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Cultural gap tears Israeli Arabs

An Israeli Arab is accused of trying to hijack a plane on Sunday. Others are charged with spying.

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 2002


The men of Beit Zarzir sit outside Saleh Grifat's home, silent under a sky heavy with impending rain. Nearly 100 strong, they are here to mourn a death and seek consolation, not just for their loss, but for their community's tattered pride.

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They listen as Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz praises the village's contributions to Israel and eulogizes Mr. Grifat's son Madein, a soldier killed in the line of duty. "It is normal for a minister to visit," says Grifat, a shrunken man with the gray pallor of deep fatigue.

But the visit and the circumstances are far from normal. As Arab citizens of Israel, the villagers aren't required to serve in the army. They go by choice. And Mr. Mofaz's praise was a welcome change. Just weeks before, officials charged a group of Beit Zarzir soldiers with spying for the militant Islamic group Hizbullah. The ensuing condemnation left villagers feeling bruised: Even as they sacrifice their sons for Israel, they endure its criticism.

Beit Zarzir's dilemma reflects the difficulties Israel and its Arab minority - some 20 percent of the population - face in living with each other, a challenge deepened by more than two years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The future of Arabs within Israel [is] inextricably tied to the future of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians," writes Adel Manna, director of the Center for the Study of Arab Society in Israel.

An Israeli Arab's attempt to hijack an El Al jet Sunday will strengthen the conviction many Israeli Jews have that their Arab countrymen represent an internal danger.

Earlier this year, to widespread alarm, police cracked two Israeli Arab groups suspected of aiding the militant group Hamas with attacks inside Israel. Sunday, a Jerusalem court indicted another Israeli Arab for aiding Hamas with several other bombings.

Witnesses on the Turkey-bound plane said the suspected hijacker, a young man named Tawfik Fukara, pushed a flight attendant and then charged the cockpit. Air marshals overwhelmed him. Turkish media has reported that Mr. Fukara said he wanted to crash the plane into Tel Aviv in a replay of the Sept. 11 attacks on the US, and that he brandished a knife during the attack. His family insisted that there must be some mistake.

"Tawfik has never been in any political problems, he's never even been in a police station, he has never been inside a plane before," says his father, Saleh Fukara, a foreman from the northern Israeli village of Bouina Nejidat. The village is in an area known for Islamic activism.

Mr. Fukara suggests that his son's inexperience and Israeli racism might have made an unfortunate combination. But Israelis, who recalled the 1976 hijacking of a plane from Israel to Entebbe, Nairobi, are becoming increasingly wary of their Arab neighbors.

"There is a growing and frightening camp of advocates of arbitrary 'transfer' of Palestinians to areas beyond the confines of Israel/Palestine," notes Joseph Alpher, former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

And while some Israeli-Arabs have become politically radicalized, angry at Israel's treatment of Palestinians, most just try to get by. For Beit Zarzir, the cost of survival is the sacrifice of its young.