Arab-Jewish relations in Israel are extremely problematic. They are linked in a variety of ways to the broader issues of Israel-Arab relations and specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Somewhere alongside the heavy political issues, we also confront the day-to-day problems of Arab-Jewish coexistence "on the ground". In Israel there are Jewish towns, Arab towns and a variety of mixed-population towns, each with its own history and specific demographic make-up.
Earlier this month, the public-at-large was given a close-up view of the volatile state of Arab-Jewish relations in mixed towns when riots broke out in Acre, an ancient port town north of Haifa. Everyone agrees the disturbances began when an Arab drove his car into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement when all vehicle traffic ceases for 24 hours. From that point on, no one can quite agree on the specific motivation or "choreography" of events. Nor are these details particularly important: it's clear that Arab-Jewish relations in Acre must have been extremely problematic even before Yom Kippur in order for dozens of people to be injured, homes torched and entire families displaced as the outcome of a single unfortunate incident.
Two obvious and immediate background factors to the Acre events, one Arab and one Jewish, come to mind. On one side, over the past two years much of the Arab intellectual and political mainstream in Israel has embraced demands for a full-fledged bi-national state ("consociational democracy") that would give Arabs a veto over Israel's Jewish content and symbols.
That Israel's Arabs require and deserve equal land rights and economic and educational opportunity goes without saying. But their demands now go much further. Most disturbing of all--and here even the years of mainstream Jewish neglect of legitimate Arab socio-economic needs cannot be blamed--the bi-national state demands can be understood to bring their authors into line with those in the Arab and Islamic world who refuse to accept the existence of a Jewish people at all, much less one with legitimate roots in the Middle East.
These positions adopted by prominent leaders of the Arab citizens of Israel in effect reject the principle of a democratic Jewish state that lies at the heart of the Oslo solution of two states for two peoples. They position the Israeli Arab community as very much a part of the broader Palestinian problem. They send a message that the Oslo process of discussing Palestinian political independence in the West Bank and Gaza--wherein the Palestinian citizens of Israel were once seen as a potential bridge between Israelis and Palestinians--has radicalized Israeli Arab views.
But in parallel, the failed Oslo process has also radicalized the views of Israeli Jews on the political right who are in any case predisposed to be hostile toward the Arab population of Israel. Thus in Acre, as in East Jerusalem and Peki'in in Upper Galilee, Jews who basically oppose coexistence are seeking ways to establish neighborhoods in the midst of Arab and even Druze population concentrations and push Arabs out. This would effectively expand the West Bank Arab-Jewish confrontation into all of Israel, thereby serving the settlers' political goal of erasing the green line boundary between the State of Israel and the West Bank and preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state.
But even moderate Israeli actors are contributing to Arab-Jewish alienation in Israel. The fence/wall that so mindlessly cuts off East Jerusalem Arabs from their brethren in the West Bank is radicalizing them--witness the series of suicidal attacks launched in West Jerusalem by frustrated Palestinians from the outlying villages of East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Israeli governmental refusal to create new Arab towns or an Arab university exacerbates the pressures generated by the increasingly crowded Arab living space in Israel.
Perhaps, if and when there is a viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arabs and Jews in Israel will be able to contemplate quietly whether they wish to live in mixed or separate towns and cities. Apparently, it is only when the conflict is resolved that Israelis will seriously address the heavy issue of the Jewish nature of their state--an issue that must be resolved before the status of non-Jews in Israel can be dealt with substantively.
Until that time, three political/demographic dynamics will continue to operate and to clash. For one, Israeli Arabs will refuse to be pushed out of their traditional dwellings by Jewish extremists. On the other hand, economic factors will impel Arabs who are denied legitimate development opportunities to move into Jewish towns and neighborhoods in the simple and justified hope of bettering their lot. Finally, tensions will flare up periodically between Arabs and Jews, spearheaded by nationalist and racist extremists on both sides and nourished by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The recent clashes in Acre between Israeli Jews and those of Palestinian origin brought to the surface a very thorny issue, the uncomfortable co-existence in Israeli society between the Palestinian minority and Jewish majority.
The Palestinian minority in Israel constitutes roughly one-fifth of the population and represents the indigenous people that Israel did not kick out of Palestine in 1948, when 800,000 were forced to seek refuge in neighboring Arab states.
The story of those who were forced out of their homes and homeland and those who remained was once the subject of some controversy. But the last ten to 15 years witnessed research by what became known as the "new historians" of Israel that was based on documents from the Israeli national archives and which proved beyond doubt that Jewish terrorist organizations and later the Israeli army planned explicitly the kind of activities, including massacres, that led to expulsion of the indigenous population and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem.
Those who remained, and were later called Israeli Arabs, became a major problem for Israel. First, most of the land is owned either by Palestinians who were expelled or those who remained. Second, the presence of non-Jews was a challenge to the Zionist ideal of creating a pure Jewish state and the claim of establishing a civilized state among savages. Finally, the Palestinians who remained gradually started organizing themselves, speaking out not only about their political rights but most importantly (and most embarrassingly) about their civil and human rights where they were being undermined by the Jewish state. As a result, the Palestinians of Israel became a prominent example of the state's racial discrimination policies and practices.
In the first ten to 15 years after the creation of Israel, for example, more than 90 percent of the land that belonged to those who stayed behind was confiscated. For their part, Palestinians were confined to their villages and towns under very draconian restrictions on their movement, a system very similar to the current restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
There are two ways in which the Palestinian minority in Israel has reacted to this treatment. A minority has chosen to cooperate with the state in spite of the discrimination. They joined Zionist parties in the face of an ideology that would seem to exclude non-Jews.
The majority, however, gradually joined and voted for anti-Zionist parties and later Arab parties. These led popular protests against the discriminatory policies of Israel, activities that culminated in the famous Land Day in 1976, a popular intifada against the confiscation of land in which six Palestinians were killed by Israeli police.
Israel's attempts to subordinate its minority Palestinian community have been made under the slogan of co-existence. They partly consisted of encouraging Palestinians to integrate within the Israeli political system. In the first stages, this ensnared pro-state Palestinians with traditional tribal and family positions. But with the increase in awareness among the Palestinian minority, the vast majority of community representatives became sharply critical of the state's policies toward that minority and are now leaders of the struggle of that community.
In spite of the rough treatment the Palestinian minority in Israel has had to endure, it has succeeded in taking a non-violent approach in its struggle for civil and human rights. This has further embarrassed Israel. But this approach has not prevented certain elements in the Jewish population from expressing bluntly and violently their hatred and hostility for that minority. The Acre events did not come as a surprise to anyone aware of the depth of the problem between the two peoples. And the quick, hostile and violent reaction from a wide range of right wing groups and parties in Israel is another indicator of how fragile relations are and undermines the image of co-existence some in Israel would like to portray.
If Israel does not treat all its civilians equally, and without a solution to the problem of the part of the Palestinian people who live under occupation, the tensions that led to the Acre riots are likely to be repeated.- Published 27/10/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
VIEW OF A PALESTINIAN CITIZEN OF ISRAEL
Is co-existence still an option?
by Reem Hazzan
The recent incidents in Acre appeared to be spontaneous acts of racism and a threat to the "co-existence" between Arabs and Jews in the city. But that is only if we take seriously the idealist notion of "co-existence" that some said prevailed in Acre. If not, we are left with a reality where two peoples live in the same jurisdiction, but where the minority, the Arabs, are discriminated against in all areas--their rights, services, education and development.
The majority Jewish population also suffers poverty and unemployment but does not see their causes as emanating from government institutions and policies. Thus the majority sees the conflict on the background of religion and takes it anger out on the Arab community rather than the state. It does not see the problem as a matter of methodical oppression.
Though recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage city, some want to change Acre's history and heritage. Acre is one of five mixed cities in Israel. Thirty percent of her population is Arab and live in different parts of the city. Most of these are of low socio-economic status and those who live in the old city suffer poor infrastructure in everything from sewage to telephone lines. The signs of discrimination are quite obvious.
Until a few years ago, there was no special tension between Arabs and Jews. But in 2005 settlers and fanatic Jews were purposefully brought to Acre in order to maintain the demographic majority and enhance efforts to Judaize the city, efforts supported by the Jewish Agency and the municipality of Acre.
The violent racial attacks on the Arabs in Acre and the religious coercion practiced on Yom Kippur night find their moral legitimacy in this plan to Judaize Acre, mainly the old city within the walls. This plan seeks to leave no sign of Palestinian, Arab or Islamic historical or physical presence or heritage. The economic aspect of this plan is to open up the old city to investment that is restricted to Jewish and/or foreign capital, and turn the city into a soulless money-making tourist site.
Discrimination against Arab citizens in infrastructure, development and budget allocations is not new, but the plan to Judaize Acre has included a consistent neglect of the Arab population's needs and demands, causing more poverty, greater oppression, more rage and despair-all this to help convince the Arab population to leave the old city.
The responsibility to preserve Acre, its people and soul, falls upon all who respect and care for their heritage. The attempt to evacuate the old city of Arabs is nothing more than a blatant act of ethnic cleansing.
In order to speak of co-existence, we need to speak of existence first. There can be no "co" when one side oppresses the other by neglecting its rights and needs and attempts to distort its identity and roots.
Perceptions of co-existence need to be deconstructed. Co-existence and the creation of a mutual vision are a process for the citizens of Acre and Israel and not a reality. It is a process where the rights and demands of the Arab citizens need to be answered and fulfilled in order for mutual interests to build mutual understanding. The process of co-existence is a struggle that all sane people on both sides--that is, those who realize that in order to reach this aspiration, Israel needs to recognize its historical misdeeds against the Palestinian people and the ongoing oppression of its Palestinian citizens--need to engage in.
The planting of fanatic elements in Acre over the last few years has raised many questions for Arabs and Jews. Existence side-by-side requires an immediate end to the plan to Judaize Acre and international interference to preserve the old city. The way to rebuild a mutual existence in Acre and lay the cornerstone for the aspired co-existence is by thoroughly tackling issues like unemployment and poverty, education, services and commerce alongside building a genuine dialogue between Arab and Jewish citizens based on historical and political reconciliation.
Since my communism is ever optimistic, I know oppression never lasts. Co-existence, as a Palestinian, is the simple human comprehension that we cannot control what history wrought, but we are able to change our present and future.- Published 27/10/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Reem Hazzan is a member of the national leadership of The Democratic Front for Peace & Equality (Jabha) and a candidate in next month's Acre municipal elections.
VIEW OF A PALESTINIAN CITIZEN OF ISRAEL
Settlers want to Judaize Acre
an interview with Ahmed Tibi
bitterlemons: What is the significance of the Arab-Jewish clashes in Acre earlier this month, in view of events since then?
Tibi: This was an expression of ongoing grievances in mixed towns and a direct result of absorbing settlers from Hebron and elsewhere in order to "Judaize" Acre, meaning expelling Arabs from the city or forcing them to move out. There is no secret here; this was declared by those rightist activists. We have said more than once that they should be confronted and the authorities should deal with them. I'm glad the disturbances were mainly in Acre, with only minor events in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If nothing is done to bridge the gap between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in these mixed towns, we will witness more clashes.
bitterlemons: Has the publication during the past two years of Israeli Arab manifestos calling for Israel effectively to become a bi-national state affected Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel?
Tibi: We don't want a bi-national state exactly, but Israelis cannot ignore the Arab nationality in Israel. We demand to be a national minority but the Jewish majority refuses to discuss this. Mixed cities in Israel are a good example of how Arab citizens are being treated in a discriminatory way. Visit a Jewish neighborhood, then visit an Arab neighborhood and witness the huge gap in infrastructure. Israel cannot claim to be a democracy with this disparity between citizens of the same country.
bitterlemons: Can you factor into your description of the situation the latest failure to reach a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians?
Tibi: The deadlock in the negotiating process provides the setting for enlarging the gap between Jews and Arabs [inside Israel]. We agree that the two-state solution is the ultimate solution. But Israel is in love with the process much more than the peace. It is creating more and more obstacles to peace, such as settlements and the apartheid wall. You cannot reject both a two-state solution and alternative options: this will lead to a South African situation.
bitterlemons: In the aftermath of Acre and in the course of her coalition-building efforts, did Kadima leader Tzipi Livni consult with you or the other nine members of Knesset from the Arab parties?
Tibi: Livni considers the Knesset as composed of only 110 MKs and not 120. The 10 Arab MKs are being neglected and sent an outrageous message by Livni: that the Arab parties will not be a part of the legitimate decision-making process; that we are discriminating against you and your elected leadership.
bitterlemons: How will Arab-Jewish relations in Israel play out in the coming elections?
Tibi: This will be an important issue, especially since [MK Avigdor] Lieberman and his [Yisrael Beitenu] party and others may put this issue in their platform, describing the Arab minority as a fifth column that endangers the future of the state of Israel and trying to keep some Arabs from being eligible to be elected.- Published 27/10/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ahmed Tibi is deputy speaker of the Knesset and heads The Arab Unified List/Arab Movement for Change. He has been a member of Knesset since 1999.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.