Year in Review Israel’s Arabs; the Jewish Dilemma

As Israeli leaders spent more and more time and energy trying to cope with the problem of three million Palestinians beyond the country’s borders, they were swiftly drifting away from the nation’s own Palestinians, its Arab citizens, those who once upon a time were known as “Israel’s bridge to peace.”

During the long years of a state of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Israeli Arabs enjoyed the nickname. But since peace was nowhere in sight, the bridge was not of much use Now that peace is a reality, the bridge slowly is collapsing, and the almost 600,000 Arab citizens of Israel are generally considered more as a hazard than an asset.

SIGNS OF TENSION ABOUND

Almost daily there are signs and feelings of tension between the Jewish and Arab communities, while the government stands almost hopeless in the face of the deterioration of relations.

At the beginning of the year, six Arab students were suspended from their studies at Hebrew University for a three-month period because they signed a petition supporting the Palestine National Council, often described as the Palestine Liberation Organization parliament in exile, then convening in Damascus. At the same time, more “moderate” Arab students maintained close contacts with their colleagues at the West Bank Bir Zeit University, known as the stronghold of the pro-PLO Arab intelligentsia. Other students went one step further and joined the EI Fatah terror organization. Eight of them were recently sentenced to prolonged jail periods.

Last June, villagers in the usually peaceful village of Meiliya, east of Nahariya, clashed violently with police over an attempt to pave a road through the village to a new Jewish settlement nearby. For the first time since the establishment of the State, representatives of the 400,000 Bedouins of the Negev joined Arabs of the north in nationalist protests. The occasion was a government sponsored bill which forced thousands of Bedouins from the land they settled on to make room for the new air fields.

In addition, last month, Gen. Avigdor Ben Gal, commander of the northern command, likened the Arabs of the Galilee to “a cancerous growth in the body of the State.” He denied, however, that he had said this. As if to aggravate things, the government tailed to promise appropriate compensations for large Arab families for recent price hikes arguing that as families whose heads did not serve in the army they were not entitled to the same compensations. Due to public criticism the government changed that decision a few days later, but the damage was already done a Those who argued that Arabs are discriminated against seized the case as the perfect example.

Under the circumstances, it was hardly a surprise to hear a young Arab declare on television the following weekend: “In five years, you (the Jewish interviewer) will hardly be able to enter our village.” Once again, the bridge of peace was nowhere in sight.

GAP EMERGED AFTER THE SIX-DAY WAR

The situation reveals a wider than ever gap between the Jewish expectations and the Arab reality, a gap that emerged following the Six-Day War, Until that paint, Israel’s Arabs hardly constituted a problem. The population had no intellectual elite per se, as most of its intelligentsia had fled during the War of Independence. The rural population for outnumbered the urban populace. And traditional values and mores were dominant. This society, only minimally interested in its national political advancement, stressed its economic progress to a for greater extent.

Together with the rest of Israel, this society enjoyed the economic boom catalyzed by the provision of German reparations in the mid-1950s. Its geographic seclusion from the rest of the Arab world made it even easier for its residents to integrate into Israeli society.

Indeed, the climax of that integration came during the war, when Arabs volunteered to work in the service of the State in place of Jews who were then enlisted. The cooperation which the Arab population displayed during the difficult period of May June, 1967, was an example of the success of that integration.

PROCESS OF CHANGE

But it was that war which created the gap. Arabs were gradually exposed to the “Palestinian world,” the West Bank. The young Israeli Arabs, those who were born after 1948 and graduated from Israeli schools, entered the universities. But rather than identifying with the system that had made them into the new Arab intelligentsia, they revolted and generally identified with the Palestinian nationalist theme. They identified themselves not as Israelis, but as Palestinians, or (if they wanted to ease the shock), as Palestinians of Israeli citizenship.

Of course, the change did not come about suddenly, nor was it only a matter of ideological transformation. Objective social and economic difficulties, such as the few jobs offered by the government for Arabs (due to security reasons), were quite often the background which made it easy for any nationalist feelings to develop.

The stronger the young nationalist Arab generation becomes, the more difficult it is for the older, more moderate Arabs. Nowadays, one can wander for hours in northern Arab villages looking for an Arab who will dissociate himself from the Palestinian identity. Such Arabs are often considered traitors. They find it difficult to maintain such a standing, because the State offers them little compensation.

As a general rule, the government has failed to cope with the Arab issue as such. Despite the concern often voiced by government officials and ministers– the Ministerial Committee on Arab Affairs which existed during the Labor Alignment government ceased to function during the present government. The only’ body directly involved with that population is the Arab advisor on Arab affairs at the Premier’s office. But that body has no executive powers and is headed by an “acting advisor.” The previous advisor resigned earlier this year because he was rarely received by Premier Menachem Begin. No permanent replacement has been found.

VARIOUS PLANS FOR ISRAELI ARABS

Three years ago, Yisrael Koenig, northern commissioner in the Ministry of Interior, suggested a detailed plan of benefits and penalties for Arabs: benefits for those Arabs who expressed unreserved loyalty, penalties for any body who worked against the State. Koenig even went so far as to recommend that Arabs should be “encouraged” to leave the country. The so-called Koenig document was denounced by Interior Minister Yosef Burg, but many said quietly that there were some good ideas in that document. Koenig is still in office.

Recently, in a workshop organized by the Samuel Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology at the Haifa Technion, a well-known Mideast expert, Prof. Yehoshue Porat, suggested a proposal diametrically opposed to that of Koenig. He suggested finding a new modus vivendi for Israel’s Arabs by fully integrating them into the State, including their possible absorption into the Israel Defense Force.

Porat went so far as to say: “It follows that we are nearing the end of the Zionist era in the history of the Jewish people. The majority of the Jewish people gradually choose to live outside of Israel. The Jewish residents of Israel must wake up from their illusions and act according to this new reality. Therefore, we must prepare ourselves for the day when the rate of Israel’s Arabs theaters the existence of a Jewish democracy as such. The only way to do so is to gradually advance toward a reality in which two groups of populations with different cultures and ethnic identifications can share a common Israeli citizenship and loyalty within the same State.”

The workshop finally recommended the middle of the road proposal which actually endorsed the existing policy: “Israel’s Arabs should live in peace with the State and be loyal and law abiding citizens, but one cannot expect the Arab minority to identify themselves with the aims of Zionism,” said the majority of the experts who participated in the workshop.

DIFFICULTIES IN SOLVING PROBLEM

Some Israelis say there is really no solution that even if the State of Israel were to disappear, there would still be a Palestinian problem; even if a Palestinian state would be established the Arabs would then demand a return to the 1947 borders.

But even if one adopts a more hopeful approach, that the solution of the Palestinian problem might also eradicate nationalist feeling among Israel’s Arabs, the demographic statistics still present a problem: Israel’s Arabs presently number close to 600,000, some 16 percent of the population.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics’ forecast, by 1995 there will be more than one million Arabs in Israel, approximately 20 percent of the population.

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