Cultural gap tears Israeli Arabs

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"In order to preserve yourself, you have to do what is necessary," says Mansour Grifat, the dead soldier's cousin, who notes that over the decades 28 villagers have died fighting for Israel, four of them this year. "We pay a very heavy price."

Almost every family in the village has a member in the local military cemetery. Like other Israeli Arabs, Beit Zarzirites became citizens with the creation of Israel in 1948. The state gave them equal rights in the Proclamation of Independence. Even so, Israeli Arabs endured years of military rule, and confiscation of their land. They have always lagged behind their Jewish counterparts in income, budget allocations, and health and education.

For Beit Zarzir, the payoff for military service comes in the form of state funds that, among other things, make the village look considerably nicer looking than other Arab towns nearby.

It is lined with well-tended sidewalks and ornamental lampposts. Israeli flags flutter from municipal poles near homes decorated with the Al Aqsa mosque, the Muslim holy site that some Palestinian militants use as a symbol of resistance.

The community's embrace of its place within Israel isn't just symbolic. Most of the people here vote for the ruling, right-wing Likud party or the opposition Labor party, says Mr. Grifat. "Arabs within Israel are very divided and therefore they have little power," he explains. "It is much better to support Labor or Likud. They offer you services and can deliver, while the [Arab political parties] can't offer you anything." And at the local grocery store, owner Achmed Muhammed greets his Jewish customers with an easy familiarity. "We believe you have an important advantage in the army," he says. "There are lots of opportunities to learn. Once you're done, you also get a discount on buying land. We're in a good situation, the state offers us all the benefits."

The careful cultivation of relationships makes the espionage allegations all the more painful. Prosecutors charge that a group led by Lt. Col. Omar al Hayb gave Hizbullah maps, telephones, and details about military facilities and senior officers in exchange for drugs and cash. It was the largest spy ring discovered since Israel pulled out of Lebanon just over two years ago.

Locals say the allegations are hard to believe, as there is little love lost for Hizbullah here. A soldier from the village was kidnapped by the Shiite Muslim group in October 2000 and is still missing. Colonel Hayb narrowly survived a 1996 Hizbullah bombing that cost him an eye and left his face scarred and paralyzed. Furthermore, Hayb is from a very prominent family: His brother is Beit Zarzir's mayor.

The mayor won't talk, but photos in his office testify to long-standing cooperation with Jewish Israelis. In them, the community's leader grins alongside the most important stars in the political and religious firmament, including the prime minister, the president, a former foreign minister, and a leading rabbi.

While some other Israeli Arabs disparage Beit Zarzirites' service in the army, most understand. "I do not recall any major frictions considering this issue," says Sudah Bishara, a staff attorney at Adalah, an Israeli-Arab legal rights group. "People do this on a voluntary basis, not for ideological reasons. They just hope it will improve their situation."

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