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An Israeli Arab's troubles mirror woes of dual identity

Politician Azmi Bishara, an increasingly vocal critic of Israel, has quit the Knesset amid reports he is under criminal investigation.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2007


This time of year is often touching – and touchy. This week, Israelis celebrated their Independence Day, marking 59 years since the Jewish state's founding in 1948. Palestinians will mark the same event as el-Nakba, the Catastrophe.

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But this year, perhaps more than usual, eyes are turned to the people who are wedged in between: Arabs who make up about one-fifth of the Israeli population, and who increasingly consider themselves Palestinian.

At this moment, when narratives and nationalities collide, there is perhaps no one who symbolizes the inherent complications of being both Israeli and Palestinian more than Azmi Bishara.

Mr. Bishara, an Arab politician from Nazareth who's long been a vocal force in Israeli politics, announced in Cairo at the start of the week that he was quitting the Knesset, Israel's parliament. His decision to leave follows weeks of reports that Bishara, traveling in neighboring Arab countries, would be arrested and prosecuted upon his return to Israel.

While unnamed Israeli officials told major media outlets here Wednesday that Bishara would be charged with "aiding the enemy" in wartime, precise charges remain something of a mystery as they've been the subject of a gag order by state security officials. An Israeli court ordered a partial lift on the ban last week, allowing the police to announce that their international crimes unit is investigating Bishara.

But the reasons some Israelis think Bishara has "crossed the line," Bishara's colleagues and critics say, are far less foggy. He's regularly made trips to Lebanon and Syria and declared himself allied with positions held by officials and political groups in those countries.

In last summer's war, which started as a battle against Hizbullah and mushroomed into an offensive against much of south Lebanon, Bishara placed the blame entirely on Israel. Moreover, he has become a kind of spokesman of a growing movement of Israeli Arabs demanding autonomy inside Israel and an end to Israel's definition as a Jewish state.

In the heyday of peacemaking a decade or more ago, Bishara's trips to Syria allowed him to fashion himself as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. Today, however, such travel is illegal, and right-wing politicians have been lobbying to have Bishara charged with improper relations with an enemy state.

"Israeli law puts all kinds of limits on us, but a Palestinian does not think of Syria as an enemy country," says Said Zeedani, a philosophy professor at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem and an old acquaintance and colleague of Bishara's.

Beyond Bishara's travels, he has spearheaded a movement among Israeli Arabs demanding that Israel declare itself a "state of all its citizens." Following a controversial new position paper issued earlier this year by leading Israeli Arab intellectuals called the "Future Vision" document, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin was quoted as warning the prime minister's office that Israeli Arabs were fast becoming a "strategic threat." Even progressive think tanks seem worried.

"A 'state of its citizens' means that it should cease to be a Jewish state, but to Israeli Jews, this is the reason for being for the state, and you're challenging the very foundations of it. But if Israel really wants to treat its citizens equally, it must lose its Jewish character," says Dr. Zeedani.