Israeli-Arabs: an enemy within?

Frustrated Palestinians living in Israel demonstrate Arab solidarity in reaction to Israel's show of force.

Since the peace process began in earnest in 1993, Rula Assali has been willing to believe that Israel wants peace. But no more.

"I'm seeing the lie that we've been living for seven years," says the Hebrew University dental student, her youthful face tight with bitterness and betrayal.

Like many other Israeli-Arabs - Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship - Ms. Assali says she's stunned by the Israeli Security Forces' response to demonstrations in Arab towns and villages inside Israel. Among the 50-some people killed so far in the clashes, at least nine were Israeli-Arabs.

Perhaps to an unprecedented degree, Israeli-Arabs - 18 percent of the country's population - are agitating in favor of their non-Israeli kin. Israeli-Arabs have long protested discrimination, land confiscations, and inadequate public funding. But some Israelis are worried about a deeper conflict emerging. And more than ever before, they worry that Israeli-Arabs could be a potential enemy within.

"The underlying problem is not the individual discrimination [against Israeli-Arabs] that does exist to some extent, but the fact that they believe the very existence of the Jewish state is illegitimate," says Dan Schueftan, a lecturer at the University of Haifa.

Alienated Israeli-Arabs pose a particular and immediate problem for Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who leads a foundering minority government. Ten Israeli-Arabs sit in parliament, and Mr. Barak has relied on their support.

While hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left or were forced to flee as the state of Israel was established in 1948, those who stayed were given citizenship. Today, they represent almost 1 in every 5 Israelis, pay taxes and vote, but they argue that theirs is a second-class citizenship.

They are not allowed to join the Army or hold jobs in defense industry. Israeli Arabs have been barred from buying property in Jewish areas.

Government reports openly acknowledge discrimination, and politicians often promise to address the issue during elections. As a community, Israeli-Arabs set great store in Barak's pledge to deliver some change, giving him the vast majority of their vote in last year's elections. But with little to show for their support for Barak, they have been increasingly put out.

"This prime minister, we voted for him - and I'm very disappointed," says Israeli-Arab lawyer Nidal Sliwan.

This week's protests are partly an expression of Palestinian solidarity and partly the release of long-held frustrations that have little to do with the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, some of the most bitter confrontations in the past few days have occurred in areas that have recently witnessed strikes and protests. Earlier this month, Israeli-Arabs, accompanied by some of their parliamentary representatives, protested the closure of a quarry near Nazareth, where one person was killed Monday.

In northern Israel, where most Israeli-Arabs live, police have accused two Israeli-Arab politicians of inciting violence against the police and have arrested other Israeli-Arabs for arms trafficking to Palestinians.

Police say the arms ring was based in the city of Umm El-Fahm - the scene of clashes Monday between stone-throwing protesters and police that left six Israeli-Arabs dead.

In the Palestinian territories, Israeli police and troops have been attacked by gunfire, but most observers say that the Israeli-Arab demonstrators are armed only with stones.

"What's making me angry is that they're shooting to kill," says Hebrew University student Assali, "they're not shooting to calm things down."

The loss of faith is mutual. Some Israelis are deeply disappointed in their Arab neighbors, particularly in their leadership. Israeli-Arab politicians, editorializes the respected Ha'aretz daily newspaper, "have crossed the line of what is permissible and tolerable.

Not only did they not direct and restrain as responsible elected officials are expected to, but they lent a hand to incitement that has led to severe rioting, violent uprisings and a disruption of daily life in the country."

For Haifa University lecturer Mr. Shueftan, Ha'aretz's realization comes as no surprise. "[Israeli-Arabs] have ... learned that they can identify with all the enemies of Israel and that at the same time Jews will feel guilty about them and give them all their rights and even offer them affirmative action, so why not become more and more hostile to Israel, including taking violent action?" he asks.

Mr. Sliwan, the lawyer, acknowledges that relations between Israel and its Arab citizens have often been difficult. For his own part, he insists he has no desire to leave Israel, which is where his home is, where his family is from, and where he practices law.

He insists that Israeli-Arabs want to be productive and law-abiding citizens. Israeli worries that Arab citizens will join with an independent Palestine and other Arab states to defeat or undermine Israel are "ridiculous," he says. "If we are living in a peaceful way, why should we feel that we should push the Jews into the sea or fight against Israel?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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