No longer the political fringe

It's little surprise that many Israelis have come to view Arab citizens as a "fifth column."

MK Effi Eitam's statement on Sunday that Israel should expel West Bank Palestinians and bar Israeli Arabs from political life, since the latter are "a fifth column, a league of traitors," understandably raised a storm. Once, such statements belonged to the political fringe. But Eitam heads a nine-member Knesset faction, National Union. And another party, Israel Beiteinu, won 11 seats in March on a platform calling for transferring many Israeli Arab towns - and their inhabitants - to the Palestinian Authority. In short, about a sixth of the Knesset now backs such ideas. Nor are these politicians disconnected from popular sentiment: In a poll last December, 40 percent of Israeli Jews said that the state should "encourage Arab citizens to emigrate." That is still a minority (52 percent disagreed), but it is clearly approaching the tipping point - especially since 63 percent termed Israeli Arabs "a security and demographic threat to the state," with only 13 percent disagreeing. Unsurprisingly, this trend worries Israeli Arabs. MK Azmi Bishara (Balad) complained of a "season of incitement against Arab MKs" during the recent Lebanon war. Bakar Awada, director of the Center Against Racism, said the poll showed that "racism is becoming mainstream…. This is a worrisome development." Yet Israeli Arab leaders apparently still see no connection between this growing anti-Arab sentiment and their own behavior. And in fact, their behavior is the main impetus for this trend. Last weekend, for instance, Bishara's Balad faction traveled to Damascus, thereby violating the law prohibiting travel to enemy states. While there, he publicly praised Syria's "struggle to free occupied Arab land" and its "resistance against occupation" - i.e., its support for anti-Israel terror. Moreover, he makes such statements frequently, as in a 2001 speech praising Hizbullah's "guerrilla war" against Israel, the "losses" (casualties) it inflicted on Israel and its "victory" over Israel. THUS BISHARA openly advocates terror attacks against the country in whose parliament he sits, rejoices when it suffers casualties and cheers when it loses battles ("Hizbullah won, and for the first time since 1967 we have tasted the taste of victory"). Is it surprising that such behavior provokes cries of "fifth column" and "traitor"? Or take Balad MK Jamal Zahalka's explanation for the trip: "We don't see Syria as an enemy state." Thus not only does he contemptuously ignore laws enacted by the parliament in which he sits, he declines to view a country that is officially at war with Israel - and whose president publicly threatened just last month to resume hostilities someday - as an enemy state. Nor is Balad an exception. In November 2000, for instance, Hadash faction chairman MK Muhammad Barakei publicly urged Israeli Arabs to participate in Palestinian violence against Israel. This past January, he declared: "I'm not loyal to the country; the country must be loyal to me." Similarly, MK Taleb a-Sanaa, of the third Arab party, Ra'am-Ta'al, told the Nazareth-based newspaper Kul al-Arab in 2001 that the leader of Hamas, perpetrator of most anti-Israel suicide bombings, was an "exalted" figure comparable to the Dalai Lama, while Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah - who had kidnapped four Israelis, including three in a cross-border raid, the previous year, five months after Israel withdrew from Lebanon - "deserves the Nobel Peace Prize." Civil society leaders are no different. Last month, for instance, Itijah, the union of Arab nongovernmental organizations in Israel, declared the Israeli government "responsible for every drop of blood spilled" in the fighting in Lebanon. Ahmad Saad, editor of a leading Israeli Arab newspaper, Al-Ittihad, concurred: "I blame only the Israeli government." ONE CAN certainly argue that war was the wrong response to Hizbullah's cross-border raid on July 12. But that Hizbullah was blameless? That violating the international border, killing three Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two - six years after Israel left Lebanon - were completely legitimate acts? Is it surprising that such statements spur anti-Arab sentiment? Finally, there are the ordinary citizens. Since most Israeli Arabs vote consistently for the three Arab parties, it is hard to argue that they do not share these parties' views - especially given the Israeli Arab consensus that their MKs are useless on issues such as jobs and housing. In short, voters are not disregarding political rhetoric for the sake of bread-and-butter issues; they are disregarding bread-and-butter issues for the sake of the rhetoric. Nor is other evidence lacking - like the many Israeli Arabs who called Hizbullah's Al-Manar television station during the Lebanon war to urge continued missile launches at Israel. Or the harassment and ostracism of those rare families whose sons volunteer for the IDF. A year after his son was killed in uniform in 2004, for instance, Talal Abu Lil reported suffering "threats, harassment, shooting and even attempts to open his grave…. People simply turned their back on us." Yusuf Jahjah, whose son was killed in the same incident, agreed: "I feel ostracized, people in the village keep their distance from me… I'm always afraid someone will try to damage his grave." Samir Shehada, whose son also died in that incident, said: "I'm thinking of moving to a Jewish community in the area. I can no longer live in this atmosphere. I live near the mosque, and after prayer services, people don't talk to me or shake my hand." The three also reported efforts to deny their sons burial in Muslim cemeteries. And all three live in different towns - indicating how widespread these attitudes are. Put bluntly, many Israeli Arabs cheer armed attacks against Israel, and view the minority who serve in their country's armed forces as traitors. Indeed, the community's official representative, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, explicitly urges Israeli Arabs not to serve in the IDF, while pointedly refusing to condemn Palestinian terror. Is it surprising that many Israelis thus view them as a "fifth column"? Israeli Arabs have some legitimate grievances. But these grievances in no way excuse such virulent hostility toward the state, of which the above examples are merely a sampling. And unless this attitude changes, Jewish support for Eitam's view of the Israeli Arab community will only continue to grow.