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