Israeli Arabs, Fearing Missiles, Say Government is Neglecting Them

MAJDAL EL-KURUM, Israel, July 18 — Across the Galilee, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews remain in bomb shelters, awaiting the next rocket barrage from Lebanon. For Israel’s Arabs, however, going to underground bunkers is out of the question — because their towns often don’t have any.

Since the Hezbollah assault began last week, dozens of Katyusha rockets have landed in Arab villages including Majdal el-Kurum, Fassuta, Sasa, Hurfeish and Gush Halav. In addition, Arabs have been hurt in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa, which has seen some of the worst damage so far.

Some Israeli Arabs, who complain of discrimination by the Jewish majority, say their fears and needs are being neglected.

“Most of our villages are without shelters, and the houses are old and exposed to danger,” complains human rights activist Abir Kopty of Nazareth. “It’s very clear that the Israeli media aren’t dealing with what’s happening in Arab areas. When they show on TV the maps of where Katyushas are falling, they don’t mention our villages. It’s like we don’t even exist.”

In the Galilee town of Majdal Krum, population 13,000, residents were startled when six Katyushas hit their town last week, injuring 20 people and disrupting several weddings.

Unlike nearby Carmiel — a prosperous and orderly Jewish city — Majdal Krum is a jumble of dirt roads, crumbling houses and exposed power lines.

“We are not equals, and now we look like enemies in the eyes of the Defense Ministry. But according to the Katyushas, we are equal,” said Mohammed Canaan, who served as the town’s mayor from 1993 to 2003. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, he said, “doesn’t know exactly where the Katyushas will land.”

Shortly after the Katyusha attack, Education Minister Yuli Tamir paid a quick visit to Majdal el-Kurum. But Canaan, 54, dismissed the visit as inconsequential.

“This is nothing new. Same problems, same talk,” he told JTA. “The education minister came here for five minutes, visited three homes that were hit, and said everything will be OK.”

Nadia Hilou, one of two Arab lawmakers representing the Labor Party in the Knesset, isn’t satisfied. She demands that party members visit Arab villages to see the situation for themselves.

“For the first time, Arab citizens of Israel are being hurt by this war, and for me it’s very important to be with the people, to listen to them and to think about solutions,” she told JTA in Majdal el-Kurum. “There are no places they can be safe.”

Israel has more than 1 million Arab citizens, many in the Galilee. Hilou insisted that “for years, the mayors of Arab villages have asked the government to build shelters. I know that some private houses in Arab towns have been built with shelters, but this is also a question of responsibility of the Israeli government as well as local authorities.”

An army spokesman responded that the Homefront Command “has never neglected the Arab population.”

“The measures taken to protect the Arab population are totally equal in terms of statements and warnings, and we work in accordance with local authorities,” the spokesman said.

Hilou says she’s devoting efforts to getting Arab children away from the danger zone and bringing them to Tel Aviv for fun, games and, in some cases, psychological counseling.

The crisis began when Hezbollah, which sits in the Lebanese government, staged a cross-border raid July 12 that resulted in the killing of eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two more. Since then, the two sides have traded devastating missile strikes.

Israeli Arab politicians have appeared at events together with Hezbollah leaders, and their incendiary statements in sympathy with Israel’s enemies frequently infuriate the country’s Jewish majority. Even now, with many Lebanese blaming Hezbollah for bringing disaster on their heads, Hilou, like most other Israeli Arabs interviewed, declined to criticize the group.

Kopty, whose organization Women Against War is comprised of Arab and Jewish women, said it’s no surprise that Israeli Arabs are far less supportive of the Israeli government’s policies in Lebanon than are Israeli Jews.

“On one hand, we are worried and afraid, as all other Israeli citizens living in the North. On the other hand, the Arab minority has a very clear position against war and occupation, and against the Israeli army’s use of force,” she told JTA.

“We think that this war is avoidable. There is no justification,” she continued. “The Israeli government could have solved this issue from the first day through negotiations with Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. The Lebanese government has declared they’re willing to negotiate, but Israel rejected their offer.”

Canaan is equally critical of the government.

“I think the Ministry of Defense has to know that this is the real result of war,” he said. “All are frightened. We are all in danger, and this is because of the policies of the Defense Ministry.”

He added, “I think the rockets will continue, and open war has started. It will last for another two weeks at least. Then pressure from Russia, Germany and Iran will bring both sides to a diplomatic solution. Israel will withdraw from Gaza and southern Lebanon.”

Meanwhile, along Highway 77 linking Tiberias and Nazareth, Mahmoud Nasar is worried about business at his Younis Restaurant, which specializes in felafel and Arab cuisine.

“Look at the parking lot,” Nasar said, gesturing toward an empty lot. “This time on Saturdays, it’s usually full of people — mostly Israelis — because we’re right on the highway. War is not good for anyone. It hurts all of us.”

But Nasar, 39 and the father of four, refused to take sides.

“Personally, I don’t like war. We Arabs don’t support either side, not Israel and not Hezbollah,” he said.

But, he added, “I don’t feel safer than the Jews. Hezbollah doesn’t know what it’s attacking. It makes no difference to them.”

Manar Makhoul, 26, is pursuing a master’s degree in contemporary Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But last weekend he returned to his native village of Peki’in, only a few miles from the Lebanese border.

“There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty here, because we feel kind of helpless,” Makhoul said, noting that on Monday night alone, three Katyusha missiles struck his village of 1,000. “A rocket can land anywhere. If you stay inside your house, you’re not safe, and if you go outside, you’re not safe either. There’s nowhere to go.”

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