News Analysis: Internal Palestinian Strife in Gaza Produces New Role for Israeli Arabs

Last week’s confrontation in the Gaza Strip between the Palestinian Authority and the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements produced a new phenomenon that both surprised and perturbed many Israelis.

Israeli Arab politicians took the unprecedented step of becoming actively involved as peacemakers between the two warring camps.

On Saturday, while Palestinians were still reeling from the worst instance of Palestinian infighting since the start of self-rule in May, a group of Israeli Arab Knesset members rushed to Gaza. Through intensive mediation, they were instrumental in restoring at least a modicum of calm.

During last Friday’s violence, Palestinian police fired on demonstrating Islamic fundamentalists outside a Gaza City mosque, killing at least 14 and wounding at least 200.

By midweek, the head of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheik Abdullah Nimr Hussein, along with Dr. Ahmed Tibi, a close adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, were still shuttling between the Palestinian Authority headquarters and various Hamas leaders in Gaza in an effort to reach an accord that would put an end to the violence.

Though the two sides reached a preliminary accord, Hamas was refusing to sign it until the Palestinian Authority took responsibility for last Friday’s bloodshed.

In a move reflecting the discomfort among some Israelis with the involvement of Israeli Arabs, the Likud Knesset faction chairman, Moshe Katsav, introduced a bill in the Knesset on Monday that would prohibit any Israeli citizen from serving as an adviser “to a hostile organization.”

Likud sources said openly that the measure, which provides a three-year jail term for anyone advising such organizations, is aimed primarily at Tibi.

LABOR LEADERS AMBIVALENT

But they agreed that it conceicably could be used to prevent, or to prosecute, the diplomatic activities undertaken by various other Israeli Arab leaders in Gaza this week.

Leaders of the Labor-led government are expressing ambivalence about this new development.

Some have welcomed Tibi’s long-standing role as Arafat’s aide, and they took a similar attitude to this week’s dramatic involvement in Gaza by him and other Israeli Arab leaders.

The Israeli Arabs themselves are defending their role as intermediaries between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

“We neither deny nor apologize for our involvement,” said Walid Tzadik, the Arab Israeli deputy minister of health from the Meretz bloc.

“In addition to being citizens of Israel, we are a part of the Palestinian people. Hence what is happening in Gaza is of concern to us,” Tzadik said in an interview. “You Jews say, ‘Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh’ (all Jews are responsible for one another). It’s the same with us.”

For years, Tzadik continued, Israeli Arabs suffered from the fact that Israel was at war with their people.

“Now, at last, when peace is at hand, we feel we must make our contribution to making peace happen,” he said.

Tzadik told the newspaper Ha’aretz that the prompt intervention by him and other Israeli Arab public figures had stopped the bloodletting and brought an initial measure of stability to a highly volatile situation.

Some observers are also linking the highprofile Israeli Arab role in the Gaza strife to ongoing domestic political developments within the Israeli Arab sector.

Some 18 percent of Israel’s total population of 5.4 million people are Israeli Arabs, and as the 1996 elections approach, both Tibi and the Islamic Movement are actively and publicly considering the possibility of forming political parties and running in the elections.

Tibi presumably would have the endorsement of his patron, Arafat. The Islamic Movement would meanwhile be building on a series of solid and impressive successes gained in municipal and local elections over recent years.

Many of the leading Arab mayors and local chairmen in Israel are members of the Islamic Movement and ran for election on an Islamic ticket.

However, some Islamic activists may be reluctant to delve into national Israeli politics because of the difficulty they may have, if elected to the Knesset, to swear the oath of allegiance to the Jewish state.

Some pundits familiar with Arab politics predict that Tibi and the Islamic Movement may run together on a single ticket.

Such a combined list would signal a radical realignment of political forces among Israeli Arabs and could spell the disappearance of the traditional parties, such as Hadash, which were Communist-based and have lost momentum since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The potential impact of a united Arab vote has been the subject of political speculation in Israel for decades.

Until now, those discussions have remained largely hypothetical because, in every previous election, the Arab vote has been dispersed over a large number of parties.

The next Israeli elections will be the first to take place alongside the reality of a Palestinian self-government.

This week’s highly public Israeli Arab mediation effort graphically demonstrated the new role these leaders may yet play in the Israeli political process.

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