HAIFA (Feb. 26)
Israeli Arabs staged a nationwide general strike Monday, to protest the lack of government funds for Arab municipalities, which are beset by mounting deficits and crumbling infrastructures.
They received a show of solidarity from officials of Jewish municipalities, which often face the same problems.
Haifa Mayor Arye Gurel joined leaders of Israel’s 750,000 Arab citizens at a massive rally here called to draw attention to the issue.
“This is not only your battle, it is our battle as well. On this issue there is no difference between Arabs and Jews,” the mayor told the cheering throng.
“We cannot complete our sewage system,” said Dr. Hisham Abu Romi, the Communist mayor of Tamra, an Arab town of 20,000 north of Haifa.
“We owe the water company thousands of shekels, we have no budget to fix our roads and we are unable to complete our soccer stadium, which was started 12 years ago,” he said.
The general strike was called after the government seemed to renege on a promised $50 million loan to cover the municipal deficits in Arab townships.
The interior minister, Rabbi Arye Deri, told Arab mayors last week, “You have just demands, but we need more time.”
In fact, the Bank of Israel, Israel’s central bank, vetoed the promised loans, on the grounds that they were insufficiently secured.
While the refusal affected Jewish as well as Arab communities, the Arabs’ financial condition has always been much worse than that of their Jewish neighbors.
The general strike Monday shut down schools. Arab businesses closed, and workers failed to show up at their jobs.
Thousands swarmed into Haifa in the sunny afternoon. The big port city, a Labor stronghold, is traditionally sympathetic to the economically downtrodden.
But while Mayor Gurel radiated solidarity, the Islamic fundamentalist mayor of Umm el-Fahm, Raed Mahajneh, sounded a discordant note.
“Let us not mince words. We are considered second-class citizens, because they (the Jews) consider it their state,” he declared.
Mahajneh went on to warn against Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union “taking over jobs from Arab workers.”
Arab demonstrators carrying banners and chanting slogans marched on the local office of the Interior Ministry to protest what they charged was the government’s “racial discrimination against Arabs in Israel.”
Mohammed Miari, the sole Knesset member of the radical Progressive List for Peace, compared the situation of Israeli Arabs to the blacks in South Africa.
Although some harsh words were spoken, the general strike and related demonstrations were entirely peaceful.
A Druse poet, Salman Natour, explained, “This is a demonstration by Arab citizens of Israel against discrimination. They are demanding equal rights, not national goals. They are demonstrating as Israelis, not as Palestinians.”