Brothers in arms?

Israeli-Arab reactions to Operation Cast Lead, from the northern Islamic Movement bastion Umm el-Fahm to the southern war-torn city of Rahat.

Umm el-Fahm 224 88  aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
Umm el-Fahm 224 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
The southern half of the Israeli Arab sector is a wide scattering of poor Beduin towns and tent camps; its "capital," Rahat, lies within rocket range of Gaza, a little over 20 km. away. In November the Islamic Movement's "southern faction" - which, unlike the northern faction, officially recognizes the State of Israel, but which is far from being a Zionist party - took over city hall from Kadima. On Sunday, the second day of Operation Cast Lead, the parking lot and courtyard of the local police department were crowded with extra cops who had been brought in as part of the nationwide security reinforcement in the Israeli Arab sector. In his office, Supt. Eyal Azulay, chief of Rahat police, said the city was maintaining its usual calm. "There was a demonstration in the central square yesterday, about 400 people were there, but there were no disturbances, no incitement, no extremism," said Azulay. The only sign of violence anywhere in the region was one burning tire left at the entrance of a nearby Beduin village. The evening before, several hours after IAF jets began bombing Gaza, 10 Rahat tribal sheikhs came to Azulay's office. "They agreed that no one had any interest in violence, and that they would make this clear to everyone in their tribes. One of them said, 'Eyal, if anyone here gives you any trouble, you tell us and we'll take care of it.'" Azulay noted that many of Rahat's 52,000 residents serve in the IDF and police. He also pointed out that with a few marginal exceptions, Negev Beduin did not join in the Israeli Arab riots in October 2000, sparking off the second intifada. "There was one incident of stone-throwing at the police station here, and the Beduin themselves got control of the situation." Rahat does have a small "radical element," he said, "but the police and the Shin Bet are keeping an eye on them. On the whole, though, the Beduin have their own tribal interests, they have a different way of looking at things than the Arabs in the North. Rahat is a symbol of tolerance, of coexistence - of all those corny expressions, but it's true." Theoretically, Rahat was taking part in the nationwide one-day solidarity commercial strike in the Arab sector, but while most shops around city hall closed up, many on the dusty, disheveled streets in the town's periphery stayed open. Unemployed men sitting on the steps of the tall mosques, or outside the little sandwich stands, or in the yards of garages all said the same things: They were pained by the televised images from Gaza, it was just as bad for Jewish children to be killed as Arab children and that, God willing, the fighting would end soon. Azulay said he and the new mayor, Fayez Abu Sehiban, sent out that message in a joint interview on a Negev radio program. "The mayor said he was sorry for the people being killed in Gaza and for the people under fire in Sderot. Remember, this is a man from the Islamic Movement." By telephone, Abu Sehiban, a former education official, told me that during the rally in Rahat's central square, "we expressed solidarity with the people of Gaza, and we also demanded an end to the Kassams." The main worry on the minds of Rahat residents is the fate of their family members living in Gaza, he said, adding that phone conversations with relatives there have stopped out of fear that the Gazans' phones are being tapped by Israel. In the week before the war, said Abu Sehiban, Home Front Command installed air raid sirens in Rahat and instructed city officials on what to do in an emergency. This is a jerry-built town without public shelters. Still, the mayor was confident that "if, God forbid, any rockets fall on Rahat, we will be prepared." The next day, a rocket landed near an Ashkelon building site, killing a construction worker and wounding several others. The man killed was a Beduin from a Negev village, and three of the wounded are Beduin who live in Rahat. "Two of them are relatives of mine," said Abu Sehiban, who visited them in the hospital. And on Tuesday, a rocket landed at the edge of the city, hitting only the ground, but this was an extremely close call. "The rocket landed about 50 meters from a tin shack. A woman was inside with her seven children," the mayor reported. Since the air raid sirens were installed only in the center of town, the woman and her children didn't hear the warning because they live too far out. I asked him Tuesday night if this had altered his view. "Just the opposite," he said. "This is all the more reason why I say the Israeli government and Hamas should sit down and talk and end the fighting, end the bloodshed. I don't want to see any Beduin getting hurt, I don't want to see any Jews getting hurt and I don't want to see any Palestinians getting hurt." For all the talk about Israeli Arab radicalization, the level of violence in the air, not to mention on the ground, has in fact gone down radically since those days of rage eight years ago. Asked why, University of Haifa professor Sammy Smooha, a leading authority on Israeli Arabs, said it was partly because "they remember the very harsh steps the state took in response to the events of October 2000, so they've become extremely cautious about getting involved in any kind of violence or lawbreaking. But also, Israeli Jews make a mistake when they think Israeli Arabs support Hamas in this war. Israeli Arabs are opposed to the Israeli attacks on Gaza, which they see as disproportionate. They identify with the Palestinian people, and they empathize with what the people in Gaza are going through. But that doesn't mean Israeli Arabs identify politically with Hamas or support their use of violence." However, because of the strike in the Arab sector, along with the many solidarity-with-Gaza demonstrations, a few incidents of stone-throwing in Galilee, and the furious condemnations of Israel's actions in Gaza by Arab Knesset members, the country's 1.3 million Arab citizens are being watched with great suspicion. The fear among Jews is that Arabs may riot again like they did a couple of days after the outbreak of the intifada. At that time, masses of Arabs, having watched televised scenes of Palestinian rioters being killed by troops on the Temple Mount, in the West Bank and in Gaza, poured out of their Galilee homes and blocked highways, threw rocks at police and started forest fires while according to the Orr Commission police reacted with often excessive, indiscriminate force. After nine days, 13 Arabs had been killed, along with one Jewish driver hit by a rock. Some police officers suffered minor injuries. THE NINE-DAY riots began at the highway intersection at the entrance to Umm el-Fahm. Besides throwing rocks at police, the mobs there torched a gas station and an empty bus, then went into the downtown area and burned banks and government offices. On Monday, day 3 of the IDF operation in Gaza, the TVs on the walls in the cafes and grocery stores in Umm el-Fahm all seemed to be tuned to Al-Jazeera. It was a cold, gray, rainy day, and countermen and customers were watching the scenes of Gazan corpses being carried away, of women screaming hysterically, of crowds running, of jets in the sky, of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah preaching interminably. "You go into every house in Umm el-Fahm, every Arab house in Israel, and you'll see people crying," said Abdel Basit Mahajna behind the counter of his grocery store. "Look what they're saying on the news: 330 dead, 1,450 injured," as Arabic text ran across the bottom of the screen. On one of the alleys in this sprawling, jumbled hillside city, Ali Igbariya, a clothing store owner, stood talking with his assistant outside the entrance door he'd draped in black fabric bordered by little Palestinian flags. Black flags and Palestinian flags were a common sight; the day before, thousands of local residents had marched through these alleys in a show of solidarity with Gaza. "I stay up until 2 a.m. watching the news," said Igbariya. "I'm an old man, I'm 55, and it tears me up. What must it be doing to my son? He's 16. That's what I'm worried about." Umm el-Fahm, a city of more than 40,000 in the Arab "Triangle" east of Hadera, is the nerve center of Islamism in Israel. This is the capital of the Islamic Movement's "northern faction;" its charismatic founder, Sheikh Ra'ed Salah, preaches at the taller of two towering mosques at the city's summit, just above the narrow alley where Igbariya's clothing store stands. "I've voted for the Islamic Movement five times. They do things to help the people. They're loyal," he says. "We're very proud of Sheikh Ra'ed," says his assistant, Muhammad Ahmed Muhammad. The very name "Umm el-Fahm" fills Israeli Jews with fear; the city is seen as an outpost of Hamas, a place Jews shouldn't enter. And on the third day of the fighting, Igbariya told photographer Jonathan Bloom and myself: "I'm worried about you two wandering around here today. People are really in a horrible mood." However, except for some idle adolescent boys, no one in the alleys and shops of Umm el-Fahm treated us - seemingly the only Jews in sight - with anything but courtesy. The shopkeepers and young men watching Al-Jazeera's coverage had no objection to being photographed. After the noon prayers inside the cavernous Abu Rubeida Mosque, where Salah preaches, two elderly men sitting inside welcomed us in and spoke with us as much as their limited Hebrew would allow. In the clinic downstairs, a devout Muslim nurse in robes and head scarf said the scenes from Gaza "were painful to watch," but she said it shyly, without a hint of accusation against us. Seeing a cut on Bloom's hand, she taped a bandage to it. On another twisting alley near the top of Umm el-Fahm, a pickup flying a black flag moved slowly forward, and the driver agreed to stop and talk. "No, no, no, no, there's not going to be any trouble like there was back then [in October 2000]. People have more common sense," said Abed Abdel Fattah, a salesman and father of six. He said he put up the black flag after watching "all the scenes of children being killed. I couldn't stand it. But it hurts me the same way when I see innocent Jews killed by Palestinians." While he sympathized with the Gazans and opposed Israel's attacks, Fattah had no complaints about the country's treatment of him as an Arab citizen. "Israel gives me all democratic rights I can ask for," he said. "It just doesn't give them to the Palestinians." The evening before, a crowd of local demonstrators had gathered at the highway junction down the hill at the entrance to the city, and some threw stones at police. "Those were just teenage boys," stresses Igbariya. "I grabbed hold of my son and told him not to go down there." Otherwise, the solidarity march by thousands in Umm el-Fahm went off without violence. "The mayor gave a speech and repeated 1,000 times that no one should fight with the police or soldiers," added Igbariya, referring to Mayor Khaled Hamdan, a member of the Islamic Movement's northern faction that has long ruled the city. The October 2000 riots stand in stark contrast to the Arabs' reaction this week to the outbreak of the fighting in Gaza. Except for a few boys hanging around a grocery store who called out "yahoodi, yahoodi" when we walked in (and just as soon walked out), in Umm el-Fahm, the country's most radical Arab city, there wasn't so much as an unfriendly glance aimed in the direction of two Hebrew-speaking Jews carrying a notebook and a camera and asking people's opinions about the war. Three days into the 2000 intifada, Umm el-Fahm and the entire north were under siege, off-limits, a closed police zone. Three days into the 2008 operation in Gaza, the highway junction at the entrance, after one brief episode of stone-throwing, was empty of rioters and police; the only action was the flow of traffic. AS NIGHT was falling Monday, a couple of dozen riot-equipped police were passing the time in a muddy field at the side of the Arara junction not far from Umm el-Fahm. "Nothing's happened, we're just part of the security reinforcement," he said. "Just maintaining a presence." In his grocery store in Umm el-Fahm, his TV tuned to Al-Jazeera, Abdel Basit Mahajna spoke of "watching little children lying there in pieces, their faces burned. Oh God. If Israel were only killing fighters, that would be one thing, but they're killing women and children, too." His voice was rising in anguish. The same change came over Ali Igbariya, the clothing store owner, as he went on about what they were seeing in Gaza. They agreed that the Kassams weren't right, either, that a Jewish victim was no less a tragedy than an Arab victim. Yet because of their ethnic identity, and because it is the Palestinians who are getting so much the worst of this war, the Israeli Arabs' hearts are with Gaza and their resentment of Israel is rising. For now, that resentment is being channeled into peaceful protest. But if Israeli Arabs are still seeing shattering images from Gaza on their TV screens in the days and weeks to come, their emotions will put their common sense to the test. And then what? "I don't know," said Mahajna. "This is a disaster. It can't go on." And if it does? "If it does, then I don't know what to tell you."