Last year, when President Shimon Peres hosted a Ramadan iftar break-fast dinner for Arab notables along
with Muslim diplomats and MKs, he spoke of the need for Israel’s Arab
communities to be accorded full equality.
He also spoke of peace and the
importance of resuming negotiations with the Palestinians.
The script was
more or less the same this time, and the comments of representatives of the Arab
communities on Tuesday night were likewise an echo of last year’s.
was slightly different was the noise of a demonstration from across the road
from Beit Hanassi, where around 40 angry people had gathered to voice their
opposition to the iftar dinner on a day in which the unrecognized Beduin village
of Kafr al-Arakib had been razed for the fourth time by the Israel Lands
The land has been designated for a Jewish National Fund
The demonstrators were protesting not only the destruction of
Beduin homes near Beersheba, but also the demolition of Arab homes in north and
They accused the government of racism and discrimination
and urged iftar invitees to ask the president what he thinks.
demonstrators accused Peres of collusion with the government, shouting, “On the
one hand you host Arabs and on the other you destroy their homes.”
The Jerusalem Post asked Peres to comment, he said it was time that the Beduin
problem was resolved and 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.
address to the 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 month of
Elul. They are both periods of introspection, religious reflection and efforts
to promote a general sense of tolerance, goodwill and mutual respect, he
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.
He was hopeful that direct negotiations with
the Palestinian Authority would begin immediately after Ramadan ends on
September 8 and said he knew that both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA
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 the government
was obligated to provide Arabs with the same rights to which all citizens –
regardless of religion or race – are entitled.
He was concerned not only
about housing and job opportunities but also about educational
He wanted to give every Arab, Druse and Beduin youth
access to university or college education.
Sheikh and Qadi Iyad Zahalka,
the director of the Shari’a courts in Israel, said he appreciated the dialogue
between Peres and the Arab communities and that he hoped that such talks would
lead to equality 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,” Zahalka said.
Suleiman of the Union of Local Authorities said fiscal restrictions have been
imposed on Arab local councils, of which 13 were closed down by the government
for 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 percent of the adult population is unemployed, Suleiman
In some Arab councils, employees had not been paid for seven months
and more because there was simply no money – and the government had not come to
the rescue, he said.
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.
If the government appointed a Beduin, the problem might
be resolved, he suggested.
Braverman said that time was running out for
direct negotiations with the PA, and urged Peres to use all his influence with
Netanyahu and 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 the state’s
Declaration of Independence and its articles of equality, Braverman said Israel
has not lived up to the specifics of the Declaration, but that he had already
begun putting into motion actions on issues such as housing, employment and