Two Loyalties Tug at Arabs Who Are Israeli, Too

When Mohammed Ali Taha was a boy, he remembers saluting independence day with the same flag-waving merriment as any other Israeli child. He later realized that his elders had told him to celebrate in order to prove Arab loyalty to the Jewish state.

But their joy over Israel's May 14, 1948, declaration of independence was never sincere, he says. "As a child, we celebrated independence day for a whole month. There is no such thing now. It is not my anthem and not my flag," says Mr. Taha, an author who is among approximately 1 million of Israel's 5.5 million citizens who are Arabs.

These days, most Israeli Arabs - some of whom prefer to be called Palestinian citizens of Israel - have sat out the festivities marking Israel's 50th anniversary. Instead, they've taken to calling the occasion by the same name most of the Arab world uses for the events of 1948: al Nakba, "the Catastrophe."

Israeli Arabs have an alternative calendar of events planned. Taha, who draws his literary heroes from villages like this one in the Galilee, is the man in charge of the commemorations. "We've passed the test of loyalty" to Israel, he says. "I maintain my identity as an Arab Palestinian and an Israeli citizen, and I don't see any contradiction in that. You can't sell the people happiness, and you cannot order them to be happy on this day."

Remembering destroyed villages

The events inside Israel will have a different character from those elsewhere in the Arab world. On May 14, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and surrounding Arab states will hold protest marches. Taha says that Israeli Arabs will stage events of a cultural nature: Palestinian plays, dances, and poetry readings. They will also hold quiet marches to five of some 350 Palestinian villages that were destroyed or abandoned in 1948.

Young Taha was in one of them, the Galilee village of Miyal, not far from here. During the war, Israeli fighters entered the village and told everyone to leave, he says. His family fled north, toward Syria and Lebanon, where some of his relatives live today. But when Taha's father neared the border, he decided to turn back and ended up being resettled here. Kabul, then far from any main road, was hardly noticed by anyone, so its residents stayed put. Miyal has since been replaced by a Jewish kibbutz.

Which Arab villages disappeared and which remained after 1948 often seemed a matter of chance. In some cases, Israeli commanders ordered Arabs to evacuate stretches of land because they deemed them a strategic threat. Some Israeli officers followed the orders, others pointedly ignored them. The inconsistency is one reason many here resent Israel's attempt to make them into Israeli Arabs, separate from Palestinians. Those whose fled or were forced from their homes in 1948 became Palestinians; those who stayed became Israeli Arabs.

The situation of those who never left is mixed. Arabs in Israel have a higher standard of living than in most of the Middle East. But twice the number of Arab as Jewish children live in poverty. Arabs also face discrimination in housing and employment, and their municipalities and schools are not funded on a par with Jewish ones.

At the same time, some Israeli Arabs admit they have civic and political freedoms they wouldn't have in most Arab countries. There are now 12 Arabs in the 120-seat Knesset, more than there have ever been in the nation's history. And the right to speak - or write - what one wishes has become more of a reality than ever before.

In Taha's own childhood, no one made announcements about Nakba commemorations or Palestinian identity. Until 1966, most Israeli Arabs lived under martial law. The apex of the bitter relations was in 1956, when Israel was on the verge of war with Egypt and ordered a tight curfew on Arab villages. In the village of Kfar Kassem, Israeli troops shot 49 people returning home after curfew.

Taha went on to study at Haifa University, eventually publishing books and plays. His work often ran up against Israeli government censors, who didn't like the nationalist undertones in his writing.

"In the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, the censors were intervening in everything, and they would delete parts of the books," he says. In one story, an Israeli Arab child draws a Palestinian flag in school instead of an Israeli flag. Three months after he published the story in 1983, police came and confiscated his books, holding him in jail for two days.

The arrest did not last long, though. Israeli writers protested and soon won his release. Israeli and Palestinian writers, he points out, made peace long ago and have warm relations. "Nowadays, they [the authorities] don't interfere," he says.

But freedom of artistic expression is just a start. He wants Israeli Arabs to have full control of their schools and institutions. When he was growing up, state-run schools for Arabs used a curriculum similar to the curriculum for Jewish students.

"I studied the Zionist movement," he says, as well as famous Israeli poets and writers, "but we didn't read Palestinian literature or modern Arab literature. We learned the Bible, not the Koran."

But he rejects the word "autonomy" for Israeli Arabs because he doesn't want to alarm Israelis worried about losing more land. "I know that people are sensitive to this word because they think that if we have cultural autonomy, we'll want autonomy for the Galilee [region] and will soon join the Palestinians."

That's not what he has in mind, he says. He won't ever leave the Galilee and has no interest in moving to an area under Palestinian control. And yet, when there is a Palestinian state, he says, then he will be able to celebrate Israeli independence day. "Israeli independence will be more justified when Palestinians have a Palestinian state," he says.

Though they may identify with the Palestinian struggle, most Israeli Arabs today are busy fighting other battles. They want full equality in funding for their municipalities and want to turn Israel into a secular "state of all its citizens" rather than a Jewish state. At the same time, some seem concerned with their children blending and even assimilating into Israeli society, watering down Arab traditions.

Today's Israeli Arab youths closely resemble their Jewish counterparts. Teenage Muslim girls wear jeans and shun Islamic head scarves. Much of the new generation's Arabic has a heavy dose of Hebrew mixed in.

In a small village, though, life is more insular. Kabul is little known to Israelis, including many in the post office. Once a Jewish friend in Tel Aviv mailed Taha a letter, which was sent to Afghanistan before it made its way here a year later. "The Arab population that remained in Israel is a village population. You feel your Palestinianism in a village, not in the city, because the struggle over land is a struggle in the villages," he says.

He looks to his sofa, where his five-year-old grandson listens quietly. "When my grandchild will be equal with Yoram or Ben," he says, using common Hebrew boys' names, "there will be peace. Then, my grandson will take part in happiness in independence celebrations."

'Goodwill starts at home'

But Nakba - which Taha and other Arabs often translate into the same word for Holocaust when speaking Hebrew - is offensive to some Israelis.

"The Nakba for us is that we lost 6 million people," says Gideon Ezra, a Knesset member in the right-wing Likud party. "They try to put it in the same category, and I don't agree. We didn't kill the Palestinians as a nation in the same way that the Germans killed the Jews [in World War II]. To use the same word is wrong."

Israel's president, Ezer Weizman, struck a more conciliatory tone at the April 30 gala. He recognized the contributions of Israeli Arabs to the state and called on Israeli Jews to embark on an era of better relations with their fellow citizens. He told the crowd: "Goodwill starts at home."

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