NAZARETH, Israel (Aug. 13)
When Israel began dropping bombs on Beirut in response to Hezbollah’s cross-border raid on last month, Nael Saleh said he felt upset. Watching the news from his home in the Israeli city of Nazareth, Saleh saw the destruction in Lebanon as yet another act of “Israeli aggression.”
“The Israeli government declared this war against Lebanon for no reason at all,” Saleh said. “The law of the jungle is the law that is used in this era. What is forbidden for other nations is allowed for the State of Israel.”
As Israel and Lebanon moved closer to a cease-fire over the weekend, Saleh said he opposed any cessation of hostilities that would allow foreign troops to remain in southern Lebanon — even temporarily.
“We are against international forces in southern Lebanon because it is considered as an occupation and it is not for the protection of the Lebanese people, but encouraging the State of Israel not to implement the Geneva Accords and the U.N. resolutions” on eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, he said.
Saleh is an Israeli citizen but he is also an Arab — one of approximately 1.2 million in the country out of a total population of slightly more than 7 million.
Though they are Israelis, these Arabs’ political leanings generally are closer to those of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Arabs elsewhere in the Middle East, than to those of Israeli Jews.
So amid the heavy fighting in Lebanon, opinions like Saleh’s have become commonplace in places like Nazareth, an Arab city of some 60,000 people in northern Israel — even though Nazareth finds itself in the path of Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets.
When one direct rocket hit on the city killed a pair of Arab brothers, aged 7 and 3, on July 19, a neighborhood sheik blamed their deaths on Israel.
The brothers’ aunt reportedly said she was willing to sacrifice herself for Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
These sorts of expressions have prompted some Israeli Jews to label Israeli Arabs as disloyal and untrustworthy, and to implicitly justify the Arabs’ second-class treatment by the Israeli government.
“Most Israeli Arabs identify with the enemy,” Michael Kleiner, a former Knesset member and head of the Herut Party, told JTA. “In every battle of ours, from soccer to war, they hate us and seek our downfall and identify with the enemy.”
Nowhere is Israeli Arab criticism of Israel more evident than among Israel’s Arab legislators. Knesset Member Azmi Bishara, from the Balad Party, said Israel is “deliberately targeting civilians in Lebanon” as part of the Jewish state’s “barbaric thirst for revenge,” adding, “Israel is a terrorist state.”
Not all Arabs in Israel take such harsh views of their country.
“We have to hang Nasrallah — someone who led to so many deaths on both sides,” said Nader Aley, a mechanic in Nazareth whose garage is adorned with an Israeli flag. Aley harshly criticized Israeli Arabs who lambaste the Israeli government at every turn. “They want the security of the state, the money of the state and the benefits of the state, but they don’t have a kind word for the state,” he said bitterly.
Israeli Arabs have been disproportionately affected by this war, due to their heavy concentration in the conflict zone in northern Israel.
Arabs have suffered more than one-third of the civilian deaths in northern Israel.
“It’s a pity about every drop of blood that’s been shed on both sides,” said Yousef Farouk, a money-changer in Nazareth. “I blame both sides.”
Farouk, like many Arabs in Israel, said he holds Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Nasrallah equally culpable — and he doesn’t see them as that different.
“Nasrallah is a man like any man,” Farouk said. “I never heard him say he wants to conquer the land of Israel. I believe this just as I believe Olmert. Olmert says he wants to live in peace with his neighbors.”
In a region where every country and ethnic group has a competing narrative, Israeli Arabs tend to account for this war differently than most Israeli Jews.
Many say Israel bears the blame for turning a kidnapping incident into a war, and for starting past wars in the Middle East.
They say peace will come only if Israel withdraws from lands they say it occupies illegally: the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Shebaa Farms. A small area occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War, Hezbollah claims Shebaa Farms as Lebanon’s, but the United Nations says it is part of Syria.
Israel’s policy is “causing continuation of wars. Withdrawal will put an end to all these wars,” said Fareed Daher, a Nazareth resident and member of Israel’s Arab-dominated Hadash Party. “But you want to occupy everything and you want peace.”
Daher rejects the notion that he is anti-Israel, and he notes that there are many Israeli Jews who share his views on the conflict. But at his protest tent in downtown Nazareth last Friday, Daher flew the flags of his party, Palestine and Lebanon, but not the Israeli flag.
The crux of the debate between Daher and the majority of Israelis is that most Israelis believe that, ultimately, Israel’s adversaries will not be satisfied with a Jewish state in the Middle East, even if it is configured within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
These Israelis take at face value pronouncements like those of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said as recently as two weeks ago, “The real cure for the conflict is elimination of the Zionist regime.”
Such remarks are backed up by Iranian material support for Hezbollah, Hamas and suicide bombings in Israel.
Ultimately, many observers believe that Israeli Arabs have less to lose if the Jewish state somehow were to collapse, and more to gain from a broad peace between Israel and the Arab states — even if it comes at a heavy cost to Israeli territory and long-term security.
For the time being, the Arabs of northern Israel are suffering the same fate as the Jews there. Both have paid for this war in blood.
“The blood of a Muslim, or Christian or Jew is the same blood,” said Amar Kwaider, a Nazareth resident. “The Katyushas that fall here hurt innocent people — Jew or Arab.”