Menu JTA Search

In Recent Events, Some See Turn for Better in Jewish-arab Relations

Those looking for milestones in the fragile relations between the Jewish state and its Arab citizens might one day point to three events that took place in recent weeks.

First, after years of haggling, the Israel Land Administration decided to give a land plot to an Israeli Arab to build his home in the Jewish community of Katzir, northeast of Hadera.

Until now, authorities had ignored a landmark 2000 ruling by the High Court of Justice forbidding discrimination against Arab citizens in allocating state land. But the Land Administration’s move sets a precedent: Arab families will be able to reside in Jewish communities on an equal basis with their Jewish neighbors.

A second development was the decision to press charges against a border policeman in the fatal shooting of a Bedouin citizen in July.

Alex Digodker, 26, allegedly shot Nasser Abulgian, 23, when the man refused to roll down his window after his car was stopped for inspection. Police reportedly suspected Abulgian was smuggling Palestinians into Israel.

Police officers initially had claimed that Abulgian tried to run them over and escape. After a thorough investigation, however, the authorities decided to press charges against Digodker.

On a symbolic note, both developments took place three years to the week after police killed 12 Israeli Arabs during riots in solidarity with the nascent Palestinian intifada.

The state inquiry commission that investigated the events ruled that the killings could have been prevented and that Israeli Arabs had been subject to years of discrimination — though it also blasted Israeli Arab political leaders for inciting their public against the state.

It’s too early to tell whether these two developments indicate real soul-searching by Israeli officials regarding the treatment of the country’s Arab minority.

Among Israel’s 1.2 million Arabs, however, the euphoria they felt in the early days of the intifada may have given way to a more sober analysis of the situation.

“One of my first priorities will be to improve the image of my city among our Jewish neighbors,” Sheik Hashem Abdul Rahman, an Islamic Movement spokesman, told JTA. Rahman is the leading candidate for mayor of Umm el- Fahm, an Islamic movement stronghold, in municipal elections at the end of October.

Rahman’s statements are radically different from the Islamic Movement’s rhetoric in recent years. The movement’s charismatic leader, Sheik Ra’ed Salah, the former mayor of Umm el-Fahm, is in jail along with four colleagues, awaiting trial on charges of funneling money to Hamas.

In recent years, Salah has been the driving force behind reconstruction work on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount that led to the building of an unauthorized mosque on the highly sensitive site — and, Israeli experts say, to the destruction of Jewish antiquities.

Salah also has been behind a public campaign warning “Al-Aksa is in danger,” a reference to the main mosque on the Temple Mount. The campaign has rallied thousands of Israeli Arabs behind the Islamic Movement — and against the state — with fantastical claims of Israeli plans to destroy Muslim holy sites.

Though no one questions Salah’s continued popularity, the arrest of the Islamic Movement leaders earlier this year was received in the Arab street with relative indifference. Authorities took it as a sign that Israeli Arabs had learned — perhaps as a result of the October 2000 riots — not to cross the lines of legitimate political protest again.

In late September, the Islamic Movement held another “Al-Aksa is in danger” rally at Umm al-Fahm’s soccer stadium, drawing some 50,000 people waving Islamic Movement and Palestinian flags.

A huge poster covered the back of the stage, depicting the Al-Aksa Mosque along with the five detained Islamic Movement leaders.

“In spirit and blood we shall redeem thee, Al-Aksa,” demonstrators chanted. However, the rally seemed to have less electricity than in previous years, perhaps because of Salah’s absence.

“It’s a happening, more than anything else,” said Ahmad Massarweh, from the town of Taiba.

Keynote speaker Rahman tried his best to imitate Salah but lacked Salah’s fire.

“Al-Aksa is no longer in danger,” he warned. “It is actually under attack!”

The statement referred to the recent Israeli government decision to reopen the Temple Mount, the holiest Jewish site, to Jewish and Christian tourists. The Islamic trust that runs the mount, the Wakf, had forbidden such visits since the intifada was launched three years ago.

The third recent development was a day of remembrance for the October 2000 riot victims.

Protest marches went from one village to another, with one central mourning parade in the Galilee town of Sakhnin. Everything was done in such an orderly manner that the Israel Police issued a statement praising the Arab leadership for its moderation.

Do these developments reflect a new trend? That depends on whom you ask.

Shuli Dichter, co-chairman of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, claims that much depends on how Israeli Jews — and world Jewry — react to the developments.

According to Dichter, it should be Jews’ top priority to achieve civic equality for Israeli Arabs “before it is too late.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, Dan Schueftan, a senior fellow at The Shalem Center in Jerusalem and at Haifa University’s National Security Research Center, paints a gloomy picture.

Israeli Arabs and their leaders are too deeply rooted in the Palestinian national discourse to work for better relations with the Jewish state, he said. The onus for such an improvement lies with the Arabs themselves, he pointed out.

“It’s hard to offer an optimistic perspective on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, regardless of whether the state offers viable solutions for the problems of civic and economic inequality,” Schueftan said.

NEXT STORY