Gaza conflict stirs emotions for Arabs in Israel

Even in Umm el-Fahm, residents acknowledge what they describe as missteps or violations by both sides.

Fatah demo Gaza 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Fatah demo Gaza 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
As the truce in the Gaza Strip unravels, Arabs in Israel are sympathetic and angry about the plight of the Palestinian residents. But, many say they blame both sides for the deterioration seen in the past few weeks. Even in Umm el-Fahm, which is known to be a stronghold of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, residents acknowledged what they described as missteps or violations by both sides. "Israel is very tough on Gaza - at the same time, Hamas isn't blameless for what is happening," said Yasser Farahat, 30, a clothing store employee who lives both in Umm el-Fahm and in Jenin. "If they had sided with the Palestinian Authority, peace would have continued and these problems against the people of Gaza would have ended," he said. M'haameed Tawfek, who owns a religious women's clothing store near city hall, said the situation appeared to be deteriorating more and more in the absence of a lasting peace agreement. "Each time we go backwards and things become worse from an economic and security perspective in Gaza, and these things breed violence for the new generation," Tawfek, 36, said. "Every family in Gaza, he said, had lost a relative in the conflict with Israel, "and I think there are people that take advantage of this situation and fire missiles." In addition to personal revenge, he said, some people encourage violence since they benefit economically from weapons production and smuggling in the poverty-laden coastal strip. Although Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, its presence is still felt strongly there via collaborators, restrictions on the entry of goods and supplies and frequent Israeli military operations, he said. "The two sides need to sit down together, both Israeli and Palestinian, and solve their problems in an official way," he said. "The only solution is dialogue, peaceful negotiations and a return to the pre-1967 borders," he added As an Arab Israeli, Tawfek said he sympathized with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since they were Arabs and Muslims, but said he also felt sympathy when an Israeli was killed by a missile or by a terror attack. "If there is a suicide bombing or a certain operation in Israel, I am affected," he said. "Just as I am affected when it happens in Palestine, I'm also affected when it happens on the Israeli side... Our humanity is affected." Sheikh Hashem Abdel Rahman, the outgoing mayor of Umm el-Fahm and a member of the Islamic Movement, said notwithstanding the rockets being launched from Gaza, he thought "it is a big mistake" on Israel's part to have launched military operations on militants there in recent days. "I now blame the minister of defense who decided to go with an operation," he said in a telephone interview. "Israel is a strong state. There was a possibility to handle this in a diplomatic way." He added that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh's recent words to an Israeli journalist about accepting a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders were encouraging and should not be dismissed. "These are new things that we haven't heard before," he said. But he also stressed that "both sides need to stop" the violence. "What we need to do now is to stop the military activities and very simply begin to talk." But many residents of Umm el-Fahm, particularly women, declined to comment on the situation in Gaza. One veiled woman, who works at a spice store and identified herself only as Lubna, insisted that "she doesn't get involved in politics." "Our situation is sensitive," she explained. "We are not recognized as Palestinians or as Israelis. We are the Arabs of 1948," a label often used by Arab-Israelis to describe themselves. "We sympathize with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but we can't do anything" for them, she said.