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Today's Arab Israelis, Tomorrow's Israel

Sunday, April 1, 2001

Desperate to replace or resuscitate the Oslo “peace process” during the miniwar last fall and winter with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak reiterated his call for separation. If seven years of Israeli withdrawals from one national security “red line” after another had not bought peace, then at least separation — unilateral and quick — of Jews and Arabs, of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would bring quiet.

To stimulate cabinet discussion of separation, Barak distributed copies of Haifa University Professor Dan Schueftan’s manifesto, Disengagement, to his ministers. By late December a poll showed 75 percent of Israelis (no doubt the figure would have been higher if it reflected only Jewish Israeli sentiment) favoring separation in some form or another. That meant the idea behind Barak’s winning slogan in the 1999 campaign, “Us here, them there,” remained popular, if Barak himself did not. Shortly before ousting Barak in February’s election for prime minister, Ariel Sharon restated his own proposal for unilateral separation (though only as a response to a future unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinians).

Despite the renewed interest in the subject — which survives Barak’s defeat — separation along the pre-1967 “green line” neither divides nor conquers. That is because, as the “al-Aksa intifada” confirmed by enlisting the participation of many Israeli Arabs and the vociferous support of even more, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle already has penetrated to within “Israel proper.” This expansion feeds on the rapid growth of Israel’s Arab population and the deepening of that population’s Palestinian national identification. Separation, as discussed by Israeli officials and academics, fails to deal realistically with this changed, but hardly new, paradigm.

Last fall, not only were Israelis and Palestinians killing each other across the pre-1967 green line in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and eastern Jerusalem, but Israeli Arabs and Jews also did likewise inside the 1948 boundaries. Although the numbers were small — 13 Israeli Arabs killed by Israeli police, one by a Jewish mob, and five Israeli Jews murdered by Israeli Arabs — the significance was great. The struggle that Israeli Jews had long imagined was between their superior state and an inferior Palestinian Arab movement over a West Bank/Gaza Strip entity has relapsed into its essential pre-1948 condition.

Then the Arab and Jewish inhabitants of British Mandatory Palestine west of the Jordan River (Britain unilaterally separated eastern Palestine — Transjordan — in 1922) waged an intercommunal fight for dominance. Today, they do so again, the Oslo process and favorable demographic trends having stimulated Arab appetites and solidarity on both sides of the green line. Arafat rejected Barak’s unprecedented offer of 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and de facto control over eastern Jerusalem at Camp David last summer because he would have had to share Jerusalem, drop the Arab “right of return” to pre-’67 Israel, and declare the conflict over. Simultaneously, the Arabs of Israel, by supporting those of the West Bank and Gaza last fall, also reaffirmed that Jewish claims inside ’48 lines are still up for grabs.

Smaller majority, larger minority

Despite its many successes, Israel 53 years after independence remains a Jewish beachhead in the Near East. Three-fourths of Israel’s infrastructure and Jewish population lie within an L-shaped strip 75 miles from Haifa’s northern suburbs to Tel Aviv’s southern ones and 35 miles west to east, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This Jewish heartland rarely exceeds nine miles in width.

As a result of Jewish immigration and Arab emigration during the first five years of Israel’s founding, Jews constituted roughly 87 percent of Israel’s population from 1953 through 1967. But then the consistently much higher Arab Israeli fertility rates — supplemented by a high level of Jewish emigration — began to close the gap. In 1987, the Jewish majority was down to 82 percent. And even with the massive influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early ’90s, by Israel’s fiftieth anniversary in 1998, the state’s Jewish majority dipped to 79 percent. In the capital, Jerusalem, it fell to less than 70 percent. Overall, the country’s population that year was 6,041,400; 4,785,100 Jews, 1,105,400 Arabs (899,800 Muslims, 106,600 Christians, 99,000 Druze), and 150,800 in the “religion unclassified” and non-Arab Christian categories.

In addition to the disparity in birth and emigration rates, Israeli Arabs are much younger as a group than Israeli Jews. So before the end of this decade, it is likely that nearly one in four Israelis will be Arab. And Israeli Arabs are identifying ever more closely with the rising Palestinian nationalism of the roughly 3 million Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and eastern Jerusalem. Hence binationalism or, more precisely, the struggle between two national movements, Jewish and Arab, for sovereignty over the same territory has reemerged along both sides of the green line.

Ironically, this struggle within the Jewish state is the very thing that divestiture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was supposed to prevent. Following the law of unintended consequences, Israel’s unreciprocated Oslo concessions encouraged not only the Palestinian Arabs, but also emboldened Israel’s own Arab minority.

Sociologist Sammy Smouha found that the percentage of Israeli Arabs willing to identify themselves as such dropped from 63 in 1995 to 33 in 1999; the percentage willing to fly an Israeli flag on Independence Day declined from 43 to 28. In 2000, a poll by Yediot Aharonot showed 66 percent of Israeli Arabs asserting they would support the Palestinians in any confrontation with Israel; only 13 percent would support their own country. Early this March, after five months of “intifada II,” a Tel Aviv University survey indicated that more than 71 percent of Israeli Jews see Yasser Arafat as a terrorist, but only 8 percent of Israeli Arabs do.

Hence the shudder that ran through Israel’s Jewish population early in October when Arab Israelis blocked roads, hurled stones and Molotov cocktails, and chanted “death to the Jews” in solidarity with Palestinian Arabs doing likewise in the West Bank and Gaza. Yosef Goell wrote in the Jerusalem Post that “the really bad news of the latest uprising [is that] the overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs — first and foremost their 10 Knesset members — made not the slightest effort to rein in the rioters. They were either too spineless — terrorized by anti-Israeli radicals in the streets of nearly all Arab towns and villages — or secretly proud of the rioters while too cowardly to join them.”

Some not secretly. Interviewed on Palestinian Authority television after intifada II began, Israeli Arab Knesset member Abdel Malek Dehamshe said, “we exaggerate when we say ‘peace’ [with Israel]. . . . What we are speaking about is ‘hudna’ [a temporary ceasefire].”

Early in October, a public opinion survey of Israeli Jews found a large majority concurring that Arab violence inside the green line was more dangerous than the al-Aksa intifada across it. Seventy-four percent of Jewish Israeli respondents said that Israeli Arab behavior — demonstrations, rioting, assaults — during the first week of the Palestinian insurrection amounted to treason.

Israel has promised more attention and more government money to the country’s comparatively neglected “Arab sector,” perhaps on the model of President Lyndon Johnson directing federal largess to America’s inner cities following the race riots of the late 1960s. The analogy does not withstand scrutiny, however. Regardless of abiding American differences over race, black and white Americans overwhelmingly share the same mother tongue, salute the same flag, serve in the same military, and share the same religion. Virtually no African Americans, however embittered, sympathize with, let alone support, foreign movements dedicated to the overthrow of the United States. None of this can be said about Israeli Arabs and their relationship to the country as a Jewish state. In these fundamental ways, they are brethren not of their Israeli neighbors, but of their Palestinian Arab relatives just a few kilometers away.

Post-Oslo Israel appears to many of its Arab citizens as a small, weakening nation surrounded by the infinitely larger, more populous, more patient Arab world, of which they are a part. Frustrated, war-weary Israeli Jews fear they might be right. Thus, both the appeal of separation and the security-minded Sharon’s victory.

“Palestinianized” Israeli Arabs

Barak explained hafrada — separation — this way in 1998: “We should separate ourselves from the Palestinians physically, following the recommendation of the American poet Robert Frost, who once wrote that good fences make good neighbors. Leave them behind [outside] the borders that will be agreed upon, and build Israel.”

He did not — pre-intifada II — envision a “great wall of Israel.” There would be “not a fence to ensure that no one ever gets through, but rather one that people pass through according to certain regulations, and not one that allows every madman to come in with explosives.” But sometimes madmen have no prior record, and carry an Israeli endorsement, like the Palestinian bus driver permitted to work in Israel during a security closure of the territories this spring. He plowed into a crowd at a bus stop, killing eight. In mid-October 2000 — with nightly Palestinian gunfire from Beit Jala striking buildings in Jerusalem’s nearby southern neighborhood of Gilo — Shlomo Ben-Ami, Barak’s minister for internal security (police) and acting foreign minister, explained the obvious to American Jewish representatives: “If we don’t have peace with the Palestinians, there will be tremendous instability. . . . We live really one within the other [and] we need to separate. It is vitally important that we reach an agreement with the Palestinians. . . . Separation will be between two political entities, Israel and Palestine.” This, he added, “is the only way we can see for the Israeli Arabs to de-Palestinianize them.”

How “Palestinianized” were Israeli Arabs after Oslo? Israeli Arabs began to emphasize Arab national issues, as Tel Aviv University’s Elie Reches noted. Many also started to demonstrate what might be called pan-Islamic sentiments. According to journalist Danny Rubinstein, Israeli Arabs have entered the competition in the Islamic world to help restore al-Aksa mosque and the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount. They have joined with donors from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, the Persian Gulf oil emirates, and Turkey. In addition to contributing funds, hundreds of volunteers journey each week from almost all over the country to work on the renovations. This trend developed years before Ariel Sharon’s late September visit to the Temple Mount; it answers Jewish archaeological work just outside the Mount’s south wall.

Israeli Arab opposition to Israel as a Jewish state, and growing identification with Palestinian Arab nationalism, was plain before intifada II. For example, riots by Israeli Arabs over government land appropriation in May and September 1998 involved thousands of participants and, according to a senior police official, resembled the Palestinians’ first intifada. Reches explained that the Oslo process had led Israeli Arabs to focus more on “national issues inside the green line.” Even reaching a settlement with the Palestinians in the territories would not eliminate the “real challenge” to Israel from its Arab citizens, he said.

In early September 1999 — 13 months prior to intifada II — police arrested five Israeli Arabs for car bomb blasts in Tiberias and Haifa. The Washington Post reported that “the arrests seemed to substantiate concerns of Israeli intelligence officials that there could be a growing sense of alienation and extremism among some Arab citizens of Israel. An Israeli Arab was arrested last week in the killing of a Jewish couple in northern Israel.”

In April 2000, the government’s proposal for relocating soldiers of the Jerusalem-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) and their families to Israeli Arab towns after the pending IDF retreat from the south Lebanon security zone received a harsh reality check. “For us,” said Mohammed Zeidan, chairman of the Supreme Follow-Up Committee of Israeli Arabs, “the SLA soldiers are mercenaries who betrayed their nation . . . and therefore we will conduct a public campaign against their settlement in Arab villages.” Two weeks before intifada II erupted, Israeli police told journalists that they had broken up two “nationalist” cells by arresting 24 Israeli Arabs and seizing arms and ammunition. In addition to stoning Israeli police and civilian vehicles, cell members had set fire to houses of Israeli Arabs they suspected of “collaborating” with the authorities, killing three people.

In June 2000, Israeli Arab leaders organized a series of celebrations of Israel’s defeat by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Like Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they discussed how to apply the lessons of “Hezbollah’s victory” to their own situation. Knesset member Taleb al-Sani warned that after south Lebanon the next flash point was Israel’s Negev. Should officials try to appropriate land there, “the Arabs will respond violently and loudly.”

Intifada II began on September 29, and Israeli Arabs quickly joined. Time’s October 23, 2000, issue noted that “with the peace process falling apart, the last thing Israel needs is civil war. But that is what it almost had in its Arab neighborhoods and towns during the past two weeks.” Israel’s Arab minority rioted in the Galilee, where it is nearly the majority, “and in major cities like Jaffa and Haifa. Jewish mobs responded with attacks of their own. ‘Coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel has started to collapse,’ says Salah Tarif, a Druze Arab member of Barak’s One Israel Party.” The problem, Time noted, is that “Israeli Arabs tend to think of themselves as Palestinians who happen to live in Israel, not as Israelis of Arab descent.”

In the face of the renewed reality of violence between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, the government approved measures previously reserved for combating Palestinians. As the daily Ha’aretz reported early in November, “an undercover Border Police unit was used to break up a demonstration of Israeli Arabs near the village of Zeita in the north of the country. The unit was called in to assist local police after dozens of demonstrators converged near the village, throwing stones and setting fire to tires. . . . The undercover unit was deployed for the first time against Israeli Arabs in Umm al-Fahm last month.”

A stronghold of the currently legal Islamic Movement, Umm al-Fahm — located in the strategic and Arab-majority Wadi Ara — was the site of repeated attacks. These included firebombs and stones thrown at Israeli cars. The deputy mayor of the town, Sheikh Taher Ali Jebarin, speaking at a Muslim rally in Austria, encouraged participation in riots against Jewish civilians and soldiers and praised the new intifada of the Palestinian people and its spread into what he called the occupation of 1948 Palestine.

Youths in the Israeli Arab town of Majd al-Kurm, one of several just across the main Akko-Tiberias highway from the Jewish city of Karmiel, stoned and firebombed traffic, including an intercity bus. After an Arab volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces, Sergeant-Major Khalil Taher, was killed by Hezbollah on the Israeli-Lebanese border on November 27, the imam of Akko — an employee of the Israeli ministry of religion — refused to officiate at his funeral.

Early in October in Nablus on the West Bank, Palestinian rioters burned the Jewish holy site of Joseph’s tomb; late in October outside the Arab town of Shfaram in the Galilee, the gravesite of Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Baba, a religious shrine, was damaged badly by fire. By then, attacks on Jewish sacred places within Israel had become commonplace.

A report in the November 16 edition of Ha’aretz illustrated the Arab challenge to Jewish authority in the Galilee: “Police have arrested two men from the village of Arabeh . . . suspected of leading a planned attack by residents of the village on an IDF convoy participating in a training exercise on Monday night. As a result of the attack, one soldier was lightly injured and two IDF vehicles damaged.” Israel Radio added, “Israeli Arabs were checking cars passing through Arabeh and assaulting cars driven by Jews.”

Arab Israelis are not monolithic. But divisions among Israeli Arab leaders offer little in support of a unitary Jewish state. Knesset member Azmi Bishara — he also has served as head of the philosophy department at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank — argued last spring that “while in France or America an Arab can integrate into French or American society, in Israel, since it is impossible for an Arab to integrate into the Jewish nation, integration means marginalization.”

Opposing Bishara, Knesset member Hashem Mahameed advocates full Arab integration into Israeli life. The first Arab to serve on the parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Mahameed hopes for a state in which Arabs and Jews live together harmoniously, with full and equal opportunities. Mahameed would like to see all Arab candidates for Knesset run on one party list. “Since all Arab parties agree on broad lines of reform and have the same community at heart, why should ideology separate them?”

The tactical differences between Bishara and Mahameed are real. But strategically, neither would leave Israel as a state both unified and meaningfully Jewish. Arab members in the 120-seat Knesset, although only half the proportion of Arabs in the total population, already have held the balance of power on key votes involving the future of the Jewish state: the formation of Rabin’s government in 1992 and the passage of Oslo I in 1993 and of Oslo II in 1995 all lacked Jewish majorities.

Furious with the prime minister for neglect in general and the October shootings by police in particular, Israeli Arabs who voted for Barak almost unanimously in 1999 largely deserted him by staying home this year. “It would be wrong,” Egypt’s Al-Ahram weekly crowed, “to see the boycott simply as a criticism of Ehud Barak. . . . In calling for a boycott the Arab parties are effectively ending their ‘historic dependence’ on Barak’s Labor Party. . . . ‘they are ending the game of citizenship.’”

An impossible fence

Israeli jews took note. The prime minister’s office and defense ministry began planning to double within five years the minority Jewish population in the troubled area of Galilee. If successful, the plan was to be a model for other Arab-majority areas in the country.

Influential left-leaning commentators also saw cause for alarm. In an October 5 column, Dan Margalit lamented that “Arab members of Knesset played a key role in the escalation of the violence. . . . Why, in every dispute with Arafat, do Israeli Arabs never find even one point in favor of the government of Israel? This total identification and the absence of any voices in the Israeli Arab community publicly calling for an end to the violence gives rise to the suspicion that the members of this community constitute a fifth column.

“In the face of the continuation of the violence, hope is fading that once their [economic and social] situation improves, Israeli Arabs will be satisfied. In fact, there is a growing fear that the Israeli Arab minority will want more, that it aims for autonomy within the context of the State of Israel, for a State of Palestine beyond the pre-1967 borders and for a binational state within these borders.” Margalit feared an Israeli Arab “Sudetenland.”

Arie Caspi asserted that Israeli Arabs “who went out with rocks and weapons against the Israeli police when Israeli soldiers were waging battles a few kilometers away, in effect, joined the war against us. . . . Even today the Arabs are not willing to compromise on our existence here.”

Like the Palestinians, Israeli Arabs sent their own children to the front lines of the clashes, the daily Ma’ariv reported three days into the violence. While Israeli Arab children fought with police, Jewish schools around the country canceled class trips. The Education Ministry temporarily prohibited outdoor camping in Israel. The parliament’s education committee determined that 600 Jewish schools and 8,000 kindergartens (separate facilities in much of Israel) did not have adequate security.

Not only Israeli schools were found to need more protection. At the end of October, security officials presented a list of Jewish towns inside the green line that “require additional protection against possible attacks. The list’s significance is the definition of Israeli Arabs as a threat,” Ha’aretz reported on November 1. “The list includes towns in the upper and lower Galilee, the Segev bloc and the Jezreel Valley. According to the formula developed by the security forces, these towns are located within the vicinity of ‘hostile populations or in isolated areas in danger of being cut off’ and were considered under threat in the wake of last month’s violence.”

With Israeli Arabs growing in number and in solidarity with Palestinian Arabs on their way to statehood, where will the fence that separationists have in mind run? As Foreign Minister Ben-Ami alluded, the ethnographic boundaries are neither sharp nor straight: On the embattled terrain from Lebanon to the Gulf of Aqaba, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, 280 miles long and rarely more than 45 miles wide, Jews and Arabs “live really one within the other.” Yet unless Israel means to separate not only east and west Jerusalem, Kfar Saba from Qalqilya, Netanya from Tulkarem but also Nazareth from Nazareth Illit, Umm al-Fahm from Hadera, Jaffa from Tel Aviv, no satisfactory borders embodying Jewish-Arab separation can be drawn.

Barak’s assertion that good fences make good neighbors notwithstanding, the barrier between western and eastern Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967 — a miniature Berlin Wall dividing the city between Jordanian occupiers and the Israelis — did not do so. The concrete miniwall now separating the residents of Gilo in south Jerusalem from the nocturnal gunmen in Beit Jalla is not doing so. In any case, such obstacles will not block mortar shells like those fired into Jewish settlements in Gaza or blasted from Gaza into Israel proper in March, let alone increasingly sophisticated electronic connections.

“What really helps the Palestinians in this intifada,” said Ibrahim Abu Sheikh of Arafat’s Fatah faction of the PLO in late November, is the satellite channels broadcasting throughout the Arab world. And what helps the Palestinian Arabs could bolster the Israeli Arabs as well, separation notwithstanding. Nor can border fortifications prevent hacking into Israeli computer networks, another new feature of the autumn upheaval.

An item suggesting the difficulty of workable separation along a renewed green line appeared in Hatzofe, the paper of the National Religious Party, on October 28. Correspondent Hagai Huberman wrote, “the GSS [General Security Services, or Shin Bet — Israel’s FBI] has decided that Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz cannot use the helicopter pad next to their homes in Kochav Yair because of Arab snipers. Kochav Yair is located within the green line and at the start of the recent disturbances shots were fired at the pad from the West Bank.” Barak’s hometown is two and a half miles from the Palestinian Arab city of Qalqilya. Qalqilya is just across the green line from the Israeli suburb of Kfar Saba and less than 10 miles from the Mediterranean. It also lies one and a quarter miles from the Israeli Arab village of Falame.

A wall separating Kochav Yair from Qalqilya — and from the Arab-Islamic world stretching eastward to Nablus, Amman, Baghdad, and Tehran — would have to be improbably high and thick. The electronic border fence erected between Israel and the Gaza Strip in 1994-95 was found to be “full of holes,” Ha’aretz military correspondent Amos Harel reported early this year. During the first three months of the al-Aksa intifada, Palestinians “destroyed several kilometers of it,” expanding gaps created before the latest violence. But even a well-maintained barrier between Palestine and Israel would do nothing about potential snipers from Falame. And a fence cutting off Barak’s home from that nearby Israeli Arab village would bring de facto apartheid to Jew and Arab alike, ghettoizing both.

International uncertainty

In their frustration over the Oslo miniwar, Israeli Jews’ talk of separation also tends to ignore the rest of the world. There is no evidence that neighboring Arab countries, the European Union, or the United States would tolerate the kind of divorce Israeli Jews and their American supporters discuss among themselves. As Israeli economist Shlomo Maital noted in January, a lasting physical separation likely would cripple the Palestinian economy, provoking even greater unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and thereby in the Arab world. This also would intensify Israel’s already dangerous international isolation and add new strains to the country’s relationship with the United States. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s call for Israel to transfer taxes to the Palestinian Authority as required under Oslo — even while Arafat’s men directed the violence — merely hinted at the diplomatic difficulty a real, unilateral separation by Israel would spark.

To enjoy the imagined benefits of separation, Israelis would have to gird themselves for a long period of international ostracism, including possible economic harm if not sanctions. For example, foreign investment — which helped spur Israel’s high-tech boom — took off only in the wake of the 1993 Oslo accords. It virtually stopped after the latest violence. Tourism, one of Israel’s main industries, plunged 80 percent. Agriculture and construction, dependent in part on Palestinian Arab labor, slowed.

In the end, separation seeks to transform an “us here, them here” situation. To fence a Jewish Israel from the Arab-Islamic world along the green line, therefore, seems to imply population transfer of Jews and Arabs, or a contraction of Israel to its Jewish heartland. Neither, to understate the circumstances, seems feasible, not to mention imminent. Hence Sharon’s interest in interim agreements and “nonbelligerency” with minimal Israeli interference in Palestinian-controlled territory.

Worldwide, a number of binational and multinational countries — Yugoslavia, Indonesia, the Soviet Union, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Lebanon — have collapsed or fractured. States with assertive Muslim minorities or extremist Muslim movements — the Philippines, Cyprus, Algeria, Malaysia, Macedonia — find themselves enduring permanent division or battling chronic insurrection. Sovereign power flows from even large countries to supranational agencies like the EU and to legal tribunals like the International Criminal Court. So time might be running out for Israel to firmly plant itself as the uncontested Jewish nation-state.

David Ben-Gurion once said that Israel would be established when it had peace with its neighbors, settled the Negev, and numbered 10 million Jews. Ariel Sharon once — but not recently — insisted that “Jordan is Palestine.” Actually, modern Palestine initially was what has become Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Its peaceful separation into two established states, one Arab and one Jewish — the former no doubt with virtually no Jews, the latter with a small, accepted and accepting Arab minority — remains a distant prospect. That being the case, Sharon’s actual emphasis on interim agreements, complemented one hopes with an American expectation of a post-Arafat, post-Hamas Palestinian leadership, might do as much to make good neighbors as impossibly great fences.

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