed above, we have
identiﬁed several structural ‘bases’, which constitute the foundation of ethnocratic
regimes. These are key components of the dominant hegemony, which are gener-
ally protected by the boundaries of public discourse and political discussion. Let us
emphasize again that we see the structural bases of the regime as dynamic, evolving
over time in an eﬀort to maintain their ‘natural’ and popularly accepted status. But
as part of the conﬂict-riddled ethnocratic regime, they are never sustainable in the
long term. The main regime bases thus include:
Fig. 1. Ethnocratic regime: structure and features a conceptual framework.
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676668
.Demography: rights of entry and membership into the political community deﬁne
the all important boundaries of political (and by implication social) power. In
ethnocracies immigration and citizenship are chieﬂy determined by aﬃliation
with the dominant ethnic-nation.
.Land and settlement: territorial control is central for ethno-national politics. As
such, the ownership, use and development of land, as well as planning and settle-
ment policies are shaped by the state’s project of extending ethno-national con-
trol over its (multi-ethnic) territory.
.Armed forces: violent force is critical in assisting the state to maintain (oppress-
ive) ethno-national control over contested regions and resisting groups. To that
end, the armed forces (the military, the police), which bear the name of the
entire state, are predominantly aﬃliated with the leading ethnic nation.
.Capital ﬂow: while the ﬂow of capital and development is deeply inﬂuenced by
an ‘ethnic logic’, privileging the dominant ethno-classes; notably, these market
mechanisms are often represented as ‘free’ or ‘neutral’ and hence beyond chal-
.The Constitutional System: legalism often depoliticizes and legitimizes patterns of
ethnic control. Such controls are often premised on redundant, absurd, non-exi-
stent or only partially functional constitutional settings. This is often presented
as ‘the law of the land’, and subsequently placed outside the realm of legiti-
mately contested issues.
.Public culture: the ethnocratic public culture is formulated around a set of sym-
bols, representations, traditions and practices, which tend to reinforce the narra-
tives of the dominant ethno-national group; while silencing, degrading or
ridiculing contesting cultures or perspectives.
Genuine open debates on these ‘taken-for-granted’ issues are generally absent
from the public discourse, especially among the dominant majority. When these
issues are questioned by resisting groups (say, in the parliament, or through the
media) they are usually silenced, ridiculed or represented as ‘state enemies’. But the
dominance of regime ‘truths’ is of course never absolute, and may be exposed and
resisted by political entrepreneurs exploiting the tensions between the declared
‘democracy’ and its substantive discriminatory manifestation. In such settings,
destabilizing cracks are likely to appear in the ethnocratic structure.
Ethnocracy and minorities
Central to the ethnocratic regime is its ability to maintain the dominance of the
leading ethno-national group while marginalizing and/or excluding indigenous or
national minorities. But not all minorities are treated equally, with some incorpor-
ated as ‘internal’ while others are constructed as ‘external’. A critical diﬀerence
exists between those considered part of the ‘historical’ of even ‘genetic’ nation, and
others whose presence is portrayed as mere historical coincidence, or as a ‘danger’
to the security and integrity of the dominant ethnos. These discourses strip
669O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
‘external’ minorities from means of inclusion into the meaningful sites of ‘the
nation’ (Penrose, 2000a,b).
Ethnocracies are generally driven by a sense of collective entitlement among the
majority group to control ‘its’ homeland—that is, the state—as part and parcel of
what is conceived as a universal right for self-determination. Thus, belonging to
the dominant ethno-nation (and to its leading ethno-classes) is the key to mobility
among peripheral groups. This is the strategy adopted by most immigrant mino-
rities, who thereby distance themselves from indigenous or other ‘external’ mino-
rities. As such, ethnocratic societies continuously maintain an ‘ethnic project’,
which similarly to the ‘racial project’ identiﬁed by Omi and Winant (1994),
attempts to build an informal public image of ‘separate and unequal’.
The leading ethno-classes (also often termed ‘the ‘charter’ or ‘titular’ groups) can
thus play a dual game, vis-a-vis peripheral minorities. On the one hand, they
articulate a discourse of belonging, which incorporates immigrant and peripheral
groups not associated with any ‘external’ or ‘rival’ nation. These groups are ‘invi-
ted’ to assimilate into the moral community of the dominant ethno-nation. But on
the other hand, the dominant groups use this very discourse of inclusion and
belonging to conceal the uneven eﬀects of its strategies, which often marginalize the
immigrants economically, culturally and geographically. It would be a mistake,
however, to treat this as a conspiracy; it is rather an expression of broad social
interest, generally unarticulated, privileging social circles that are closest to the
ethno-national core. This ‘natural’ process tends to broadly reproduce—though
never replicate—patterns of social stratiﬁcation.
In contrast, the strategy towards indigenous and/or national (homeland) mino-
rities is generally more openly oppressive. They are represented and treated, at
best, as ‘external’ to the ethno-national project, or, at worst, as a subversive threat.
The examples of Sri Lanka, Estonia and Israel show that the tenets of self-determi-
nation are used only selectively, pertaining to ethnicity and not to an inclusive
geographical unit, as required by the basic principles of democratic statehood.
Oppressive policies are often ‘wrapped’ in a discourse of modernity, progress and
democracy, but the political and material reality is unmistakable, entailing
minority dispossession and exclusion.
However, the self-representation of most ethnocracies as democratic creates
structural tensions, because it requires the state to go beyond lip service and
empower external minorities with some (though less than equal) formal political
powers. The tensions between the claims of democracy and the denial of minority
equality create spaces of struggle and ‘‘cracks’’ in the hegemonic order. These often
fuel minority resistance and inter-ethnic conﬂict typical to ethnocratic states (see
Ethnocracy and political instability
One of our main theoretical arguments relates to the instability of ethnocratic
regimes. We do not have the space to enter here the diverse and rich discussion
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676670
over the deﬁnition and measurement of political stability beyond noting that we
accept the main parameters oﬀered by the likes of Lane and Ersson (1991) or
McGarry and O’Leary (1995). They see political instability as strongly related to
regime illegitimacy among minorities, which results in a combination of social dis-
order and breakdown of regime functions. This is often followed by the bypassing
of the regime by disgruntled minorities, by increasing forms of political polariza-
tion, and by intensifying waves of anti-governmental protest and violence.
In this sense, the ethnocratic model builds on, and critiques, the ‘control’ model
of political stability, ﬁrst oﬀered by Lustick (1979, 1993) and later used by geo-
graphers such as Taylor (1995) and Rumley (1999). Lustick’s argument pointed
usefully to the ability of regimes to maintain stability through a range of control
mechanisms, including the construction of hegemonic discourses and institutions,
and the cooptation and fragmentation of oppositional elements. But our obser-
vation is that in ethnocratic regimes, such controls are only viable for the short
term, leading in the long term to a destabilizing momentum.
The chronic instability of the ‘open’ ethnocratic regimes stems from a combi-
nation of two of their main attributes: (a) the long-term impact of the spatial,
political and economic expansion of the dominant majority, and the associated
control mechanisms exerted over ethnic and national minorities, and (b) the demo-
cratic self-representation of the regime.
The ﬁrst factor is quite clear: ethnocratic regimes often reﬂect and exacerbate
ethnic tensions and conﬂicts, because they structurally privilege one ethnic nation,
both within the state and among its diasporas over the state’s resident minorities.
As clearly shown in the cases of Sri Lanka, Estonia and Israel, the dominant group
then uses the state apparatus, and the international legitimacy accorded to state
sovereignty, to expand its power, resources and prestige, often at the expense of
minorities. In this sense, ethnocratic regimes tend to generate constant tensions
between minorities and majorities.
However, minority resistance to control and discrimination is necessary, but not
suﬃcient, to destabilize the regime. It is the semi-open nature of ethnocratic
regimes, their partial democratization, and the limited rights extended to mino-
rities, which combine to develop, in a complex process, the situation of structural
instability. In the short-term, we have often seen that partial democratization, and
especially the extension of mere procedural measures (such as ‘representation with-
out inﬂuence’, commonly allowed for minorities in ethnic regimes) may actually
prolong the control of the dominant group.
At the same time, the self-representation of the state as democratic, despite its
violation of democratic principles on most substantive arenas of state operation,
does enable the development of minority consciousness and political mobilization.
Such mobilization will typically rally around the contradictions and tensions
embedded in the coterminous existence of limited democratic institutions and
procedures, and entrenched patterns of ethnic dominance.
It also draws on the growing importance of human and minority rights in the
international political discourse, and on the growing institutionalization of demo-
cratic norms among the international community. Due to the strengthening links
671O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
between international politics and economy, these new arenas can, and do, inﬂu-
ence majority–minority relations traditionally perceived as ‘internal’ (Soysal, 2000).
The eﬀectiveness of minority mobilization, however, is generally limited, as it
encounters insurmountable cultural, political, economic and geographical obstacles
to full integration and/or equality within their states. Within such settings, mino-
rities have several options, which include assimilation (unlikely in ethnocracies), the
intensiﬁcation of their protest to escalating levels of violence, or the establishment
of competing frameworks of governance and resource allocation accompanied by
disengagement from the state.
The last two courses of action tend to reinforce one another and undermine the
political stability of divided states and regions. They have been evident in the cases
of Sri Lanka and Israel Palestine, but not in Estonia as yet. The diﬀerence may lie
in the short time period since the establishment of the ethnocratic Estonian state,
and the hope among the Russian minority to improve their situation by political
means (Hallik, 1998). This hope has totally been abandoned by Tamils in Sri
Lanka (de Silva, 1996), and is quickly fading for Palestinian-Arabs in Israel (see
The susceptibility of such regimes to the surfacing of open ethnic conﬂict, and
their chronic instability, are powerful engines of political change. Yet, this change
may take varying, and at times contrasting, directions. We ﬁnd a number of ethno-
cratic states which have responded to the pressures and contradictions of ethnic
dominance with a series of democratization steps, such as Canada, Belgium, Spain,
Greece, and most recently South Africa and Northern Ireland.
At the same time, other ethnocracies have reacted to the grievances of margin-
alized minorities by tightening the control over minorities and by deepening the
state’s undemocratic ethnic structure. Several other states—such as Israel, Estonia
and Slovakia—have oscillated between the two options, attempting to keep aﬂoat
both their links with the western democratic world, with the democratization this
entails, and concurrently preserve the control of the dominant ethnic group.
The dynamics of ethnocratic regimes should thus be understood as moving along
a continuum, between the poles of democratization and ethnicization. Quite often,
no clear direction prevails for long periods, and the state policy agenda may be dri-
ven by crises rather than design. A thorough discussion of the possible transition
of regimes from ethnocracy to democracy remains outside the scope of this paper,
but clearly, it is one of the most urgent challenges facing such regimes. As already
mentioned, such an analysis is currently being developed by the authors.
A concluding note
The paper presented a framework for understanding ethnocratic regimes. It
showed that in certain geographical and historical circumstances, various forces
combine to create such regimes, and associated processes of ethnicization and
stratiﬁcation. The paper focused on ‘open’ ethnocracies, where the state represents
itself as democratic, while simultaneously facilitating the seizure of a contested ter-
ritory and power by a dominant ethnic nation. It outlined the characteristics of
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676672
such regimes, showed their distinctiveness from the ‘normal’ nation-state model,
and analyzed their ability to maintain ethnic dominance. The paper also discussed
the relation of ethnocratic regimes with minorities, democracy and political insta-
bility, and explored the tensions and contradictions which generate their decline
Our framework here is both broad and preliminary. It needs to be tested, chal-
lenged and expanded, in order to gain depth, validity and robustness. This under-
taking can advance in various directions, the most obvious are: (a) comparative
research which would test, calibrate and modify the assertions made above; (b) in-
depth case studies, which would study the more detailed and subtle form of ethno-
cratic expansion and hegemony, as well as the forms of resistance and challenge to
the system; (c) theoretical explorations and modiﬁcations, especially vis-a-vis new
structural forces inﬂuencing the nation-state, such as the increasingly globalizing
world economy, and/or the growing force and inﬂuence of the discourse of human
rights and multi-culturalism. Eﬀorts in these directions have begun by the authors,
but much further research is needed to enrich our understanding of ethnocratic
states, and their volatile ethnic relations.
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