Frustration in the triangle

Local Arab leaders say Israel needs to address the community’s grievances that flared up recently into widespread rioting.

Israeli Arabs clash with border police during rioting in Wadi Ara (photo credit: IZIK BARBI / FLASH 90)
Israeli Arabs clash with border police during rioting in Wadi Ara
(photo credit: IZIK BARBI / FLASH 90)
When singer Meir Banai wrote in the 1980s about the “sweet smell of orchards” being the elixir of life, he could have been singing about Moshav Sha’ar Efraim. Located 20 kilometers inland from the coastal city of Netanya, the rural community is in the heart of Israel’s fertile central plain.
It is hard to imagine a more pastoral scene: The community is awash in summer green, surrounded by trees. Public spaces are tidy, well-irrigated and grassy, homes and public buildings are simple but neat. Since the settlement’s establishment by Yemenite Jews in 1953, the communal village has grown to include some 80 private farms, totaling approximately 1,600 residents. Walking around the moshav at mid-day during the summer holiday, it appears mostly empty – the area has not been affected by rocket fire from Gaza, so most local kids are in summer camps or working on their family businesses.
Some 1,500 meters to the west, the Arab town of Qalansuwa, population 22,000, is dusty and dry on a Ramadan afternoon.
With most residents observing the day-long fast, most of the businesses along Quds Road, the town’s main drag, are closed for the afternoon siesta, save one or two bakeries that are busy preparing for Iftar, the evening break-fast meal. There are few pedestrians, though a small group of boys are riding their bikes together down a side street.
By 6 p.m., the town has started to come to life in anticipation of the muezzin’s call to prayer that will end the fast shortly before 8 p.m. But the activity cannot hide the poor socio-economic state of Qalansuwa. Like most Arab towns in Israel, there is there is little infrastructure and what there is, is in poor shape. A local school building, closed for the summer, is in disrepair, as are most of the buildings on Quds Road. Streets are poorly paved, and unfinished construction lines many streets. It is as if there is no municipal planning commission and no governmental body responsible for zoning or oversight of building.
Like in other areas, the gap between haves and have-nots here are stark. Three-story luxury villas stand on the same streets as badly dilapidated homes, often separated by just a few meters. Apart from the impressive private homes, the only crisp-looking building in town is the mosque, glistening in white with a smoothly-paved parking lot.
A week after riots (sparked by the murder of Palestinian youth Muhammad Abu Khdeir) rocked Taibe, Tira, Qalansuwa, Sakhnin, Kafr Qara, Tamra, Nazareth, Umm el-Fahm, east Jerusalem, and the Negev, Arab towns continue to simmer. In Taibe, one shop owner clearly was surprised to see a Jewish customer, especially one wearing a kippa. Same in Qalansuwa, where passers- by greeted this reporter with a look that combined surprise with thanks mixed with a strong dose of uncertainty.
Although a group of Jews reportedly visited Qalansuwa bearing flowers following the riots, to watch one of the semi-finals of the World Cup soccer tournament, tension remains heavy throughout the Arab sector.
During happier times, Jewish customers boost the economic base of the region. On Shabbat, it can be difficult to find parking in Arab towns when secular Jews from towns like Kfar Yona, a 10-minute drive from Qalansuwa, visit for hummus and fresh pita bread.
Today, however, local Jews feel betrayed by communities with which they believe they have worked hard to create neighborly relations, and are scared and angry about the outburst of violence against them. The discovery of the bodies of the abducted yeshiva students Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel on June 30 set off a round of national mourning in Israel, not widespread violence as in the case of Abu Khdeir. In addition, many Israelis reacted badly to comments by individuals such as Balad MK Hanin Zouabi, who insisted during the manhunt for the boys that the kidnappers should not be considered “terrorists.”
Significantly, local leaders stress their role in tamping down the violence. Qalansuwa Mayor Abd el-Baset Salama said he brought his town under control in 48 hours, but not before a Jewish driver was nearly lynched and his car set alight by protesters. In Nazareth, Mayor Ali Salam pleaded with the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee not to hold a march on July 11 citing the dearth of Jewish customers for local merchants in the aftermath of the violence. Other Arab leaders were critical of the national leadership, particularly of Arab Knesset members, who they said appear on the scene of the riots to encourage violence, only to disappear when locals are left to deal with the aftermath of those clashes.
“Commerce, economy and tourism in the city of Nazareth will be damaged after such events,” Salam told Kul al-Arab, Israel’s largest Arabic-language daily.
Still, walking around Qalansuwa, Taibe and Tira – three Arab towns known as the “Southern Triangle” – the atmosphere felt not unlike the aftermath of a lover’s spat: Both sides are extremely hurt by the recent turn of events; both feel the other side is mainly to blame; both want to reconcile but feel hesitant to take the first step. Furthermore, the situation here, in comparison to some Arab-majority towns and regions around the country, could be considered to have calmed significantly – Israeli-Arab contacts felt that at least in the Southern Triangle, it was safe for a Jewish reporter to visit. In Umm el-Fahm in the Northern Triangle and in the Shuafat section of northern Jerusalem, residents and activists advised this reporter against visiting at all.
At the same time, however, Mayor Salama and other prominent members of the community also warn that the events of early July could be the tip of a violent iceberg if Israel does not begin to deal with the oppressive sense of frustration, discrimination and hopelessness that pervades Palestinian society in Israel.
“The murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir was obviously horrific, but it was a trigger that set off the whole round of events,” says Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a nonprofit organization promoting inclusion and equality among Jewish and Arab citizens, and a resident of Qalansuwa.
“Don’t forget, the conditions for an explosion have been developing for a long time. People in Israel took note of the riots, but they paid little attention to the price-tag attacks, to the home demolitions in virtually all Arab communities in Israel, to attempts to drive a wedge in the Arab community by encouraging Christian Arabs to enlist in the IDF, to [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Liberman’s repeated calls to take away our Israeli citizenship by transferring control of our communities to the Palestinian Authority.
“These are ongoing issues that must be dealt with. Local leaders managed to bring the protesters under control this time, but the anger and frustration remains. If Israel does nothing to alleviate the situation, the day will come when there will simply be nothing for us to do,” Abu Rass tells The Jerusalem Report.
To be sure, the events of early July brought the community’s frustration to the fore. Although some commentators compared the disturbances to the early days of the Second Intifada, and particularly to the infamous October 2000 riots in which 13 Arab citizens were killed by police, in many ways, the riots more closely resembled December 1987, when rumors spread that a traffic accident that left four Gazans dead had been an intentional attack by an IDF unit. Riots spread quickly around the Palestinian world, and spontaneously broke out throughout Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
Certainly, the fury of Arab frustration has not dimmed since that watershed moment.
News reports about the riots following the murder of Abu Khdeir caught many in Israel by surprise, not only because of the intensity of the rage – protesters blocked roads, stoned police, damaged road signs, burned tires, and blocked major traffic arteries, but also because of the content of the protests.
Surrounded by Palestinian flags, protesters lauded the “abduction of soldiers” and chanted, “We will sacrifice our lives and our blood for Al-Aqsa.” The latter slogan is associated with the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, headed by radical Sheikh Raed Salah.
On the other hand, local youth here say the media have overplayed the significance of the pro-Palestinian aspects of the protests.
They stress the fact that the protests took place in reaction to the vicious revenge murder of Abu Khdeir, rather than to the massive round of arrests and the aggressive pursuit of Hamas in the West Bank during Operation Brother’s Keeper. Yes, they say, there were nationalist, pro- Palestinian slogans, but many more chants about police brutality and house demolitions. The point of the demonstrations, they say, was not really about the Israel-Palestinian issue, but rather about civic issues.
“The violence was an accumulation of ongoing injustice,” says 27-year-old Thair Abu Rass, Thabet’s son and a doctoral student in political science at the University of Houston (Texas). “As the world opens up, societies integrate and we learn about other places, other opportunities, etc. Things aren’t so much about Israel-Palestine any more, but rather about oppressed and oppressor. The economic and geographic perspective, too.”
The younger Abu Rass acknowledged that at least on paper, Palestinian citizens of Israel enjoy full rights under the law, but he said that in real terms, young people in his community feel a lack of hope and a pervasive sense of injustice. “We are talking about issues of everyday life. Look at Qalansuwa, as opposed to Kfar Yona or Sha’ar Efraim.
Look at Fureidis as opposed to Zichron Ya’akov. You see a clear policy of intentional discrimination that has lasted since 1948 and that takes on a host of different shapes and forms.
“On paper, you’re right, we are supposed to have equal rights and opportunities in this country; de facto, we are second-class citizens. Our cities and infrastructure are entirely secondary to Jewish needs. It’s a Jewish state; that means Jews first. In real terms, Jews simply have way more opportunities here than we do,” he says.
All the Palestinian Israelis interviewed for this article criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for fanning the flames of anti-Arab racism in Israel, noting his comments at the start of the riots that Israel is “working on two fronts” – meaning against Hamas in Gaza, and a second front against Israeli Arabs in the Triangle.
They also mentioned Netanyahu’s support for a 2011 bill to ban mosque loudspeakers: At the time, the prime minister justified his support for the measure saying that European countries, like France and Belgium, had acted to ban the loudspeakers, which often disturb non-Muslims in the middle of the night.
“The same problem exists in all European countries and they know how to deal with it,” he said. “It’s legitimate in Belgium, it’s legitimate in France. Why isn’t it legitimate here? We don’t need to be more liberal than Europe,” Netanyahu said at the time.
To Arab ears, however, the comparison to foreign Muslim groups is outrageous.
“How the hell can he speak like that?” fumes Thair Abu Rass. “We are citizens of this country, not ‘another front’ to fight against. And how can you compare between an immigrant population in Europe that migrated in search of economic opportunity to an indigenous minority, living in its land? To a nation living in its own land when all of a sudden a new geopolitical reality landed and ever since then we have been fighting for a share in our own country?! A private citizen can say whatever he wants, but the prime minister? It is absolutely outrageous.”
Predictably, right-wing Israelis were quick to respond to Abu Rass’s comments.
“Israeli Arabs who cooperate with terrorists, who incite against the State of Israel, who support kidnappers, who burn cars and stone police – they should be arrested and tried,” says Likud MK Miri Regev. “If they are convicted, they should lose their citizenship.
We have to hit them in the soft underbelly.”
Speaking to The Report by phone, Regev stresses that there are minority populations all over the world, but that countries like the US and Europe respect minorities’ cultural identities while also demanding loyalty to the host country’s values.
“No country in the world would allow a situation to carry on the way we have with Arab Israelis. If it is so bad here, there’s an open ticket to Gaza or Lebanon. Let them go live with Hamas or Hezbollah if they are so enamored with those groups. I think that’s why the idea of land swaps is a reasonable one. Let them live under the Palestinians.
Let’s see how many cars they manage to burn under Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas],” Regev says.
She warns of the danger of the community becoming a “fifth column. Look, Arab Israelis have no responsibilities towards the state, only rights. They don’t serve in the IDF, they don’t do national service. Yes, we must do more – we should invest more in the Arab sector – like we should invest more in all periphery communities, like we should invest more in education and other things.
“But that does not mean we have to allow a fifth column to exist. The police do not act strongly enough against stone throwers, against Molotov cocktail throwers, against car burners. The police haven’t banned the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement,” Regev complains.
However, community leaders and activists say the clock is ticking towards the next explosion because of discrimination and because young people feel there is no hope for the future. Even Thair Abu Rass, an educated, articulate man with a deep sense of responsibility to his Palestinian identity, says he does not know if he will return after completing his studies in the US. Other young people said they would leave if they could, but added that they lacked the financial ability to begin new lives abroad.
They all say the ability, and thus the responsibility, to solve the ongoing impasse lies squarely on Israeli shoulders. In their view, simple numbers speak for themselves – with more than 60,000 residents, the Taibe/ Qalansuwa/Tira area has no industrial zone or fire station (locals use the fire station from Bat Hefer, a 6,000-person Jewish community about five kilometers north of Qalansuwa).
Some acknowledge the damage the community suffers at the hands of spokespeople such as Hanin Zouabi, but they also note that, even in the Arab community, Zouabi is considered an extreme, divisive, marginal character.
In contrast, they note that Israeli “extremists” such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman currently heads a 12-seat Knesset faction.
To Qalansuwa Mayor Salama, the last point is the most dangerous one for the future of relations between Palestinian citizens and Israel. “Liberman is indicative of a very dangerous phenomenon,” Salama says with a calm intensity. “Israel always talks about the Arabs, but the country never talks to the Arabs. Take the Prawer Plan for the Bedouin in the Negev – everyone under the sun was involved in talking about the plan except the Bedouin themselves. In the end, the plan took four years, wasted hundreds of thousands of shekels and eventually was shelved because it would have been impossible to implement.
“But don’t be fooled, our younger generation has learned a lot from Israel – the art of chutzpah, they know that they are equals and they are not going to continue to accept second-class status.