In a doom-laden voice, Eival Gilady, chairman of the Western Galilee College, told participants at the Herzliya Conference on Monday that the Arab majority in the North is creating a dangerous continuity between Lebanon and the West Bank.
"The partition plan is happening before our eyes," the retired brigadier-general said during a session titled The Galilee - National Priority and Challenge. "The link between Lebanon and the West Bank is taking place. I don't think this is good for Arabs, for Jews or for the state."
The solution, he said, was to improve the Arabs' education, provide them with more employment opportunities and solve their housing and infrastructure problems.
Some panel members disagreed with Gilady's view of the Arab majority in Galilee as a demographic threat. But no matter the perspective, all concurred that the gap between Jews and Arabs must be closed.
"We all agree that the problem in Galilee is caused by depriving Arab citizens of their rights," said Efrat Duvdevani, director-general of the Ministry for Negev and Galilee Development, told The Jerusalem Post. But she refused to relate to the Arab majority as a threat to the state. "We need to deal with Arab and Jewish citizens equally. Improving the situation of the Arabs is not a favor, it's an obligation."
Only 17 percent of the country's population lives in the North, yet 35% of the country's poor live there.
"I will not avoid saying that poverty is more prevalent among Arabs," Gilady said.
On Tuesday, Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab organization that advocates equality between the communities, is releasing its 2005 report on the implementation of government decisions regarding the Arab minority. It compares 10 Jewish towns and 10 Arab towns.
"Our research shows that the welfare departments of the Arab municipalities get only 49% of what the welfare departments in the Jewish communities receive," Shuli Dichter, Sikkuy's co-executive director, told the Post. "That prevents the Arabs from closing the gap."
Those differences are due to money that Jewish communities receive from the Jewish Agency, Interior Ministry allocations and taxes from their industrial zones, said Dichter, adding, "No Arab municipality has ever been allocated a regional industrial zone by the Industry and Trade Ministry."
Gilady pointed to a recent map resembling the partition plan, which showed areas with an Arab majority in pink and areas with a Jewish majority in yellow. Western Galilee is 63% Arab, and the Jezreel Valley, which connects Western Galilee with the West Bank, 53%, he said. In all of the North, there is a slight majority of Arabs over Jews.
"If we don't do something this gap will grow," said Gilady, who added that he has positive feelings toward his Arab neighbors.
Arab participants objected to Jewish speakers referring to Israeli Arabs as a "problem."
"I won't respond to the statements I have heard since this morning from my Jewish colleagues that Arab citizens of Israel are a problem and that we should be transferred to Syria or elsewhere," said Dr. Faisal Azaiza, his voice rising in indignation.
Azaiza, a senior lecturer and head of the Jewish-Arab Center at the University of Haifa, called on Jews to treat Israeli Arabs on an equal basis and not as an ethnic problem.
"We believe in humanism. We love you," he declared to the mostly Jewish audience. "We want you to develop and we will develop together. We want you to stop fearing us. Judaism is humanism and it's time to return to [its] roots."
Some people in the audience applauded.
In a session on demography and Israel's borders, MK Ahmed Tibi said, "The way the state relates to Arabs as a demographic problem... deepens the alienation, the discrimination."
Tibi called for all of the Arab minority - Druse, Beduin, Circassian and otherwise - to be given the single status of a national minority, similar to the status of minorities in Canada.
"We want integration based on respect and equality - not separation, but recognition as a minority with rights," Tibi said. "We are citizens of Israel and we want to emphasize this, but we can't do it alone. It needs to be done by relations between the majority and the minority."
Azaiza noted that the majority of Israeli Arabs are Muslim, yet the state gives more attention to those who are not. "It's about time that the state institutions start working with the majority Muslim population," he said.
Duvdevani said her ministry was now making a concerted effort to have more Arabs hired by the government. In 2000, the Knesset passed two affirmative-action laws that promised fair representation for the Arab population on the boards of directors of government companies and in the civil service. Neither has been implemented.
According to a report published in 2005 by the Civil Service Commission, Arabs, 20% of the population, make up only 5.5% of all the government employees (some 56,000).
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as head of the Ministerial Committee on Arab Affairs, tried to enforce the implementation of the previous law by passing a cabinet decision in 2003 that by August 2004 there must be at least one Arab member on each of the 105 boards of directors. He added that until a corporation had at least one Arab, it could not appoint a Jew.