Violence, discrimination biggest problems facing Israel's Arabs - NGO head

JPost One-on-One weekly 'Zoomcast': Udi Shaham with Abraham Initiatives co-executive director Dr. Thabet Abu Rass - Episode 4

JPost One-on-One weekly 'Zoomcast' Episode 4
Please tell us a bit about your organization, what you do.
Well, the Abraham Initiatives actually is a Jewish-Arab NGO that promotes Arab-Jewish equality and integration of Jews and Arabs. It's a policy change organization and is composed of Jewish and Arab lay-leaders, we actually have Jewish and Arab co-chairmen of the board. And actually the board is split between Jews and Arabs equally. Same thing with the staff. First of all we have two co-executive directors, my Jewish colleague Amnon Be'eri-Sulitzeanu and I, and there are 25 different staff members, Arabs and Jews, coming from across the country.
We are an organization that works at the national level all over the country. In the Galilee, in the Center and in the Negev. Also, we are very limited in our geography when talking about the promotion of integration and equality with Arab and Jewish citizens. We have nothing to do with cross-border activities. We are active in Israel.
Our projects mainly deal with education for shared society between Jews and Arabs and also we have a big project for combating violence and crime between Arabs and Jews. We believe that this issue of equal and fair services between Arabs and Jews is very important, and there are gaps in terms of providing services. We are focusing mainly on the issue of personal security, and this is why we are trying to push for better police services in Arab communities and trying to combat the major challenge in Israel within the Arab community, which is crime and violence. But also we are active in universities, we are active among journalists trying to promote shared society.
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One more important project that I can mention here is the issue of participation and representation of Arabs in politics. We believe that Arab citizens should be in all realms of life in Israel. As we can see, Arabs are very active in hospitals. We would like to see Arabs in universities, in NGO, in the media - you name it.
Our organization started several years ago as a fund. It moved over a decade ago to become the Abraham Initiatives. We were actually conducting projects and it took us into actions as our major method of activity. We start tackling a problem, let's say women employment, and we start a project in different Arab towns, and then we evaluate our project, we invite the government to come and see it, and this is what happens, with the issue of women employment but also the issue of the Arabic language.
That's another project: we think every Jewish child should learn Arabic. We started with a project with 10 different schools in the Haifa district. It moved to over 200 schools across the country. And two days ago, the Education Ministry adopted our project and they started to work, with some disagreements - we actually think that an Arab teacher should teach Arabic language and culture, but the minister of education disagreed with us. But the issue of Arabic language is important for us, we promote the stats of the Arabic language. We, the Abraham Initiatives, are launching a new project for teaching Arabic from the 1st grade and we are trying to convince the government to adopt the curriculum plan that we are suggesting, and hopefully we will succeed in that.
This is about the Abraham Initiatives. I would like to say a few things about the Arab minority in Israel.
So let me ask you first, just to make it clear: Your organization's goal is to promote awareness of the Arab minority in israel and create a platform for coexistence for the jewish majority and the Arab minority. Jews mainly see Arabs as one big group that is represented by one party, but it is factually wrong - I mean there are many groups composing the Arab minority in Israel and there are different parties representing these specific groups. Can you tell us about these groups and about the parties representing them politically.
Yeah. The Arab community in Israel, which comprises around 2 million people, we are diverse like other communities in Israel and all over. There are different religions, different political streams, so there are different affiliations. While 80% of the Arabs are Muslims, there are 10% who are Christian Arabs, and 10% Druze Arabs. Some people really misinterpret the Druze people. The Druze have their mother tongue as Arabic, there is no Druze language. It's Arabic, their culture is Arabic culture. We will respect that maybe some people will identify themselves in a different way, which is fine. These are three different affiliations in terms of religion.
In terms of politics, there are four major streams working in the Arabic community. One is the left-wing Socialist community, which is Hadash. This is the major party for the Arab citizens.
Then there is the Islamic movement, and this time we are talking about a branch of the Islamic movement. It's also very active mainly in the Negev, in the center of Israel and in the Triangle.
Then there is the national stream that has different parties, mainly the Balad Party, Tajamou, which is a nationalist stream trying to promote a national feeling among Arabs.
The last stream I will call those people that feel integration within the Jewish parties is the right thing to do [to vote for], and less than 20% of the total Arabs populace belong to this stream. They are active mainly in the Druze community, but not only.
They go to the Labor Party, to Meretz, Likud?
Well they go to all parties, especially the right-wing parties. Right now there are two Arab Druze MKs, one is Fateen Mulla in the Likud Party and the other is Hamad Amer, who belongs to Yisrael Beytenu with Liberman. All in all, I can say that in the last election, 83,000 votes - around %17 of total Arab voters - casted their votes for the Zionist parties. The Labor Party got around 12,000 votes, the Likud Party got 8,000 votes but also Shas got votes from the Arab community, and Meretz and others. This is the political map in the Arab community.
In the last election, they joined together in the Joint List because of the threshold made by Liberman and the Likud trying to eliminate the representation of the Arab parties in the Knesset — they took it up — the four Arab parties were scared that none of them would cross the threshold joined together and succeeded to reach 15 MKs, which is unprecedented in Arab politics, and they are playing a more influential role in Israeli politics. No one can really ignore the fact that Arabs are a sizable party with 15 MKs out of 120, and they are knocking on the doors of Israeli politics, trying to influence many topics.
But there are a lot of problems. One of these problems is the fact that we are Israeli citizens, at the same time we are Palestinians. This dual identity puts us sometimes between a rock and a hard place. We cannot be part of an Israeli government because an Israeli government can initiate an attack on our people - the Palestinians in Gaza, for example. At the same time, we are citizens of Israel and we would like influence to make deals and bring more budgets to the local Arab governments, for example. We cannot support Israeli government that is expanding the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories without making peace with our people, but at the same time we would like to try and reach out and to promote laws that really help Arab communities, and all citizens in Israel.
This is the delicate situation, and this is why the Joint List in the last election nominated Benny Gantz to form the Israeli government. They did want to play a bigger and more influential role in Israeli politics, but unfortunately Benny Gantz decided to build a coalition with the Likud, and the story went on. What happened with Gantz and his party.
Now, the Arab politicians are more careful in this issue of building a coalition or nominating Jewish leaders to form a government. But the political situation and political map in Israel is more complicated this time, and for the first time we'll see the two major parties, the leading parties, are right-wing parties: Right, and extreme Right. And the issue of what the Arabs will do is a challenge for the Joint List.
To touch on, I think, the most sensitive aspect on that, on the one hand it was not unprecedented but I think the first time since the '90s that an Arab party recommended a Jewish candidate in front of the president to form a government - usually they just did nothing, they didn't recommend anyone. And the other thing is that the 15 seats out of 120 that the Arab parties got also drew the attention of Jewish parties, or general parties. So on the one hand, we see now that non-Arab politicians understand the power in Arab voters. On the other hand, we also hear Arab voters who are disappointed with their leaders who say in advance that they will never take part in a government because of the reasons you mentioned - they don't want to be part of a government that initiates attacks on Gaza. And this is why we see more Jewish parties trying to get Arabs to vote for them, and the biggest example we got was a couple of weeks ago when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Umm el-Fahm and went to Nazareth to try and talk directly to Arab voters. What do you think about these initiatives by Jewish parties, especially the Right, to try and get Arab votes?
Well there is some change taking place in the last couple of years. There is more legitimization of Arab votes in israel. Arabs now counted. Some Jewish parties count on Arab votes.
What do you mean by legitimization? How did it become legitimate? Was it illegitimate before?
Well so far, if we go back, except for the period of the late Yitzhak Rabin, everyone - Left and Right - didn't consider the Arabs. The Arabs were there but they couldn't be part of any coalition. This is why Arab parties are never part of any Israeli government. After 72-73 years, the political parties still didn't succeed in inviting Arab parties to be part of the Israeli coalition or Israeli government. And after every single election, we see only Jewish parties sitting around the table of the Israeli government. And this has echoed, this is something that we cannot really talk about Israel as a pure democracy just like France or the States or UK - you name it.
Legitimization for us is that the Left, Center and the right-wing parties now are counting on the Arab voters now - not the Arab parties but the Arab voters. This is why we see Netanyahu, who is for the fifth time is meeting today with six mayors, the leadership of the Arab mayor association, talking about the biggest challenge - which is the issue of crime and violence - and how to tackle this issue.
Well I believe that Netanyahu's actually trying to campaign. It's part of his election campaign, meeting Arabs and talking with Arabs. In the last month, five times - three times visiting Arab towns and twice talking to Arab leadership. Imagine, in the last 13 years, Netanyahu almost didn't visit towns at all. How come, in one month, five times he is visiting Arabs? But also in the last election we saw that Benny Gantz, Amir Peretz, leaders of different parties actually campaigned in Arabic language in Arab towns. They came on Arab local TV and spoke directly to Arabs. Even if you see Netanyahu and other leaders, they try to mix some Arabic terms and words in their speeches.
Well all in all, I'm not sure if this is going to help Netanyahu - especially Netanyahu. Arabs in large didn't forget the incitement of Netanyahu against Arabs, they cannot forget the Nation-State Law, which is one of the biggest barriers, biggest obstacles, in Arab-Jewish relations, and to promote equality and cooperation and integration within the state of Israel.
Can you tell us a bit about the Nation-State Law? What it is and how exactly did it harm, or how Arabs saw its harm towards them?
Well the Nation-State Law was enacted in 2018, around 2 and a half years ago, clearly defining and was drawn from the Declaration of Independence, which is the formation of the State of Israel and we still have some arguments with the Declaration of Independence. But at least the Declaration of Independence talked about the Arabs, about equality, about democracy and invited Arabs who were citizens of the state of Israel to join in building the country.
Now, the Nation-State Law constitutionalized Jewish supremacy - exactly this term. There are the Jews, this land for the Jews and only for the Jews, and even article 7 in the Nation-State Law saying the government should work on promoting Jewish settlement - not Israeli settlements, not building for all Israeli citizens, but for Jewish people.
But it did talk about protecting the special status of Arab citizens in Israel, right?
Well actually the Nation-State Law downgraded the status of Arab citizens, downgraded the Arab language's position and status. It isn't talking about Arabs and nothing really protects us. In Israel, there's no such thing as an equality law. Israel's talking about democracy but without an equality law. But what we saw and feel in the Nation-State Law is expanding the Jewishness of the state at the expense of its democratic values. So this is coming at the expense of the Arab minority here.
This is why we are calling to abolish this law. Israel cannot continue - it already has different complicated stuff aside from the Nation-State Law. Israel continues to occupy the land of our people, the Palestinians, and siege Gaza. The continued occupation is a challenge for us when I'm talking about occupying and preventing the estabishment of a Palestinian state.
Listen, we're an Arab minority, we're Palestinian in our identity and we are citizens of the State Israel. We can benefit from peace more than anybody else between our people, the Palstinians, and our state, Israel. So we would really like to see peace, and peace processes started that really end up with the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinan state alongside Israel.
These are the issues we really care about. It's not only equality inside of Israel, and I believe - I'm afraid, actually - that the Nation-State Law came to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state because it's talking about the Land of Israel. Who knows what is [the definition of] the Land of Israel? According to the right-wing parties, the Land of Israel is from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. So is this the promised land for the Jews only? Because remember that 50% of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean are Palestinians, and are entitled to self-determination just like the Jewish people here. And we will continue fighting for such peace and independence for our people, the Palestinians.
For our last question, what is the most pressing issue that the Arab voter will come with when he goes to the polling station? What is the biggest issue that Arab society is facing right now?
Well no doubt that the Arab minority is discriminated against in all levels and all topics, but there are two major challenges facing the Arab community right now.
The first challenge is the crime and violence in Arab towns. Listen, in the last year, 113 Arabs were killed, and 70% of the total killed people in Israel are Arabs. When you are making up 20% of the total population, can you imagine that? We think the police are not doing enough, are not providing enough personal security for the Arab people. I see that many police officers are in Arab towns patrolling the streets, but they are patrolling to give fines for those who are violating COVID-19 regulations, which is fine with me. However, I cannot imagine that the police cannot hear the bullets in the streets while they are patrolling. So we are demanding from the government to take this challenge seriously and I'm really happy that the government did decide - the Abraham Initiatives wrote to the government and we worked with a team from different ministers and prepared a plan to combat violence in the Arab community. However, the government failed to pass this plan. They budgeted it in the government so far. And we have criticism of this plan but it' a first step at least. Today, the meeting between the Arab mayors and Netanyahu is dealing with this issue. So this lack of security within the Arab towns is the major and immediate challenge that we are facing.
The second challenge we are facing is the issue of land and planning and housing. There is a shortage of housing. The Nation-State Law talked about different plans for building Jewish towns — let's remember, since the establishment of the State of Israel, 1948, over 900 Jewish towns were built. No Arab towns were built, if we exclude the inclusion of the unrecognized villages of the Bedouins in the Negev. We badly need help in terms of building houses, we badly need to expand the jurisdiction of our towns.
I live in Kalansuwa, and we have the same buildings and borders since 1955. The local council was founded in 1955, exactly my age 66 years old. we still have the same jurisdiction of the town, very limited building projects. And building permits pass through different stages that are controlled by Jewish staff - even the local housing committee in my town is controlled by a Jewish person. I don't have any problem with Jewish people working for the Arab community, however, I would like the person who is leading the issue of land and planning in Kalansuwa to know at least the problems, the challenges that face the people of Kalansuwa in terms of land and planning.
So the issue of land and planning is a major challenge, and I can continue with other issues like education and employment. Yes, the government of Israel really did allocate money for a development plan five years ago in 2015, talking about billions of dollars. However, only part of it, 45% of the total amount allocated in 2015, really passed to Arab local governments. So still, we have a problem of development in Arab towns. It is very obvious compared to Jewish towns around.