Israeli Arabs prepare to mark 'Nakba'

Arab leaders organize march to site of former Palestinian village destroyed in the conflict.

arab israel flag 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
arab israel flag 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Said Abu Shakra's uncle was among a minority of Arabs in Palestine who accepted the idea of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one over six decades ago. The late founder of Israel's predominantly Arab communist party Rakah also spent a decade in Israeli jails for fighting against martial law imposed on the Arab minority that stayed following the establishment of Israel. Today, in the socially and religiously conservative Muslim city of Umm el-Fahm, Abu Shakra strives to promote equality, dialogue and co-existence through art and culture as director of the modern Umm el-Fahm Art Gallery. "I bring Arab and Jewish art here so that people can see another kind of dialogue between artists in Israel," said Abu Shakra from his gallery, which offers a panoramic view of the second largest Arab city in Israel. "It's not an easy dialogue - it's a very difficult dialogue, but it's a cultural dialogue." As Israeli Jews prepare to celebrate the birth of the Jewish state, most Arab citizens of Israel will mourn the 60th anniversary of their nakba or "catastrophe" - when some 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes around the time of Israel's War of Independence. "The national catastrophe is embedded in the fact that the Palestinian state has never been established and the issue of Palestinian refugees has never been addressed," says Yousef Jabareen, director of the Nazareth-based think-tank Dirasat: The Arab Center for Law and Policy. As they've done each year for the last decade, Arab leaders are organizing a march to the site of a former Palestinian village destroyed in the conflict. Umm el-Fahm Deputy Mayor Zaki Agbaria from the Islamic Movement is among those who will participate this Thursday in the march. In the springtime, he said, he and his family hold barbecues about twice a month on land where his parents' former village of Allajoun once stood. Despite Abu Shakra's hopeful vision of coexistence, many Arab citizens are commemorating the 60th anniversary of "nakba" amid growing mutual concern, mistrust and fear about their place and future in Israeli society. Arab citizens in Israel are often quick to mention calls from some politicians to transfer the Arab population to a future Palestinian state or elsewhere as proof that they are not wanted here. And while they are able to vote and today are represented by 12 Arab Knesset members, as well as a cabinet minister, civil rights activists say Arabs are experiencing increasing discrimination in the workplace, in housing and at times in public policies. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel reports a 26 percent rise in racist incidents against Arabs in Israel in 2006. "Since October 2000, (Israeli-Arabs) feel that their status is being deteriorated, that things are getting worse in terms of the relationship with the majority and the state," Jabareen said. Thirteen Israeli-Arabs were killed in October 2000 during protests and clashes with Israeli security forces following the eruption of the second Intifada. Earlier this year, Israel's attorney general said there was not enough evidence to indict the police officers involved, prompting strong protests from their community. But the government denies the existence of endemic racism. "The prime minister would condemn anti-Arab racism wherever it arises," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. The government, he said, has tackled the issue of equality through a number of venues, including affirmative action policies in government agencies as well as allocating additional monies for new classrooms in the Arab sector. "The Declaration of Independence promises all Israeli citizens full equality, and it's clear that more needs to be done to achieve that goal and we are committed to doing what needs to be done," he said. On Monday, Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman called Arab MKs "representatives of terror organizations" in the Knesset. Some in Israel point to the popularity of the Islamic Movement, which in Umm al Fahm has dominated the local council for nearly 20 years, as evidence of increasing extremism in the Arab-Israeli sector. They also point to "incitement" by Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, a leader in the northern branch of the Islamic Movement who was formerly jailed on charges that he had contact with an Iranian intelligence agent and transferred funds to Hamas. However, Haifa University Sociology Prof. Sammy Smooha, who conducts regular surveys of both Arab and Jewish populations, says there has been no real radicalization of either Arabs or Jews citizens of Israel in the last 30 or 50 years, though there have been periods of fluctuation depending on the events and circumstances of the time. While some Arabs in Israel have been going through a "Palestinization" or "Islamization" of their identity, they have also been going through an "Israelization" in which they are acquiring the Hebrew language and Israeli culture. Smooha argues that this process "is counterbalancing the Palestinization and Islamization" and "offsetting it." "Arabs have been very loyal to the state in their behavior," he said. "They didn't take action against the state in the war. Take the Lebanon War, they didn't do anything, though they sided in their attitudes and in their hearts with Hizbullah. The picture is very complex."