Peres calls for equality at Iftar dinner

40 angry demonstrators gather by Beit Hanassi to protest demolitions.

August 17, 2010 23:51
Beit Hanassi (Ariel Jerozolimski).

Beit Hanassi 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

President Shimon Peres hosted an Iftar dinner during Ramadan this past Tuesday night at Beit Hanassi.

The message has been the same year after year – and little has changed. Last year, when he hosted an Iftar dinner during Ramadan for Arab notables along with Muslim diplomats and Members of Knesset, Peres spoke of the need for Israel's Arab communities to be accorded full equality so that they could enjoy the same rights as their Jewish neighbors.  He also spoke of peace and the importance of resuming negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

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The script was more or less the same this year, and the comments of representatives of the Arab communities on Tuesday night, were likewise an echo of the sentiments expressed last year.

What was slightly different was the noise of a protest rally from across the road from Beit Hanassi, where some 40 angry demonstrators had gathered to voice their opposition to the Iftar dinner on a day in which the unrecognized Beduin village of Al-Arakib had been razed for the fourth time by the Israel authorities. Each time that it was torn down by bulldozers, residents and their supporters rebuilt it, but the situation cannot go on indefinitely, especially as the powers-that-be in Israel have designated the land for a Jewish National Fund park.

What was particularly galling for the villagers on this occasion was that their homes had been demolished during Ramadan, one of the holiest periods in the Muslim calendar.

The demonstrators were protesting not only the destruction of Beduin homes in the Negev, but also the demolition of Arab homes in north and east Jerusalem.

They charged that the Israel Government practices racism and discrimination and urged Iftar invitees to ask the President what he thinks.

Choosing to overlook the fact that Peres is actually on their side, the demonstrators accused him of collusion with the government, shouting "On the one hand you host Arabs and on the other you destroy their homes."

When The Jerusalem Post asked Peres to comment on the demonstration, he said that it was time that the Beduin problem was resolved and said that the government should formulate a viable policy rather than continue destroying homes.

He was also of the opinion that demolition work should not have been carried out during Ramadan.

In his address to the assembled guests who this year included academics, soldiers and bereaved parents along with Egyptian Ambassador Yasser Reda, and South African Ambassador Ismail Coovada, Peres drew a parallel between Ramadan and the Hebrew calendar month of Elul which are both periods of introspection, religious reflection and efforts to promote a general sense of tolerance, goodwill and mutual respect. Peres urged Jews and Arabs to work together in this spirit for the common good, and to do their utmost to promote peace, because it was only through reconciliation and mutual recognition that peace and a two-state solution could be achieved.

Peres underscored that peace is imperative in the effort to overcome the dangers which confront not only Jews and Arabs but the world at large. In this context he listed terror, hunger and global warming, and declared that regression put peace at risk.

He was hopeful that direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would begin immediately after Ramadan and stated that he knew that both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were in favor of direct negotiations which would help them to move forward, and negotiate in a courageous manner in which each side would make compromises. 

On the equality issue, Peres said that the government was obligated to provide Arabs with the same rights to which all citizens of Israel – regardless of religion or race -  are entitled. He was concerned not only about housing and job opportunities but also about educational opportunities. He wanted to give every Arab, Druze and Beduin youth access to university or college education.

Sheikh and Qadi Iyad Zahalka who is the Director of the Shari'a courts in Israel, was appreciative of the dialogue between Peres and the Arab communities and said that he hoped that such talks would lead to equality for the Arab communities in terms of budgetary and land allocations, building permits, academic studies and religious problems.

"We know that President Peres and Avishay Braverman the Minister for Minorities are doing a lot to try to amend the situation, but the road is still long," he said.

Sallah Suleiman of the Union of Local Authorities in Israel said that fiscal restrictions have been imposed on Arab local Councils, of which 13 were closed down by the Israel Government for reasons of financial mismanagement. In essence this was a punishment for non-collection of rates and taxes. But it's very difficult to meet the rates and taxes quota when 40 per cent of the population is unemployed, said Suleiman.

In some Arab Councils he said employees had not been paid for seven months and upwards because there was simply no money – and the government had not come to the rescue.

People sitting at a table of representatives of the Negev began to shout at this point because Suleiman had failed to mention the demolition of Beduin houses.  Running with the ball, Suleiman said, that in the past, the government had always appointed someone who knew nothing of Beduin culture and tradition to deal with the Beduin problem, which was why there had been no progress he opined. Perhaps if the government appointed a Beduin, the problem might be resolved, he suggested.

Braverman said that time was running out for direct negotiations, and urged Peres to use all the influence that he has with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Abbas to get them to start talking to each other. "It should not be talk for the sake of talk," he stipulated. "They have to talk to each other in order to come up with a solution."

Referring to Israel's Declaration of Independence and its articles of equality, Braverman acknowledged that Israel has not lived up to the specifics of the Declaration, but said that he had already begun putting issues such as housing, employment and higher education into motion.

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