As Gaza war ebbs, Israeli Arabs feel under threat

Arab citizens of Israel complain of business boycotts, harassment, and restrictions on speech in the wake of Israel's latest war with Hamas.

By , Correspondent

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    Palestinians shop at a market in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that ended a month of fighting is holding for a second day, ahead of negotiations in Cairo on a long-term truce and a broader deal for the war-ravaged Gaza Strip.
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For decades Israel’s top politicians have flocked to Ibrahim Azmeh’s restaurant in the Arab Israeli village of Abu Ghosh outside Jerusalem for hummus and grilled meats. But photos documenting the visits are tucked away in the basement to keep politics off the menu in what's meant to be an oasis for visitors.

Mr. Azmeh says he gets emotional when he checks the news from the Gaza Strip. But Abu Ghosh is a town that “doesn’t want trouble” with its large Jewish market, so Azmeh keeps his despair to himself.

Still, his business and the town of Abu Ghosh, long-held up as a model of Jewish-Arab coexistence within Israel, are suffering all the same. Business at his restaurant has plunged more than 70 percent since Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for a Jewish boycott of Arab-owned shops and restaurants toward the end of July. It's the same story for the rest of the town's stores and restaurants.

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“Arab Israelis have it the hardest,” says Azmeh, almost whispering as he sips tea on a nearly empty garden terrace. “We’re being pulled by extremes on all sides. Many Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza call us traitors for not being more involved, and, on the other hand, we have to prove our loyalty to our state – with our silence and by not acting out.”

Over the course of the month-long war that has claimed more than 1,800 Palestinian lives, including hundreds of children, the quiet of Abu Ghosh has stood out from cities like Nazareth and Haifa, where thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators have flooded the streets to hoist flags and throw stones. Their calls for Israel to end the war and lift the siege on Gaza have outraged many Israelis who see them as traitors to the Jewish state that strives to protect all Israelis – Arab and Jew – from the threat of Hamas.

Israel’s 1.6 million Arabs speak Hebrew fluently, hold citizenship rights, and have also been exposed to Hamas rockets. But their refusal to serve in the Israeli army and their claims of being treated as second-class citizens have rankled Israelis, who see them as untrustworthy and ungrateful. Scores of Israeli Arabs who have gone public with their political views have been dismissed from their jobs or scholarship programs.

Facebook war

Facebook has seen a proliferation of groups such as “Concentrating those who wish to destroy Israel,” which monitors social media for anti-Israel posts by Arabs. It then notifies heads of companies and educational institutions of their employees’ and students’ activity.

Rajaa Amouri, a 23-year-old medical student at Hadassah College in Jerusalem, is convinced that the “Concentrating” group framed her and got her kicked out of school. She suspects that fellow students hacked her account and uploaded photos of wounded Israeli soldiers and wrote: “I hope all the soldiers come back wounded.” The account was then reported to the police as incitement. 

“We read your post with shock and disgust,” read a letter from the college president, who informed her that she was barred from the campus until her case is cleared. She is still studying for her summer exams and hoping to return. If she does, she won't bring up the issue with her fellow students. 

“I got into the medical field because I want to help people, and because in our school we study together as human beings,” says Ms. Amouri. “Religion, politics, things like this – they don’t matter to us.”

In theory, offensive speech is not banned under Israeli law the way "incitement" is, says Salah Mohsen, media director at the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. But Mr. Mohsen charges the Israeli police are fanning inter-communal distrust by applying different standards toward Jews and Arabs.

While fringe demonstrators - who chant “Death to the Arabs” and violently attack their anti-war counterparts – have been treated with virtual impunity, Israeli Arabs have faced tear gas and detainment, though most have been quickly released.

No protests for Palestinians

Shahar Golan, who has participated in a number of pro-war rallies with the ultra-Zionist NGO Im Tirzu, believes that Israel should forbid pro-Palestinian protests.

“Unfortunately what happens is they raise the flags of the PLO, which is a kind of cooperation and identification with the enemy, and which is very dangerous during wartime,” he says.

Rafat Awaysha, an Israeli-Arab student, says that's led to people who favor peace being harassed, and worse.

Last month, Mr. Awaysha was held for 12 hours and interrogated by Israel's Shin Bet security service after creating a Facebook invitation to a pro-Palestinian protest in Beer Sheva. The political activist says that won't deter him.

“I know that I have a right to say what I think, and no persecution can change the fact that the pain in Gaza is always going to be our pain,” he says.

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