A minority view

Israeli Arabs are as alienated from the Jewish establishment as they have ever been, if not more so.

arab israel flag 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
arab israel flag 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The short road from the Galilee village of Sakhnin to the village of Arrabe was filled with a couple of thousand Israeli Arabs and a smattering of Jews carrying Palestinian flags, the Hadash Party's red flag with its vestigial hammer-and-sickle, and the orange flag of fugitive former MK Azmi Bishara's Balad Party. Several young Hadash marchers wore Che Guevara T-shirts. The crowd was chanting in response to the hoarse, rhythmic cries coming from the sound truck: "Gaza will not be broken!" "Free Palestinian prisoners!" "America is the head of the snake!" It was Sunday, March 30 - Land Day, the annual Israeli Arab protest against the government's historical policy of taking land from local Arab jurisdictions and giving it to local Jewish ones. The first Land Day protest was held on the Sakhnin-Arrabe road in 1976, when six protesters were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers and police. This year's marchers join up with the crowd waiting in the cavernous Arrabe shouk. A drum corps is banging out a blood-stirring martial beat. The flag-waving contingents march chanting at the top of their lungs to the blistering shouts from the emcee. The themes of the day are Israeli Arab unity (although the Islamic movement was absent), solidarity with the Palestinians, and resistance to the "rising fascism in Israeli society," says Shawki Hatib, politico-in-chief of the 1.4 million-member Arab minority. No police are in sight. No one is firing guns in the air. There isn't a trace of violence. I go up to people at the rally, introduce myself as a Jerusalem Post reporter, and interview them in Hebrew. Not a threatening word or look comes my way. Could I do this in Jenin? In Nablus? In Gaza? Not likely. As much as anything, this illustrates the difference between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, despite the growing belief among Israel's Jewish majority that they're effectively one and the same, that Israeli Arabs are no less the enemy than their blood brothers in the West Bank and Gaza. (A survey released this week by University of Haifa sociology professor Sami Smooha, the leading pollster of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, found that 62% of Israeli Jews suspect that Israeli Arabs will launch a popular uprising, while 64% do not enter Israeli Arab towns.) Walking back from the rally to their home in Sakhnin are Ibrahim Shawahna, a physiotherapist, his wife Amira, a teacher, and their nephew Ali Ganama, a business student at the University of Haifa. All three are Hadash supporters, Ganama wearing a "Hadash Students" T-shirt with a picture of Guevara on the back. "Until about 10 years ago, I felt I belonged in the State of Israel, but after the events of October [the October 2000 riots in Galilee when 12 Israeli Arabs and a Palestinian were killed by police], I realized that the state sees us as strangers in our own land. But we have nowhere to go. This is our country, and I won't be part of any attempt to destroy it. What I want is equality," says Shawahna, 37, carrying one of his three daughters on his shoulders. Like all but a token number of Israeli Arabs, the Shawahnas will not be celebrating Israel's upcoming 60th Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day). They will fly no Israeli flags from their balcony or car, they will visit no IDF bases, they will join no crowds watching IAF jets streaking overhead. For the Shawahnas, as for a very large portion of Israeli Arabs, Yom Ha'atzmaut is Yom Hanakba - Memorial Day for the Catastrophe, the catastrophe of the Palestinians' loss of the war with Israel in 1948. That war turned about 700,000 of them - 80 percent of their prewar population - into refugees, cleared the way for Israel's postwar destruction of some 400 Arab villages and cost the Palestinians a state. On that day, the Shawahnas go to the Galilee village of Maloul, which Amira's parents fled during the war, and where an IDF base now stands. "The army won't let us come too close," she says. "For us it's a day of sadness, a day of mourning." Many Israeli Jews misunderstand Yom Hanakba. They think Israeli Arabs are saying the catastrophe was the creation of the State of Israel, which means they're saying Israel has no right to exist. But every Israeli Arab I talked to, from the mayor of the capital of the Islamic Movement's northern faction, Umm el-Fahm, to a very moderate, conciliatory, elderly Nazareth journalist, said that by nakba they don't mean the creation of Israel, but the destruction of Palestine and the attendant human tragedy. "Our political leaders began speaking of Yom Ha'atzmaut as Yom Hanakba after 2000," says Mahmoud Abu Rajab, editor of Al Ahbar and a critic of those leaders' inflammatory, divisive rhetoric. Yet he acknowledges that "historically, they were right. Yom Ha'atzmaut, when Israel was founded, was a time of nakba for Arab citizens. That's something no one, not Jew or Arab, can deny." Hashem Abdel Rahman, mayor of Umm el-Fahm and a member of the northern faction, says, "If someone speaks the truth, he will say that here is a nation that was expelled, whose land and homes were taken, whose graves were destroyed." He insists he does not want to destroy the State of Israel. "Today there is a consensus among Israeli Arabs to accept the UN decision [of 1947 to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state]. We accepted Israel as a state, now it's their turn to accept us as citizens of this state." I mention that the Arabs in fact rejected the UN partition resolution in 1947, to which Abdel Rahman replies, "I'm not talking about then, I'm talking about now." DR. ELIE REKHESS, director of Tel Aviv University's Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation in Israel, says it's absurd to expect Israeli Arabs to celebrate their devastating loss in the War of Independence. "Today, 60 years after Yom Ha'atzmaut, there are very few Israeli Arabs who celebrate the holiday - and how could they? Independence Day for whom, a war of liberation from what? On the contrary, for them it's the nakba, and what is absolutely clear is that in the last 10 years, their conception of Yom Ha'atzmaut as Yom Hanakba has strengthened significantly." For Israeli Arabs, Yom Hanakba is not only a day of remembrance of what they lost in 1948, it's also a day of taking stock of where they, as well as their Palestinian brethren, stand with Israel at present. And on the eve of the country's 60th birthday, the Arab minority, 20% of the population, is as alienated from the Jewish establishment as it's ever been, if not more so. One obvious reason is the grim status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which naturally drives a wedge between the country's Jewish and Arab citizens. Another reason is the mainstreaming of secular anti-Zionist ideology, popularized by Bishara, and Islamism, which is a phenomenon of the modern Muslim world that naturally arrived here, too. A third reason, however, comes from the Jewish side - the growing perception among politicians and the public that Israeli Arabs should be treated as a "fifth column" and a "demographic threat." As a result, MK Avigdor Lieberman's idea to trade the Wadi Ara region and its hundreds of thousands of Arabs to the Palestinian Authority has gained broad popularity among Jews, while the Oslo-era intent by the government to end discrimination against Arab citizens has been abandoned, leaving them to stagnate with schools, housing opportunities and job prospects that, as a matter of de-facto Israeli policy, are inferior to those of the Jewish majority. There is even a backlash in the Knesset against rulings in favor of Israeli Arab civil rights by their main defender, the Supreme Court. The upshot is that few Israeli Arabs will make their presence felt for Yom Ha'atzmaut, many will be mourning the day as Yom Hanakba, while many others will abstain from observing either day. At a news conference this week about preparations for Independence Day, Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila explained the lack of attention given the Arab sector by saying: "It's no secret that part of the population has a problem marking our Independence Day, which for them is a nakba." The only plans she mentioned for the Arab sector were for some sort of celebration in Shfaram along with discussions between Arab and Jewish students. In Nazareth, the country's largest Arab city, Mayor Ramez Jeraisy says the Yom Hanakba event will be a procession to the village of Tzipori, which was the Arab village of Safuriyah before the 1948 war. In Umm el-Fahm, the second largest Arab city, Mayor Rahman says there will be visits to several uprooted Arab villages, while local schools will devote an hour to discussing the 1948 war and its aftermath. SHFARAM, THE fifth largest Arab city, is an anomaly. While several Arab mayors are members of Kadima, Shfaram Mayor Ursan Yassin is the only Likudnik. An Arab merchant in Haifa told me, "There are some Israeli Arabs who want to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut more than the Jews do," and Yassin is one of them. "I met with Ruhama Avraham's people and asked them, 'What do you want me to do [in Shfaram for Yom Ha'atzmaut]?' They haven't got back to me," he said in his city hall office at the end of last month. A round, energetic, shrewd, happy warrior, Yassin will be hanging out Israeli flags on Shfaram's public buildings and main street just like he has for the last 10 years, and like his late father-in-law, long-time Laborite mayor Ibrahim Nimr Hussein, did before him. "We're part of the State of Israel, we have to integrate. Whoever disagrees should find someplace else to live," he says. On one Yom Ha'atzmaut, some of Yassin's local opposition - young members of Balad, Hadash, Sons of the Village and the Islamic Movement - were hanging black flags, and some young men from Yassin's family went to stop them. "They got into a fight and the boys from my family were put in jail for a few hours. Can you believe such a thing?" Asked how a Muslim Likudnik manages to rule the local affairs of a Galilee Arab city, he says it's simple: divide and conquer. "I weaken them. I don't let them join up together. For instance, I took NIS 50,000 [in Religious Affairs Ministry funds] from the mosque up the hill and gave it to the Beduin mosque. Now there's a police investigation against me for it. I do it because I want to cause conflict between them. I always do this," he says without blinking. Shfaram is the home of Adalah, the outspoken Arab legal defense organization. It's also the home of Hadash leader MK Muhammad Barakei. "Our relationship is not good," Yassin says. The city is a mixture of Muslims, Christians and Druse. "Some neighborhoods don't hang out Israeli flags on Yom Ha'atzmaut, but most of them do," he says. "You won't see any black flags, though." At a Toto parlor on Shfaram's main street, Aladin Halahla, a Muslim who works in an undisclosed "security" capacity, says some black flags do fly in Shfaram on Yom Ha'atzmaut, but much fewer than the Israeli flags. Yusef Hassan, baking pitot in a bakery down the street, says he doesn't pay any attention to either Yom Ha'atzmaut or Yom Hanakba. "What's important to me is me, what I get," he says. But underneath his cynicism lies resentment. Israel "took 48 dunams from my father. Now that land is part of [the Jewish town of] Upper Nazareth." Hassan, 32, who lives in Mash'had, says the spirit of the holiday has changed drastically over the last generation. "In the early '90s you would see 70% of the cars in Mash'had with Israeli flags. Today, if my brother sees me flying an Israeli flag from my car, he'll smash the windows. Last year there wasn't one Israeli flag in the village for Yom Ha'atzmaut. But there was no Yom Hanakba, either." As for the schools in Shfaram, even Yassin doesn't have the power to force them to observe Yom Ha'atzmaut, although he'd like to. "We used to have Israeli flags and parades in the schools here," he says. "Today, unfortunately, there's nothing." From 1948 to 1966, when Israeli Arab villages lived under IDF martial law, many Israeli Arabs celebrated Yom Ha'atzmaut. Says Abu Rajab, the Nazareth editor who was five years old at Israel's independence: "I remember when I was a child, a lot of young Arabs would travel to Tel Aviv and Haifa for the parades. Part of it was because they accepted the State of Israel, but it was also because Yom Ha'atzmaut was the only day of the year when Arabs could travel to the cities without a permit from the military administration." Fifty years ago, says Rekhess, "Arab dignitaries would stand at the entrance to their village waving Israeli flags on Yom Ha'atzmaut, waiting for the military governor to arrive. All the Arab schoolchildren would be standing outside waving Israeli flags, and the military governor would come riding up in a jeep or on horseback. The pictures from those years are surreal." Enthusiasm for Yom Ha'atzmaut rapidly faded among Israeli Arabs after that first, bloody Land Day in 1976. But the idea of commemorating the losses from 1948 as Yom Hanakba didn't surface until after the Oslo Accords of 1993, which began the "Palestinization" of the Israeli Arab national identity. While Abu Rajab dates the emergence of Yom Hanakba to the October 2000 riots, Rekhess says it arose in 1998 in answer to the celebrations surrounding the 50th Yom Ha'atzmaut. WADI NISNAS, the old Arab neighborhood of Haifa, is considered a model of coexistence in this country. On Saturday the steep streets are filled with Jews coming to eat in the Arab restaurants and shop in the stores and markets. The municipality's Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Center has mounted plaques there commemorating the many novelists and poets, Jewish and Arab, who lived and wrote in Wadi Nisnas. Yet while the neighborhood is touted as a symbol of Jewish-Arab harmony, underneath the surface, many Arabs living here carry bitter family memories from the War of Independence. According to Benny Morris, the leading historian of Palestinian refugees, some 70,000 Haifa Arabs fled the city when the Hagana overpowered the Arab militias. On Rehov Hawadi, the main street in the quarter, a tour guide is explaining the local history to a group of pensioners from Petah Tikva. I go into an Arab music shop to talk to the man behind the counter, who tells me, "I don't know why they bring these tour groups to this neighborhood. The people here don't want them. We feel like we're in zoo." I ask him his view of Yom Ha'atzmaut. "Somebody who had his home and his land taken from him, who's paying rent to the people who took it from him - how do you expect him to see it?" During the war, he says, "My grandparents were living in [Haifa's central area] Hadar, and they fled to the north. They spent two years living in a village, then came back and found that their house was gone, Jews had moved into it. I know where it is. My grandfather owned 10 dunams of land in the city that we never got back." On Yom Ha'atzmaut, he says, there are "no Israeli flags and no black flags" on the streets and alleys of Wadi Nisnas. For him, it's "a normal working day." At the top of the city on the campus of the University of Haifa, which has the largest proportion of Arab students of any Israeli university, Rayan Farhat, a Druse student from Daliat al-Carmel, is eating lunch on the grass with some other Arab students. "For me, it's not Yom Ha'atzmaut or Yom Hanakba," he says. "My Druse friends don't have anything to do with the holiday, either." A former IDF soldier and member of the Israel Police, Farhat, 24, expresses a trend in thinking that has become prevalent among the younger generation of the country's Druse, who number about 70,000. The leaders of the community having taken a "blood oath" with the Jewish state in its early years, Druse boys are drafted into the army like Jews, hold a disproportionately large presence in the professional army and police and are considered by the Jewish majority to be a breed apart among Israeli Arabs, sort of honorary Jews. But in the last generation this has been changing, largely because the Druse, despite all their young men who've died for this country, remain as isolated and neglected as the rest of the country's Arabs. Farhat says his patriotism began to fall away after an IDF trial in which he received "a sentence I wouldn't have gotten if my name had been Cohen." This sensitivity to discrimination reflects a new political consciousness among young Druse. Their identification with the state is weakening, while their ties to the larger Israeli Arab community are growing stronger. "My parents work in security and they still recognize Yom Ha'atzmaut," says Farhat. They were the first generation of Israeli Druse patriots. Before them, his grandparents "always considered themselves Syrians." Salman Natour, a Druse author and playwright in Daliat al-Carmel who wrote a book, Memory, about the Arab ordeal during and after the War of Independence, says that on Yom Ha'atzmaut, "I usually don't go out of the house. For me it's a very sad day. I've been living the Palestinian story for many years. I define myself as a Palestinian." He says Druse loyalty to the state was never as clear-cut and unanimous as Israeli Jews like to think. "There were protests against the draft; a lot of Druse boys went to jail rather than serve," he says. Today the rising political powers in the Druse community are the Israeli Arab parties, not the Zionist ones, he adds, pointing out that of the three current Druse in the Knesset, only one is with a Zionist party (Kadima), while the other two are with Balad and Hadash. In Daliat al-Carmel, a favorite tourist destination for Israelis driving through Galilee, Natour says the Yom Ha'atzmaut celebrations "used to be ordered by the government and the municipality," but by now they've become hollow. "The municipality still puts the flags out, but there are no celebrations like before." It's a day off, so people in Daliat "go to the parks to barbecue, then they go home." Another stark difference between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, besides the level of violence against Israeli Jews, is in the level of passive support for such violence. After the massacre at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, Khalil Shikaki, the most respected Palestinian opinion pollster, found that 84% of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians approved of it. By comparison, a survey released this week by Smooha found that the use of violence for political purposes is supported by only 10.8% of Israeli Arabs. This marked a slight rise from the 9.5% support Smooha found in a survey last year. There does exist a tiny element of Israeli Arabs who are ready to attack Israeli Jewish targets. A small number of Israeli Arabs have been accessories in Palestinian terror plots. In recent weeks there have been incidents of stone-throwing at cars presumed to be driven by Jews through Wadi Ara - the first such cases since the October 2000 riots. Every Israeli Arab with whom I raised the issue of terror said he opposed it and that the community at large did as well. It would be very surprising, though, for an Arab citizen of Israel to tell a reporter for a Israeli Zionist newspaper anything different, no matter what he believed. I asked Rekhess for his opinion. "The needle on the seismograph is twitching slightly," he says, "but we're still talking about a very marginal use of violence. It's not substantial. The only political body that has publicly demonstrated a certain understanding for the motives of terrorists is the northern faction. I also imagine that radical elements, such as the Sons of the Village, might also empathize with terrorists. But I think that because of the circumstances in which Israeli Arabs are obliged to live, they prefer legitimate political means to violent ones, simply because these bring better results." IN THE MIXED city of Ramle, the Arab minority carries especially harsh memories of the War of Independence: The 50,000 Arabs who lived here and in neighboring Lod did not flee their homes in fear as the majority of the 700,000 Arab refugees did. Instead, they were forcibly expelled by the Hagana. In a passage from his 1979 memoirs that was originally removed by the censor, Yitzhak Rabin wrote that despite their moral qualms, he and Yigal Allon decided it would be too risky to leave the local Arab population in place. So, with David Ben-Gurion's approval, their troops marched the unwilling Arabs of Lod in the direction of Jordan with "the use of force and warning shots." Rabin's memoir continues: "The inhabitants of Ramle watched, and learned the lesson: Their leaders agreed to be evacuated voluntarily..." A small number, however, remained in the city while some Arabs from other parts of the country were relocated there. Today, about 13,000 of the city's 65,000 residents are Arabs. Nawal Abu Amer, a devout Muslim in black robes and head scarf who is principal of the city's Juarish Elementary School, says that Ramle's Arabs get along well today with the Jewish majority. "Look around you," she says, sitting with me in Khalil's Middle Eastern restaurant behind the local shouk. "There are Arabs and Jews eating here. The humous brings us together." She laughs. "No, really there's less tension in Ramle than in the rest of the country because we live together here, we have to talk to each other. We go to the shouk together, we go to the health fund clinic together. Most of the neighborhoods have Arabs and Jews living in them. There are Arab students in many of the Jewish schools - my two sons attend a Jewish junior high school. And the Arab schools get the same budget as the Jewish ones. Sometimes there's even discrimination in our favor." Still, there will be no Yom Ha'atzmaut celebrations in Abu Amer's school, or in any other school in Ramle's Arab sector, by decision of the local Arab school principals. Citywide, Arab residents "don't really take part in Yom Ha'atzmaut with us," says a municipal official. At Juarish, the 730 Muslim pupils will draw pictures relating to the day - "whatever they want to draw about Israel's 60th birthday, the good and the bad," she says. There will be no class discussions of what happened to Ramle's Arabs during the war, and if there are any discussions about the place of Arabs in Israeli history, they will be handled "delicately," she says. "Sometimes touching the pain makes it hurt more, so we don't touch it." As for Yom Hanakba, she says this notion "won't enter the classroom. We're civil servants, we have to follow the rules. We don't run any red lights." The poll by Smooha illustrates the basic mind-set in Israel's Arab minority, which few in the Jewish majority seem to grasp: that while most Israeli Arabs are put off by the idea of a Jewish state, in practice most have come to the conclusion that living in this Jewish state, despite all the discrimination, isn't so bad after all. Of some 700 Israeli Arabs Smooha surveyed, 64% said it was unjust for Israel to be run as a Jewish state; 60% went so far as to say they didn't trust Israeli Jews. Nevertheless, 75% said Israel was a good place to live. And despite Ahmed Tibi's famous line that "Israel is a democracy for Jews and a Jewish state for Arabs," 58% of the 700 Israeli Arabs polled said Israel was a democracy for them, too. Another illustration of this attitude is Israeli Arabs' angry rejection of the idea that since their national identity and political sympathies seem rooted in a Palestinian state, they should go live there. At a conference of Arab mayors at the University of Haifa, Nazareth's Mayor Ramez Jeraisy, a Hadash member and a Christian, told me, "If a Palestinian state is created and the Arab citizens of Israel are given the choice of moving to Palestine or remaining in Israel, I'm sure that virtually all of them will choose the option of staying here." I asked if there were other reasons for this attitude besides the one that's often heard: that this is Israeli Arabs' land, their home, the place where their families lived and died for generations. "That's the basis of the attitude," Jeraisy explained, "but this attitude is also the result of processes that have been going on for the last 60 years, in which the Israeli Arab community has developed economic connections to the Israeli [Jewish] establishment and to Israeli political values." Without stating it explicitly, Jeraisy seemed to be saying that Israeli Arabs are convinced they have better economic opportunities and more freedom and security as second-class citizens of Israel than they would as first-class citizens of Palestine. And despite their resentments against Israel, this conviction, finally, is what guides the Arab population's behavior, no matter the often harsh statements their political leaders make at rallies, in the Knesset or on visits to enemy countries. "You have to differentiate between the Israeli Arab leadership and Israeli Arab public," says Rekhess. "The leadership steadily becomes more radical and anti-Zionist, but do the Israeli Arab man and woman on the street really want an ongoing confrontation with the Israeli establishment? I think there is a large segment of Israeli Arab society that wants to integrate into the State of Israel." The Nazareth editor Abu Rajab, 65, himself a refugee from the uprooted village of Safuriyah, agrees. He blames both the Israeli Arab and Israeli Jewish political leadership for building their careers on combative rhetoric that heats up the interethnic atmosphere. He estimates that 90% of the Arabs taking part in Yom Hanakba are political activists. However, he also says that only a few Arab citizens will be celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut, and they will do so "privately." "I personally do not mark any holidays, religious or national, and I've never taken part in parades," he says. "I think parades and demonstrations may satisfy people emotionally, but in reality they only serve the politicians." In his Wadi Nisnas shop that sells coffee, wine and whiskey, Marwan Daoud, 40, is roasting coffee beans. "Ideology is finished," he says. "I work too hard to have ideology." A Christian Arab, he did national service caring for soldiers in a hospital during the first Lebanon war. The black flags of Yom Hanakba don't speak to him at all. "But Yom Ha'atzmaut is not for me, it's for the Jewish people," he says. Pouring water over the steaming coffee beans, he stops to think. "Yom Ha'atzmaut, Yom Ha'atzmaut... What can I say?" he shrugs. "One people's happiness is another's sadness."