Israelis ponder a land swap
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But whether it would also be land that is heavily populated by Arabs - thereby decreasing the size of the Arab minority in Israel - is another story.Skip to next paragraph
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And the way Lieberman frames it, the "swap" plan paints the Arab sector, as it is often called in Israeli parlance, as one which would happily be traded away. Lieberman's approach also carries a rather loud undertone of dual loyalties: He suggests that all Arabs should have to sign a pledge of allegiance to the state of Israel and agree to do national service.
"Who brought Lieberman here?" says Mohammed Ikbariyeh, a retired builder, repeating an oft-heard dismissal of the head of the Yisrael Beitanu party, who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union when he was 20. For many Israeli-Arabs, who resent the benefits afforded to immigrants, it is a particularly sore point that a Jewish "newcomer" such as Lieberman should tell them where they can live.
Israeli-Arabs citizens are so shocked by the apparent interest in listening to Lieberman's plan that many are unwilling to even discuss it. "We think what Lieberman is actually proposing is to delegitimize the basic right of Arabs in Israel, which is their citizenship," says Adel Manna, the director of the Institute for Israeli-Arab Studies at the Van Leer Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
"The Jewish majority gets to decide which Arabs will continue to be considered citizens," he says. "Today it's disengagement, maybe next time it will be something else."
To Dr. Manna, a historian, the catch is that no Palestinian state exists, and Lieberman has never professed to support the creation of one. As such, he says, pushing places like Umm el-Fahm - and the whole predominantly Arab region here called dubbed "the triangle" - into PA control is simply "throwing them into the hell of the occupation" under Israeli military control.
"At first they said those are people in the margins and they are crazy. But Lieberman came out with this idea, and suddenly it sounds fine," Manna says. He summarizes what he sees as the selling point: "If those people are saying they are Palestinians and they are not happy with what we give them, so they have an option of being part of the Palestinian state. We'll just draw the border differently, and by that they can stay in their houses."
He says the program is racist and populist. "This is saying, 'Instead of giving the Palestinians some vacant territory to their state ... we'll also get rid of 100,000 Arabs.' "
David Rotem, a lawmaker in Lieberman's Yisrael Beitanu party, rejects criticism about the plan being illegal or racist. "I've got a right as a state to decide to put my borders somewhere. No one will be forced to give up his citizenship," he says. "Anyone who wants to stay can pledge allegiance to the state and do two years of national service," he says, instead of being drafted for the army. "Anyone who doesn't want to stand up during the anthem cannot be a citizen."
The Al-Aqsa intifada, which broke out in September 2000, exacerbated the Arab-Jewish divide inside Israel proper. Within days of the outbreak of violence, Arab demonstrators here took to the streets, many of them carrying Palestinian flags. In clashes, police killed 12 Israeli-Arabs.
Saad watched much of it from his restaurant window. Today, his preference is to fight for equal rights within Israel, not to wake up and find he's now on the other side of the border.
What worries him most, he says, is the rising popularity of looking to religion to solve political problems. The municipality is now run by the Islamic Movement in Israel. "The most important thing that can happen is [not] taking this from a national struggle to a religious struggle," he says. "If it becomes a religious problem, you have no solution."