(german version posted below)
David Rotem’s leitmotif is allegiance to the state, but he never spells it out. So much so that, before leaving, we put it to him: “Imagine yourself in Nazi Germany. Where would your loyalty lie?” “To the state,” he replied, without blinking an eye. That retort, given in the Knesset building in Jerusalem, left us stunned, particularly since he went on to tell us how his father left Germany when Hitler came to power.
Rotem is a lawyer, former deputy speaker of the Knesset, prospective director of the new Law Commission and close confidant of Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party (Israel is Our Home). He rehashes his recent election speeches. “Whether he’s a Jew, a Muslim or a Christian, a citizen must demonstrate his loyalty to the state. If he does not, he’s not a citizen,” he says. The same tirade castigates Rabbi Meyer Hirsh for having met Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (1), and those Arab parliamentarians who dared to protest against the recent Gaza massacres.
The party’s stance is that every Israeli should swear an oath of allegiance to the flag (which includes the Shield of David, the symbol of Judaism), sing the national anthem (which evokes the “Jewish soul”) and do military service (Arabs, apart from the Druze and some Bedouin, are exempt along with ultra-orthodox Jews).
Yisrael Beiteinu’s electoral slogan leaves no doubts: “Only Lieberman speaks Arabic”. The historian Shlomo Sand quipped: “In his native Moldova he was a night-club bouncer. Now it’s the Arabs who get bounced”. This joke does, however, ignore one fact about the “Russian” party (2): its official line is not to expel Palestinians (3) – as in 1948 – but to form a future Palestinian state around the areas where they are most populous, particularly Umm al-Fahm and the northern Triangle. In exchange, Israel would annex parts of the West Bank settled by Jews, starting with those who surround East Jerusalem.
For, unlike Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu formally embraces the two-state solution. “We accept the 1947 principal of partition,” Rotem emphasised. “Palestinians want a judenrein (4) state, Israelis a 100% Jewish state, not one which is open to all citizens. An international agreement must redraw frontiers in this spirit.”
Why is there such fury against Israel’s one-and-a-half million Arabs? The three Arab political parties represented in the Knesset have similar views on the subject, but all the same there are certain nuances.
The charismatic 29-year-old Hanin Zoabi – the first female parliamentarian from an Arab party – helped “save” the electoral chances of the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), whose founder, Azmi Bishara, fled the country after being accused of treason. Strangely she sees Lieberman’s position as offering a sort of quid pro quo – “I withdraw from the occupied territories so I must have your loyalty”. As a consequence, she says, one must “remind Israeli Palestinians that they live in a Jewish state and should accept it as such”. Benjamin Netanyahu “has no need to insist on Israel’s Jewish nature because he is not in favour of two separate states”.
‘Only justice heals wounds’
In his Nazareth office, the lawyer Tawfiq Abu Ahmed claimed to represent the Islamist movement, part of the United Arab List/Arab Movement for Renewal (Ra’am/Ta’al). For him, the far right takes an anti-Arab stance to “show to Israeli Jews that it protects their interests”, creating “an internal enemy to fight and so reinforce its own popularity”. Instead of trying to demand loyalty among Israeli Arabs as a condition of citizenship, the lawyer suggested, “the establishment should understand that the opposite works: only real citizenship, that’s to say equal rights, can guarantee loyalty. As one of our proverbs says, only justice heals wounds.”
The long-serving mayor of Eilaboun in Galilee, Hanna Swaid, is second on the Communist ethnically mixed Hadash list, and one of four Knesset members. Without ignoring Yisrael Beiteinu’s electoral impact he is worried about specifics: “Making military service compulsory would aggravate every kind of anti-Arab discrimination” (5). “Above all,” he added, “these themes benefit from popular support and risk provoking tensions between Jews and Arabs which threaten their very coexistence, already strained by the shootings of October 2000 and the Acre pogrom of October 2008 (6). The ‘Lieberman era’ has been ushered in by clashes, particularly in towns with mixed populations.”
“Everything stems from the setback when former prime minister Ariel Sharon invented the politics of separation,” claims the lawyer Hassan Jabareen, director of Adalah, the Legal Centre for the Arab Minority Rights in Israel, whom we met in his Haifa office. For Jabareen, Israel’s policies of building the wall, of withdrawing from Gaza, its military adventures of summer 2006 and winter 2008-9 have all failed: “The Israeli establishment blames everything on the Palestinians of Israel precisely because it is impossible to impose a unilateral solution.”
The “demographic threat”, which explains the interest in the creation of a Palestinian state, now also concerns Israel itself. “Nobody believes any longer in two states,” said Jabareen. “Conflict is breaking out on all fronts, as in 1948: there’s no great difference between Haifa, Nablus and East Jerusalem. Except that to make ‘war’ on the Palestinians of Haifa would be easier.”
In so saying, Jabareen finds himself alongside Lieberman. In January 2008, when Lieberman stepped down from the previous government where his role was minister of strategic affairs, he spoke openly: “Our problem is not Judea and Samaria, but the extreme fundamentalist leadership that is in the Knesset… Our problem is [the Arab-Israeli parliamentarians] Ahmed Tibi and Barakeh, they’re more dangerous than Khaled Mash’al [the Damascus-based Hamas leader] and Nasrallah [head of Hizbullah]. They work from the inside; they operate methodically to destroy the State of Israel as a Jewish state” (7).
In reality, mobilisation against this “fifth column” – the current expression – began long ago in hearts and minds, both within Israel’s institutions and at the grassroots.
Take normalisation of racist talk, like that in 2004 by Yehiel Hazan, the former deputy leader of Likud, comparing Israeli Arabs to “worms” who have worked in a “subterranean” way to “harm the Jewish people for 100 years” (8). Another Likud contender for the Guinness Book of Arabophobia, Moshe Feiglin, has opined: “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammad, their prophet, was a robber, a killer and a liar” (9).
A law passed in 1985 prevented Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party from taking part in elections because of similar statements. The aggravations of early 2009 prompted President Shimon Peres to worry, just before the polls, about “incitement to violence against any part of the electorate. Arabs, like all the country’s citizens, have equal rights and duties.” Sadly, the damage has already been done. According to opinion polls conducted in 2006 and 2007, 78% of Israeli Jews are opposed to having Arab political parties in any government; 75% wouldn’t like to live in the same building as an Arab; 75% believe they engage in violence (54% of Arabs think the same of Jews); 68% fear a new intifada; 64% worry about Arab demography; and 56% think that “Arabs can never reach the Jewish level of cultural development”. As for “solutions”, 55% of Israeli Jews believe that the government should encourage Arab emigration, 50% advocate their transfer and 42% suggest that they should no longer have the right to vote (10).
The little Liebermans
History tells us that such a climate of opinion makes huge backward steps possible, if not probable. Proof of this was the voting in of the 2003 law forbidding a Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza to join their husband or wife in Israel (11). Of course, the new government won’t turn any projects proposed by Foreign Minister Lieberman into legislation tomorrow. But who knows about the day after tomorrow?
“The worst is not Lieberman himself but the little Liebermans he spawns, creating a climate of terror where the smallest incident can get out of control.” Ahmed Oudeh, a baker, knows what he’s talking about. He lives in Acre (53,000 inhabitants, of whom 17,000 are Arab) and sits on the local council of a city still bruised by the events of last October. Several hundred Jewish rioters destroyed or damaged 30 homes, 84 shops and 100 cars (12).
We were off on a strictly non-tourist trip around Acre. First we went to see five venerable dwellings in the ancient city restored – and offered to Jewish students by Amidar, the housing company that “owns” Arab property “abandoned” in 1948. Then, we visited a new block under construction bearing the friendly name Northern Fist, promised to former Gaza settlers. Nearby is the site of the largest yeshiva (religious school) in the north of Israel; dozens of Jewish schoolboys stroll around the souk with four armed guards. And there’s the al-Lababidi mosque, still closed although most people who live around it are Muslim.
At Lod (formerly Lydda), where the architect Buthaina Dabit plays host, the theme was similar. The thousand Palestinians who avoided expulsion in 1948 have become 11,000 in a total population of 70,000. “To revive the town’s Jewishness”, our guide explained, “the mayor is both trying to chase out Arabs and attract more Jewish residents”.
The ill-made road, which our small car found hard-going, illustrated this double process: to our right was the smart Jewish Ganei Aviv (Spring Gardens) complex; to our left lay a kind of ruined Arab shantytown, obviously abandoned and threatened with demolition with, here and there, a few expensive villas, separated by a wall – whose construction was stopped by legal action – from the moshav (cooperative) Nir Tzvi. “Yesterday”, the architect recalled, “they used oriental Jews to chase us away. Then it was the Russians and now the ultra-religious. We should all be fighting together rather than against each other.”
Jaffa, once known as “the sea’s fiancée”, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948. Its population is currently 40% Palestinian. There, too, a project to Judaise the town revolves around poverty. Judith Ilany, coordinator of a women’s help group organised by Hadash-Balad, explained: “Take family F, a single mother with three children. Waiting, without any great hope, for local authority housing, she rents a private apartment for 2,000 shekels ($483) a month, or two thirds of her salary. Her landlord throws her out. She then is forced to sign another rental agreement for 4,000 shekels which, obviously, she can’t meet for long. Heavily in debt, she is thrown out a second time. She could, of course, obtain a tax reduction by completing a large dossier in Hebrew, a language she doesn’t speak. But it wouldn’t be sufficient to put her beyond the long arm of the private company acting for the municipality to repossess defaulting tenancies.”
More than 500 expulsion orders for dwellings built without permission hang over Jaffa like a sword of Damocles. In the Negev they also tear down housing, whole villages at a time (see The forgotten Bedouin).
No longer ready to stand by
Aida Touma-Sliman, the Communist director of Women Against Violence, is proud of founding the world’s first refuge for battered Arab women. As a grassroots activist, she says it’s there, rather than at the polls, that you see a “drift towards fascism. Some may think this is exaggeration but, unfortunately, the facts support us: our very legitimacy is challenged, violent harassment happens frequently, our towns are threatened with Judaisation. The human destruction of Palestinians in Gaza crossed the boundaries. We know from experience where it is all going.”
Nazareth feels secure. Not only has the capital of Galilee remained almost exclusively Arab but, because housing is in short supply there, people are renting, even buying, places in its “sister” town, Nazareth Ilit, created as a Jewish balance. For Touma-Sliman, however, “even here, Lieberman’s speeches resound like a call to attack us”.
Israel’s distraught Arab community does not intend to stand by and let things happen. The Gaza tragedy and the racist nature of the general election campaign could lead, according to many observers, to a large boycott. But some 52% of Arab Israelis went to the polls and their voting patterns changed radically. Only 12% of Arab electors voted for a Zionist party (compared with 30% three years ago), the others choosing between the three parties representing their cause, particularly Hadash. There was also mass participation in this year’s Land Day on 30 March.
How to build on this riposte and stop what Hassan Jabareen calls “rampant apartheid”? Some 200 Arabs and Jews, representing different age groups and cultures, recently joined the debate one sunny Saturday in Acre at a conference called to counter racism. Heavy anger characterised many of the speakers. The Islamist councillor Adham Jamal, deputy mayor of Acre, paid the price for talking about his powerlessness. Accused by one of the families without housing since last October, he left the hall to jeers.
At the heart of the exchanges lay the issue of allegiance. “We’re the victims, so we should define the ground rules,” said a young Balad councillor. She was challenged by Miriam Damoni-Charbit, who trains Jewish and Arab teachers at Israel’s largest educational NGO. “I understand that Israel’s Arabs are torn between their country and their people”, she said, “but for their own sake they must understand Jewish sensibilities. It is simply unacceptable to chatter during the Shoah siren or to violate the peace of Yom Kippur.” She pointed to “all the Likud voters who, on questions of social justice, could get involved in the fight for equality.” On 11 November 2008, in Tel Aviv’s mayoral election, the Communist parliamentarian Dov Khenin broke all records in capturing 35% of votes (nearly 75% of those younger than 35). But his rainbow coalition did not have any Palestinians of Jaffa on its list.
Allegiance, then, but to what? Two states, or a state of two nations? “Some solidarity movements forget that they don’t represent the Palestinian people. Our right to self-determination includes the right to choose for ourselves what seems to be the best solution,” insists Aida Touma-Sliman.
She brandishes every opinion poll “with no exceptions” taken in the West Bank and Gaza. “If nine out of 10 Israeli Jews want their own state, the same goes for two out of three Palestinians in the occupied territories”. And for good reason. “In a two-nation state, what happens to the settlements? Beyond that, who would guarantee our rights?” She believes that real power lies elsewhere. “Only the international community can impose a solution on Israel: that’s what we should all be working for – here and in your country.”
Palestinians of Israel
1947-9 During the fighting, 700,000-800,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes. Only 160,000 remained in Israel.
21 October 1948 The authorities imposed military rule on the Arab population based on British emergency law.
1948-2008 Massive expropriation of Palestinian lands.
End 1966 Military rule lifted
June 1967 Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan allowed Palestinians to re-make contact with those expelled.
30 March 1976 Repression of demonstrators protesting the confiscation of land caused six deaths and dozens of injuries. The date became known as Land Day.
October 2000 Demonstrations of solidarity with the second intifada. Reprisals by the authorities caused 13 deaths.
- The average salary of Israeli Arab workers in 2007 was only 67% of that of oriental Jews and 52% of that of Ashkenazi Jews.
- The average per capita income of Israeli Arabs was $7,700 dollars, compared with $19,000 for Israel as a whole.
- In 2007, 51.4% of Palestinian families lived beneath the poverty line, compared with 19.9% of all families.
- Less than 6% of state employees were Arab.
- Only 18% of Arab Israeli women were employed, compared with 56% of Jewish women (and 59% of Arab men).
- Since the founding of Israel in 1948, there has been no new Arab municipality, as against 600 new Jewish municipalities.
- Palestinian citizens of Israel own only 3.5% of the land.
- Arab municipalities received less that 5% of development budget funds and 3% of normal government funding, although Israeli Palestinians form 20% of the population.
Sources: Different reports by UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA); The Human Rights Status of the Palestinian Arab Minority, Citizens of Israel, Mossawa Centre, Haifa, October 2008; Israel: Social Report 1998-2007, Adva Centre, Tel Aviv, 2008. Unless specified, statistics are from 2006.