Israel's Arab citizens fight battle of their own

Arab citizens of Israel today mark the one-year anniversary of police killings of 13.

As Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip mark the one-year anniversary of the intifada, ignited last fall by Ariel Sharon's provacative visit to a sacred site in Jerusalem, Arab citizens of Israel are marking a sad anniversary of their own.

In the days after the Sharon visit, thousands of Palestinians confronted Israeli soldiers in the in the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in what became the intifada.

In the north, Arab citizens of Israel filled the streets in solidarity protests over the killing of Palestinians. But after the first of their own were killed by Israeli police, the demonstrations turned into protests against the lethal force used by police inside Israel. Over several days, Israeli police shot and killed 13 of their own citizens and wounded hundreds of others.

Recently, a delegation from Israel's longtime peace movement Peace Now visited families of those killed. The group included Jewish parents who had lost children of their own to war or violence.

Over sips of watery Arabic coffee, they discussed the pain of loss and hopes for peace and equality. It was one of the most significant gestures of reconciliation between Israel's Jews and Arabs following the tragic events of last fall. But for Hilmi Bushnak, whose brother was one of the 13, the visit was too little, too late. "They should have come here after a week, not after a year," he says.

"The truth is, I have a problem with the left-wingers," Bushnak adds. "They didn't identify with us, they didn't come here, and they didn't demonstrate. I realized during the past year that there is no left-wing in Israel."

Many Israeli Jews say they were scared last year by the demonstrators, who threw stones, burned tires, and attacked post offices and stores owned by Jews in and near Arab communities. The protests closed main thoroughfares, giving some Jews the feeling of being locked in - and bringing out deep-seated fears of Arabs.

"All of a sudden there was a feeling among people that some elements among them want to destroy the Jewish state," says Tsur Porat, a Jewish architect who supports coexistence efforts and condemns the police behavior. He lives in Ya'ad, a prosperous community built on land expropriated from Arabs in the 1970s as part of a government drive to achieve a Jewish majority in regions heavily populated by Arabs.

The real fuel for those protests, Arab leaders say, was five decades of discrimination in housing, education, jobs, and budget allocations - five decades of being treated by authorities not only as outsiders, but as enemies.

Israel's Arab minority, which makes up 19 percent of the country's 6.4 million, lives at the bottom of the economic ladder: The 10 Israeli communities with the highest unemployment are Arab.

"I feel we are in another era now, and the writing is on the wall [that there will be] more aggressive behavior and more restrictions on basic rights of Arabs," says Sanaa Hamoud, an Arab lawyer and human rights activist.

"Until October, we felt that things like that couldn't happen, that citizens wouldn't be killed because they went to demonstrate," she says. "It makes us not only angry, but afraid. It forces us to rethink our situation here and shows our need to be protected. International protection is a necessity."

The police actions are now the focus of a state commission of inquiry. Its hearings have revealed that for the first time in Israeli history, security forces used snipers against citizens. The police say their forces faced situations that were life-threatening.

"The Israeli Arabs crossed a line," said Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin. "I think most Arabs in Israel love and want to be part of the Israeli state. But people have to make their calculations and soul-search. They have to say my state is my state, and unless they say this, we are going to have a real problem here."

Peace Now had trouble persuading activists to venture into Kafr Manda, which, along with other Arab areas, has since been shunned by Israeli Jews out of fear for their safety.

Israel's Arab citizens are descendants of the fewer than 200,000 Palestinians who did not flee - by force or choice - in 1948, when Israel was created. They live mostly in the north on land holdings that have shrunk markedly over the years as territory was expropriated for Jewish towns and projects. For several years before last October, relations between Arab citizens and the state had been deteriorating, according to Sammy Smooha, a sociologist at the University of Haifa. This was impelled in part by the frustration of hopes for equality and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had pursued far more favorable policies toward Arab citizens than his predecessors.

In recent months, Arab citizens have increasingly been labeled a "demographic problem" amid talk of a population "transfer," as proposed by Avigdor Lieberman, an extremist cabinet minister.

"You know not to expect too much from people who think of you as a danger and a demographic risk," says Hashem Mahameed, a Knesset member from the United Arab List.

Says Hammoud, the lawyer: "I have a lot of doubts today, more than ever, about our ability to achieve basic humanitarian rights only through the framework of the government - the Knesset - and other formal frameworks."

"No one can promise that explosions among the Arabs in Israel won't happen if these policies continue," says Mahameed. "Things might explode at any time. Things don't look flowery."

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