Land (Swap) for Peace?

Proposals for a land swap between Israel and the Palestinian Authority raise basic questions about democracy and citizenship in Israel

16umm (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
From the top of Mt. Alexander the view to the west leads across Israel's central region and coastal plain to the Mediterranean Sea, glinting yellow and blue in the afternoon sunlight. To the southeast, the views of the Palestinian city of Jenin and the mountains of Samaria beckon in their hauntingly stark beauty. But the expensive houses built here, at the eastern edge of the Israeli Arab city of Umm el-Fahm, all face west, toward Israel, their backs to the West Bank territories destined in time to become the independent Palestinian state. Intentional or not, it is a symbolic statement: The Arab citizens of Israel, despite their complaints of discrimination and their declarations of identification with the Palestinians, clearly want to remain part of Israel. As contacts with the Palestinians resume and the Annapolis Conference, scheduled for late November, comes closer, Israeli politicians have again brought up the idea of a land and people swap in this region, proposing that Israel would trade some 500 sq km of land, populated by some 200,000 Arabs, including Umm el-Fahm, for an unspecified parcel of land in the West Bank, populated by some 50,000 Jews. The idea is based on political and ethnic arithmetic, with a hint of a Mediterranean bazaar. Since the Arab birthrate is significantly higher than the Jewish birthrate, the specter of an Arab majority in Israel is real and imminent. It's a win-win offer, the politicians contend. Nobody gets uprooted from their homes - Palestinians swap citizenship and Israel swaps land, and everybody gets to stay in their homes and become part of their own national states. Once discussed only on the right-wing fringes of Israeli politics, the idea is rapidly gaining credence and legitimacy, even among mainstream political figures such as Uzi Arad, former director of intelligence for the Mossad and foreign policy adviser to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and currently director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center. It most recently surfaced again last month, when Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, from the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, demanded that a land swap be part of any final agreement with the Palestinian Authority. And even both Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), a former Palestinian prime minister who has been the lead Palestinian negotiator, and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) recently said that they were willing to "consider" the idea, according to reports by the Associated Press. But the Arabs who live here don't want to be traded. A land swap, they say, doesn't take into account the complexity of their political and social identity as Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis. In response to Lieberman's call, the heads of all of the Arab regional councils and cities addressed a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and all of the members of his cabinet, and provided it to The Report. "We wish to express our sharp opposition to any initiative taken by the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority with regard to our civil, political and human rights," they wrote. "...We wish to make it clear that as citizens of the State of Israel since 1948-1949... the proposed moving of borders will deprive us of these human rights and tear apart the social and economic ties that have been constructed on the basis of a long and difficult struggle." It's not that the Arab citizens of Israel, or, as most prefer to be called, the "Israeli Palestinians," are satisfied with the way things are. The "Vision Statement" published in November 2006 by a group of prominent Israeli Palestinian political and social activists rejected the concept of a Jewish State, demanding that this ethnic-religious basis of Israel's democracy be replaced by liberal concepts of citizenship. For many Jewish Israelis, such statements merely heighten their fear of the "demographic threat" and the impending Arab majority that would effectively put an end to the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. If the land swap proposal were implemented, the city of Umm el-Fahm (pop. 45,000), that sits on the Green Line, the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan that could serve as the basis for a final-status agreement, would be a prime candidate to be severed from Israel. To many Israeli Jews, Umm el-Fahm is a frightening place, and few enter into this crowded, dense city, the largest Muslim city in Israel, named for the charcoal (fahm in Arabic) that was once produced here. In 1999, some 500 residents of Umm el-Fahm were wounded in riots protesting government expropriation of lands. And in the September 2000 riots that marked the beginning of the second intifada in the territories, three young men were killed here and more than 100 were wounded. Until the security barrier that now separates the city from the West Bank was constructed, a number of terrorists infiltrated into Israel through Umm el-Fahm, blending in with the local population until they were ready to set out on their mission, killing and wounding both Jews and Arabs in the Wadi Ara region, some of them residents of Umm el-Fahm. The city has an unofficial 30 percent poverty rate. Since the 1990s, the municipality has been run by the radical Northern Islamic Movement. A former mayor, Sheikh Raed Salah, was arrested in 2003 on suspicion of raising millions of dollars for Hamas; indicted, he was released after two years in prison, but has been forbidden to travel abroad and remains one of the most influential figures in the region. For years, every September, Umm el-Fahm has been the site of an annual gathering of tens of thousands of Islamic movement supporters to protest against what they perceive as an Israeli threat to the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as the Haram-a-Sharif) in Jerusalem's Old City. More than 30 mosques are spread throughout the city, their minarets, strung with bright green lights, jutting out of the hills on which they are built. But Umm el-Fahm seems to have achieved some sort of coexistence between Islamists and modernists. There is no movie theater or entertainment hall here and many women and girls modestly cover their heads. But just as many seem to go bareheaded. And along a particularly steep hill, at an impossibly sharp turn, a sign for Chinese medicine and a billboard with a scantily-clad young woman running on a high-tech treadmill to advertise a local gym hang close to religious offices. A few high-rise, ultra-modern glass fa?ades are scattered among the older, traditional architecture and the local mall boasts a McDonald's and fashionable boutiques. The municipality has recently granted the Umm el-Fahm art gallery a large plot of land to develop a museum devoted to Arab art. The gallery offers classes to both Arab and Jewish children and exhibits the works of both Jewish and Arab artists - as well as a few pieces contributed by Japanese American celebrity artist Yoko Ono. Mayor Sheikh Hasham Abed Elrahman, a leader in the Northern Islamic Movement, invests great effort to promote the city's moderate image and disabuse Jewish Israelis of what he says are their mistaken impressions. Asked about the land swap proposal, Elrahman, who was the first signer of the letter to Olmert and heads the Wadi Ara Forum of Arab and Jewish mayors, responds, "This is a painful subject. Why would anyone assume that because I am a Palestinian, I must live in Palestine? After all, no one would say that if I were a Jew, I must live in Israel." He continues, "I am a Palestinian citizen of Israel, a country that was established in 1948 according to international agreements, so I accept the fact that the State of Israel exists as a sovereign state. But I also expect the State of Israel to grant me equality and not to question my right to citizenship. Of course, I live with a conflict - between my nationality, Arab and Palestinian, and my citizenship, Israeli. But the Zionists created this dilemma, so you have to solve it - by giving us equality, by giving us equal rights and equal budgets, and by not trading on our citizenship." Does he understand that Jews fear him, Umm el-Fahm, and the Islamic movement? "I cannot argue with feelings. I can tell you that we want to work together with the Jewish majority for the betterment of all of Israel. Religiously, politically and socially, we want to remain part of the State of Israel." But you want to establish an Islamic state here, I challenge. "Why do you say that?" he retorts. "As a religious man, I tell you: I am not religiously required to establish or even to strive to establish an Islamic state here. It's your fear, but not my reality. The Islamic movement is providing services to the people because the government has let us down. We have built roads and schools and medical clinics because all of the governments have discriminated against us and given us less than our fair share of the resources, except for the government headed by Yitzhak Rabin, may his name be a blessing, who gave us budgets to grow and develop." At least in part, the insistence on retaining Israeli citizenship can be attributed to economic interests. Without a doubt, despite the inequities in the Israeli economy, on the average, Israeli Palestinians enjoy one of the best standards of living anywhere in the Arab world, including nationalized health, public education and welfare benefits. Sa'id Agbariah, 34, holder of a BA in economics from Haifa University, works in a gas station along the Wadi Ara road. Like most Palestinian academics in Israel, he says, he cannot find work commensurate with his education. During the riots in October 2000, he freely boasts, he, too, threw stones at Jews and public institutions and tried to block the highways and roads. He says he is deeply disappointed that the Jewish majority in Israel "hasn't learned anything from those riots and still won't give us equality or equal opportunity." Yet when asked about the land swap proposal that would confer Palestinian citizenship on him, he bristles. "What can the Palestinian Authority offer me? Poverty without hope of a better life? I'd rather stay here, even if I have to struggle for my rights." Dressed in the white robe and head covering of a devout Muslim, Abdullah finishes tanking up his late-model Honda Civic and joins the conversation. "I want to be part of Palestine," he offers, "because I want to establish an Islamic state, like the Hamas has done in Gaza, only better. I don't care at all about my Israeli citizenship." But he acknowledges that he only knows "a very few people" who agree with him and says that he doesn't bring the subject up when he's with his family. "They're all against it. They've always lived here, for 60 years they've been part of Israel, and that's how they want it to be." "Sure they do," says Agbariah. "Even the security barrier is good for business. "Since the terrorists don't come through Umm el-Fahm, the Jews might come back to shop. And meanwhile, the Arabs are shopping in Umm el-Fahm because they can't get into the territories. So that's good." But it is clear that emotions deeper than economics are also at play, says Shuli Dichter, co-director of Sikkuy, the Association for Advancing Civic Equality in Israel and a member of nearby Kibbutz Ma'anit. In 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people were scattered into three separate collectives - those in the West Bank and Gaza; those who became citizens of the State of Israel, and those dispersed as refugees throughout the world, Dichter explains. And while these three collectives have connections and affinities, over the past 60 years they have developed different social and political agendas. "Why is it so hard for we Jews to understand that the Arabs don't want to move to Palestine, don't want to leave their homes or their countries but still feel connected to their collective? Most of the Jews in the world don't live in Israel and want to remain citizens of the countries where they live - but still feel connected to Israel. Jews have anchored their identities in pluralistic societies throughout the world, but as Israeli Jews, we refuse to recognize that Palestinians have the same feelings and democratic rights. " Citizenship, based on an individual's relationship to the state that is not mediated by any other characteristic, such as ethnicity or race, is the basic foundation of democracy, Dichter says. "And Israel was not meant to be a democracy-free zone. The Zionists' deal with history included offering democracy to a 20 percent Arab minority within the State of Israel. That's the deal we got, take it or leave it, and any true Zionist will take it." When she talks about the land swap idea, Su'ad (not her real name), a 26-year-old student, married and pregnant with her first child, nearly begins to cry. "I don't want you to use my name," she says. "When the Jews talk about swapping me, it's as though they are denying my right to be a person, and my baby's right, too. They want to move me around, like I'm no one. So I don't want them to know my name." Umm el-Fahm, she says, is her home. "It's not just where I live, it's who I am. I'm a Palestinian and I'm an Israeli, too. For 60 years, we've lived here. I think like a Palestinian, but I think like an Israeli, too. My daily life is Israeli." But Umm el-Fahm, I point out, wasn't originally part of Israel in 1948, and it only became attached to the state in 1951 as a result of a secret deal between David Ben-Gurion and Jordan's King Abdullah I. "You Israelis [sic] always like to bring up technical things and historical facts that don't matter," she responds. "So what if that's how it happened. I live here, in Israel. Both Abu Mazen and Olmert are negotiating about us as though we're just extras in their movies. So if anyone asks me - and they'd better - I stay here, as part of Israel." And what about the support for the Islamic movement, especially in Umm el-Fahm? "Oh, plee-eze," Suad retorts in the latest colloquial Hebrew. "People didn't vote for them for religious reasons. The Islamists have cleaned up the streets and provided services. End the discrimination and you'll see the end of the support for them." Concludes Dichter, "I understand the Palestinians' reasons for wanting to stay, but it is because I am a Jew and a Zionist that I want them to stay. I live here in the region, and even if the Arabs wanted to leave, I would ask them not to. I believe in a Jewish majority, but not in total ethnic homogeneity. Having people who think differently than us enriches us."