The relationship between the state and its Arab citizens is at its lowest level ever," says Jafar Fareh, of the Haifa-based rights group Mossawa, ahead of Israeli Independence Day. Fareh is worried about the concept of separation which he feels is becoming more dominant in Israeli society. He, like other Arab citizens of Israel, is concerned that as Israel enters its 59th year, the gulf between Jews and Arabs continues to widen. Arab intellectuals speak of the "Jewish ghetto" mentality, which, in their view, means Israel is closing itself off from all non-Jewish regional elements, including the Arab citizens. Many are worried that this trend will have negative consequences not only on Israel and its Arab citizens, but on the region as a whole. Fareh is quick to place a fair amount of the blame for the "ghettoization" on the Left. "The readiness to talk and negotiate [with the Palestine Liberation Organization] is part of the separation concept, based on the idea of 'We are here, and they are there,'" he says. The talks with the PLO, he believes, have worsened the situation of Arab citizens in Israel. "Now people in Israel say to us, 'If it's not good for you here, go live in the PA,' implying that in Israel we must behave according to their terms." Fareh points out that both the Oslo agreements and the disengagement plan went ahead because of the support of Arab MKs. He also blames the PLO, which he says forgot the Arab-Israelis, and says there is a rift between the two. "Nabli Shaath, from the PLO, said Arabs should be loyal citizens in the Jewish state," Fareh recalls. "A dog is loyal. I want to be a partner, not loyal to Jewish masters." Aida Touma-Sliman, from Acre, is also in favor of partnership with Israeli Jews, based on a changing of the current rules. She, like Fareh, was a signatory of the "Future Vision" document, which is an attempt to outline a strategy for autonomy for the Arab citizens of Israel and which has alarmed many Israeli Jews with its blueprint for separatism. She says the document, which was mainly intended to be an internal document aimed at starting a dialogue among Arabs, was translated into Hebrew because "we want to talk with the Jews. This document is not at all a sign of separatism." Touma-Sliman, a member of the Hadash political party, notes that a recent survey shows that some 80 percent of Arabs in Israel support the concepts the document puts forward. "This document says we want this place to be a homeland for Jews and Arabs who are here. We want equality for all citizens." Touma-Sliman also wants recognition of the Arabs in Israel as a national collective. "The state wants to divide us into groups. However, we are not Druse, Beduin, Christian or whatever. We are all part of the Palestinian-Arab people." Author Salman Natour traces the separation problem to the British Mandate. "The problem of separation has been around since the beginning. This goes back to the British policy of divide and conquer. In the State of Israel, the Ashkenazi elite controls, and the others are controlled." For Natour, from Daliat al-Carmel in the Galilee, the problem of separation hits close to home. "I am Druse. We are supposed to have equal rights, according to the Israeli criteria. Most Druse serve in the army. Yet we don't have full rights or equality." Natour sees the ruling elite of European Jews as responsible for the generally lower social status of Mizrahim, or, in his words, "Arab Jews." "The Ashkenazi elite looks down on all things Arab. The eyes of Israel are to the West, especially culturally, and it rejects the East, to an extent." Natour, who wrote the cultural section of the Future Vision document, views himself as an "Arab-Palestinian from the Druse community. I am not Israeli, but a citizen of Israel. Israel, as a Jewish state, prevents me from having a full Israeli identity." Like many other signatories of the Future Vision document, he wants to break the old mold of Arab-Jew relations through dialogue with the Jews. "This is not a final document, but a basis for dialogue." He uses his own community as an example for the change he wishes to see. In the future, "Druse can choose to serve in the army if they want, but not because they have to. After we break the mold, the old treaty, we can think about how to build a new relationship." Ghaleb Majadle, the new minister of science and culture and the only Arab minister in the current government, sees things differently. He thinks the document doesn't deal with the real issues affecting the Arabs in Israel, and that the group that wrote it is not representative of the Arab sector. He says the Arab public is too concerned with making ends meet and other basic needs, and it is not free to deal with weighty issues like those raised by the document. Those basic needs, he says, include more classrooms, more economic opportunities, better planning for houses, and a generally better quality of life. The Jews in Israel, Majadle says, are not yet ready for the document either, noting that it lacks widespread support. More public debate of the document is needed before it can be considered for presentation to the coalition, he says. Majadle partly blames past governments for the Arab sector's socioeconomic problems, saying the distribution of wealth was not equal, and that government policies contributed to widening social and economic gaps. He points out that not one new Arab village was founded by the state since its inception, while it strives to create more and more Jewish towns. "Fifty percent of Arabs are below the poverty line. When we close the gaps in the Israeli society between Jews and Arabs, I am convinced that the Arab population will be free to deal with these important questions." MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) also believes that more attention needs to be paid to issues that are of greater concern to the Arabs in Israel, like improved social services and economic opportunities, and less on symbols, like the anthem and the flag. Khenin says the Israeli establishment focuses on symbols in order to rally the Jewish public together. "Separation is a bad characteristic of the Israeli society, dangerous to the whole society." Because the major afflictions of the country's Arab citizens are a troubled economic situation and social discrimination, Khenin explains, the government would rather not deal with those issues. While Khenin agrees with Majadle that the Future Vision document needs more public debate - "among all Israelis, not just Jews or Arabs" - he says that nationalist political aspirations of many Arab Israelis can exist simultaneously with the desire to improve socioeconomic levels, and one is not dependent on the other. But Majadle's views are seen by many emerging political voices as of the older generation, one that didn't strive to fully achieve the multifaceted objectives of the Arab minority in Israel. Haneen Zoabi, a member of the political bureau of Balad, says the Israelization process that the Arabs in Israel underwent necessitated the emergence of a more Arab-nationalist line, such as that of her party. She talks about the older generation, the "bent generation," that lived through the 1948 war and gave in to the Israeli establishment, and the younger generation, the "upright generation," that emerged in the late 1960s with a more rebellious nature. WHILE MOST Jewish Israelis will celebrate their victory in the 1948 war, many Arabs see it quite differently. The 10th annual March of Return will take place this Independence Day. It is an event organized by the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced. The protesters, including Jews from organizations like Zochrot, will march to the abandoned northern village of al-Lajun; most of the village's former residents live in Israeli-Arab areas like Umm el-Fahm. About one quarter of Israeli Arabs, according to some estimates, are internal refugees. Although citizens of the state, they are not allowed to return to the land which they lost as a result of the war. Daoud Bader is one such displaced person. He was born and raised in al-Ghabisiyya, a village with about 800 residents at the time of the 1948 war. The villagers left during the war, but were allowed to return based on a High Court of Justice decision from 1951. However, the army declared the area a closed military zone, thereby preventing their return. The village was then razed by security forces. Only the mosque, which Bader says is 230 years old, remains standing. He now lives in the village of Sheikh Dannun, near Acre. Khenin says that Israel should recognize its part in the plight of Arabs created by the 1948 war. "It won't hurt Independence Day if we were to recognize the pain caused [to the Arabs] in 1948," he says, adding that "the day will have a positive connotation for Arabs citizens when they feel the state cares about them, and stops viewing them as a threat." While it might be true that the politicization of the Arabs in Israel has led to a greater divide between them and the Jewish citizens, Zoabi blames the Zionist parties, from the Left and the Right, for creating the separation. She says at first, right after Oslo, Israel felt it needed peace with the Arabs to live in the region. Now, she says, Israel feels it can exist without peace with the Arabs, including the Arabs in Israel. This, she declares, will "strengthen the concept of the Jewish ghetto, the concept of separation." Fareh, although not in full agreement with Zoabi, is also deeply concerned. His litmus test for judging the situation is a statistic that says that in the last six years, 35 Arab citizens were killed by Israeli police, while not a single Jew died at the authorities' hands. "Even during the disengagement and evacuations of settlements, when the settlers threw stones and blocks," the security forces did not respond with lethal force, he notes. "If the Jews fail to live with the Arabs in Israel, we will pay the price in the short term. But in the long run, the whole Middle East will suffer as a result. The status of relations between the Jews and Arabs in Israel is a good measuring stick for regional peace. We are the face of the Middle East in Israel. We are the ones with the potential to make this place normal," Fareh says. "There is a two-year window," he cautions, referring in part to the Arab Peace Initiative re-launched in Riyadh last month. "If nothing is solved by then, there will be a catastrophe. "But I am an optimist," he adds.