Israeli Arabs claim bias in postwar aid

Arabs in northern Israel say nearby Jewish towns will receive most of $1 billion in compensation.

As war raged over the heads of residents of this Arab border village last month, resident Rayek Matar hoped that when the fighting stopped the country's Arab minority would be viewed as equals to Israeli Jews after absorbing the same rocket attacks.

But when the building contractor and his lawyer realized that businessmen in neighboring Jewish towns near Lebanon were eligible for about 60 percent more government compensation, they decided to file a petition with Israel's Supreme Court charging anti-Arab bias. The court will hear the case of Fassuta and three other Arab border villages next month.

"We're saying, what's the difference between here and there? The army sat in the middle of the village," says Mr. Matar, referring to the Israeli cannons stationed at the entrance to Fassuta during the war. "It's unthinkable that we pay income tax and social security, and the ones who benefit are Jews, while we aren't eligible."

Israeli politicians were quick to point out during the war that Hizbullah's rockets didn't distinguish between Jew and Arab, a statement backed up by the grim statistic that both groups suffered an almost equal number of civilian fatalities during the war.

Now that the fighting has ended, Israel's Arab citizens say the government is making a distinction in handing out recovery aid projected to reach $1 billion.

Instead of fostering a sense of shared solidarity, the war and the recovery effort is aggravating decades-old tensions between Jews and Arabs here. Though they became citizens after Israel's independence, the Arab minority has experienced decades of institutional discrimination and suffered from a minuscule government investment.

Many Israeli Jews, meanwhile, consider the Arabs' sympathies for Palestinian brethren in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon as traitorous.

But Israeli Finance Minister Avraham Hirshensohn recently promised that aid for northern Israel would be distributed equitably. Taken together with new efforts to reach out to Israeli Arab towns by diaspora Jewish donors – who want to contribute about $300 million to the recovery effort – some say there's cause for optimism.

"The trend is laudable. It's about time, but we still haven't seen execution," says Mohammed Darawshe, director of development for The Abraham Fund, which promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel. "The road is still long. Even though they want egalitarian policy, there are a lot of gaps to close."

Indeed, Arabs and civil rights activists remain skeptical that the pledge will be translated into policy that would amount to a reversal of decades of ingrained bias. "Despite laws forbidding distinguishing between Jews and Arabs, the government still does," says Samuel Dakwar, the lawyer bringing the petition to the high court on behalf of the villages of Fassuta, Aramshe – where three people were killed from a Katyusha – Meilya, and Jish. "Even though Arabs paid a dear price in loss of life, it hasn't prompted the government to wake up and act responsibly."

The court case is so far the highest profile case alleging aid discrimination, but civil rights advocates worry it's likely to be one of many. After turning away loan applications by Arab entrepreneurs, a small-business development arm of Israel's Industry and Trade Ministry was forced by government legal counsel to retract the policy and return the money of a donor who had requested it go to only Jews and military veterans.

"Civil society organizations will have to work very hard in the next few years in monitoring the government actions," says Shalom Dichter, the codirector of civil rights watchdog Sikkui. "The patterns of discrimination in government actions are deeply rooted in the government services."

The four villages are fighting to be designated as a sfar, Hebrew for border community, which is a 40-year-old category that makes businesses based in the municipality eligible for full compensation of profit and overhead costs from border wars. Noting the sfar villages have been determined based on their proximity to the border, Arab lawyers will argue to the high court judges that villages like Fassuta have been excluded from the category solely on grounds of racial bias.

"We argue that when you have a list that's geographically based, you have to include all of the settlements in that area," says Towsan Zahar, a lawyer for Adallah, a civil rights group that has joined the petition. "All of the settlements in the north were exposed to the same missile risk."

An official in the finance ministry who wanted to remain anonymous acknowledged that the border community designation was based on an outdated list. But if the ministry updated the list with four Arab villages, it would expose itself to claims from municipalities as far south as Haifa and bust the treasury's budget.

Beyond the justification of bureaucrats of policies, Israeli Arabs have come under fire for criticism of the war. Last month, Environmental Minister Gideon Ezra even suggested that Israeli Arab towns be made ineligible for aid.

Arab community activists complain that the Jewish majority fails to appreciate that the criticism reflects concern about the fate of Lebanese relatives. It's unfair, they say, to dismiss an entire community as traitors for what should be considered legitimate political criticism.

"It's an excuse to continue the policy of discrimination," says the contractor Matar. "You feel unconnected. You feel that they're doing you a favor by letting you stay here."

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