Behind the Headlines: Israeli Arabs Louder Than Ever in Commemoration of ‘catastrophe’

At noon Tuesday, life among Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens came to a standstill.

For the first time in the history of the state, Arabs in Israel stood up for a moment of silence – commemorating Al Nakba – Arabic for “the catastrophe,” which is what Palestinians call the 1948 creation of the State of Israel.

The Supreme Guidance Committee, the leaders of Israel’s Arab community, chose to commemorate the event on the anniversary of the official declaration of Israel’s independence, May 15. To them, the commemoration was away of emphasizing that one people’s independence meant the other’s tragedy.

Gone are the days when Israel’s Arab citizens joined the country’s independence celebrations. They no longer adopt the passive stand of not celebrating, but also not spoiling the party. In recent years they have made a point of telling their Jewish compatriots that the Palestinians paid a price for Israel’s independence as a Jewish state.

This year, they voiced that point louder than ever. Commemorating the Nakba was another expression of solidarity with the Palestinian uprising that has raged since September.

As barriers are lifted between Israel’s Arabs and their brethren in the Palestinian territories, another wall is being built between them and Israel’s Jews.

In the last elections to the premiership, only 15 percent of Arab voters showed up at the polling stations – a huge decrease from earlier elections.

“Boycotting the elections was but the first step to say that we understand the depth of the crisis,” said Professor Nadim Ruhana, of the sociology department at Tel Aviv University. He spoke at a symposium held this week at the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University, discussing the crisis among Israel’s Arabs following the outbreak of the Intifada. “The only possible solution for the crisis is a binational state,” he added.

In simpler language, that means an end to Israel as a Jewish state.

Among his Jewish colleagues who were shocked at the comment was Rafi Israeli, a historian at the Hebrew University.

He rose up and replied, emotionally, to Ruhana, “You Arabs have 22 countries, you Palestinians will soon have your own state and eventually you will control Jordan as well, why can’t you accept Israel as a Jewish state?”

Indeed, this was the theme this week in Nakba ceremonies throughout the Middle East. Fifty-three years after the establishment of the state, 23 years after the peace with Egypt, seven years after the peace with Jordan, Arabs are less inclined to accept Israel as a legitimate Jewish state than they had been up until the outbreak last September of the Al-Aksa Intifada.

“The gravest issue is the Palestinian demand to implement their so-called Right of Return,” said Yehoshua Porat, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a leading expert on history of the Palestinians. “They have turned May 15 from a day of commemoration into a day of closing ranks for the future.”

According to Porat, the Palestinians’ latest tactic is to insist on “reopening the 1948 files,” including the demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to what is now Israel.

Not surprisingly, hardly a Palestinian leader will disagree. Hadash Knesset Member Issam Mahoul said Tuesday that Israel should accept the Right of Return.

“Its implementation will be subject to negotiations,” he added, trying to soften the impact of the statement for the Jewish listener.

The Palestinians in the territories marked the “catastrophe” with violent demonstrations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, demanding “and end to occupation” and the dismantling of Israeli settlements.

Their brethren within Israel proper commemorated the day in a much quieter fashion. They staged rallies, visited some of the 400 Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the War of Independence and observed moments of silence.

But their message was loud and clear – not only did they want to “reopen the 1948 files” and negotiate the return of their relatives from their exile overseas, they also insisted on full equality with Jewish citizens in Israel.

Lutfi Mash’ur, editor of a popular Arabic newspaper published in Nazareth, believes there is no contradiction between Tuesday’s actions and the desires of Israeli Arabs to become an integral part of Israeli society.

“Acts of protest like the Nakba revolt are part of the Israelization process of the Arabs,” said Mash’ur.

He noted that paradoxically the now-suspended negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians intensified local Palestinian demands.

“At the time, when an agreement seemed to be in the making, Israel’s Arabs felt that they were still a part of the problem, but were not treated as part of the solution.”

Indeed, just as former Premier Ehud Barak negotiated with the Palestinians, he hardly found time to meet with Israel’s Arab Knesset members. Moreover, the local population felt that it was way in the bottom of the previous government’s set of priorities.

According to Mash’ur this is still very much so, despite the setback in the negotiations with the Palestinians. Mash’ur, like many others, anticipates that negotiations will be renewed, sooner or later – and then, what about the local Palestinian population?

“Each of our protests is geared to say we are here. We don’t want to join the territories, but rather to prove our legitimacy here in Israel.”

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