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Jewish-Arab tension rising in Israel

The blood-soaked Moment Cafe in Jerusalem after a March 9 suicide bombing that killed 11 and injured dozens. (Brian Hendler)

The blood-soaked Moment Cafe in Jerusalem after a March 9 suicide bombing that killed 11 and injured dozens. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Sept. 2 (JTA) — Tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel are rising again as plans move ahead to strip the citizenship from Arabs who carry out or aid terror attacks. Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau have called for radical action against Israeli citizens or residents involved in terrorism. In two spectacular recent cases, a group of eastern Jerusalem residents — who are not Israeli citizens — are accused of killing 35 Israelis and wounding hundreds in a series of attacks, including the July bombing at the Hebrew University and a March bombing at Jerusalem’s Café Moment. Each day also seems to bring new arrests as police track an Israeli Arab clan whose members allegedly sheltered and aided a Palestinian man who blew up a bus in the Galilee in early August, killing nine people and wounding 50. Yishai and his hawkish partners are faced with a dilemma. Revoking a terrorist’s Israeli citizenship or residency status may deter other potential terrorists. But it will also further alienate Israel’s 1 million Arabs, who are frustrated with the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Why hasn’t Yishai revoked the citizenship of Yigal Amir?” scorned Shawki Khatib, chairman of the Monitoring Committee of the Israeli Arab Leadership, which represents Arab legislators and mayors. “Isn’t the murder of a prime minister a grave act of terrorism?” Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. Landau and his deputy, Gideon Ezra, insist that Israel should demolish the homes of all terrorists, whether they are Israeli Arabs or Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, however, objects even to the demolition of houses in eastern Jerusalem. Ben-Eliezer said all punitive measures should be left for the courts to decide, not the executive branch. The debate over punishment reflects the deepening rupture between Israeli Jews and Arabs just a month before the second anniversary of the October 2000 riots, when police killed 12 Israeli Arabs rioting in solidarity with the nascent Palestinian intifada. A state inquiry commission is still investigating the incident. On Sunday, Police Inspector-General Shlomo Aharonishki chose the first day of the school year to meet with leaders of the Israeli Arab community and stress that he distinguishes between the small group of alleged terrorists and the Arab community at large. But the tension is evident. More and more voices inside the Arab community charge that they are being subjected to an overall offensive: for example, the Knesset is considering a proposal to limit the freedom of movement of legislator Ahmed Tibi, a former top adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and legislator Azmi Bishara will soon go to court for statements he made to a rally that also included Hezbollah leaders who were urging the Arab world to unite and fight Israel. Many Israelis, who note the incitement by Israeli Arab political leaders, wonder why the Arab community doesn’t seem to draw a causal connection between the actions of its members and the reactions of the Jewish public. Khatib, for example, is furious that the authorities allegedly have downplayed the fact that only some 100 Israeli Arabs, out of a population of close to 1 million, have been involved in some form of terrorist activities against Israel in the past two years. But in fact, the small proportion has been mentioned in numerous newspaper articles and editorials — along with the fact that the numbers, while still small, are growing exponentially from year to year. Ghaleb Majadllah, a Labor Party activist, described an offensive of continuous discrimination against the local Arab community. Like many others, Majadllah expressed disappointment with Arab Knesset members who he says are too involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than the daily affairs of the community. Critics say that by stirring up anti-Israeli feelings — by repeatedly telling Israeli Arabs that they are Palestinians and not Israelis, for example, and by urging terrorist groups to defeat Israel militarily — Arab Knesset members only add fuel to the fire. Khatib, however, told JTA that he believes Arab Knesset members are expressing the popular view of Israel’s Arab population. Khatib denied charges that so far there has been no real soul-searching among the Israeli Arab leadership to check whether it shares responsibility for the escalation. “It is possible that we did not appreciate enough the present atmosphere among the Jewish population,” Khatib said, denying charges that Arab leaders have actively stirred up animosity toward the state. But he added, “Can I do anything alone? There is no one to talk to on the Jewish side. The press is against us, and the opposition on the left is too weak.” The views of Haifa University’s As’ad Ghanem reflect the complexity of the situation. While Israeli Arabs have long complained that they suffer from institutionalized discrimination in Israel, the Palestinian intifada has created a real breach of trust between Israeli Arabs and Jews, he says. Ghanem criticized Israeli Arabs’ tendency to play down the gravity of the situation. But he, too, put the blame solely on one side — the Jews. Although the number of Israeli Arabs directly involved in terrorist attacks is small, ill will toward the state does exist, he said — because of government policy against the Arab population. The deterioration in relations is likely to continue, Ghanem said. The common denominator between the Israeli right — which sees the Arab minority as a fifth column — and Arab radicals like Bishara is that both understand that Arab population growth will soon present a real challenge to the Jewish state. The difference is in the consequences. Bishara has called for the creation of a “state of all its citizens,” thus erasing the Jewish character of the state. Some right-wing Jewish leaders have urged that all Arabs who do not vow loyalty to Israel should be transferred abroad. Even some voices in the Labor Party, noting both the Arab population growth and the growing extremism in the community, have proposed that in a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, the border be drawn in such a way as to annex some locales primarily settled by Israeli Arabs to a Palestinian state. A similar proposal was made in an article last week by Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist and former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Avineri suggests that following an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, residents of the Wadi Ara area between Hadera and Afula, which has a dense Arab population, conduct a referendum. The vote would determine whether towns like Umm el-Fahm, which is controlled by the radical Islamic Movement, should be annexed to the future Palestinian state. Such a move, Avineri suggested, could relieve the anxieties of Jews and meet the nationalist feelings of parts of the local Palestinian population. Despite their complaints about the Jewish state, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs are believed to oppose such a move, which would cost them the living standards, social benefits — and political freedoms — they have grown accustomed to in Israel.

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