Assuring Rights of Arab Citizens is Essential for Israel’s Security

It is a common belief among those who care about the future of Israel that the Jewish state is in danger.

From the security perspective, the dangers seem obvious. Hamas’ supremacy in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear ambitions pose dangers that cannot be ignored.

Yet this synopsis of dangers is incomplete. Israel’s safety and security is affected not only by external threats but by its ability to be a stable, multicultural democracy. Indeed, political and social cohesion is the most significant factor affecting Israel’s ability to confront the threats posed by its enemies, and this cohesion faces severe challenges from inside Israel.

This summer the Israeli government has taken some steps forward, and some sharply back, in its uneven progress toward establishing an inclusive democracy.

To cite some examples, a harsher policy of carrying out housing demolitions in Bedouin settlements is even more alienating and frustrating than before. The Knesset’s preliminary-stage passage of a law sanctioning the Jewish National Fund’s policy of leasing land exclusively to Jews is a slap in the face to Israeli Arabs. And the decision to authorize a new Arabic-language school textbook that uses the Arabic term for “catastrophe” to refer to the events surrounding Israel’s founding in 1948, while a positive development in many respects, throws into stark relief the chasm in identity and history separating the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

[photo garber align=left] The Bedouin situation is heart-wrenching.

Beginning in June, the government resumed the demolition of “unauthorized” Bedouin homes and launched a noxious tactic of confiscating all family belongings. A protest encampment organized by the Regional Council for Unrecognized Negev Arab Villages was erected opposite the Knesset in mid-July to give voice to the now homeless families, but demolitions are proceeding in the Negev.

If the government is using these new demolitions as a bargaining tool with the Bedouin community in an effort to pressure the Bedouin to vacate their land in exchange for limited compensation, the tactic can be described only as abhorrent.

Generally, however, the situation is not black and white. Integrating into a modern state an essentially nomadic culture with different norms of land use and clan relationships is difficult. A July 19 Knesset session dedicated to Bedouin issues focused much-needed attention on the reality of life in Bedouin towns and villages, and provided a well-considered list of constructive suggestions that can improve the situation.

The establishment in 2004 of the Abu Basma Regional Council, which now incorporates nine previously unrecognized villages, provides an example of how legal recognition represents only a first step. As a recent visit confirmed, providing basic infrastructure to the newly recognized Abu Basma villages has been maddeningly slow. While several impressive new homes have been built within the villages, the owners of these homes and their neighbors have not been hooked up to the national water and electric grids.

All Israelis clearly will be better served by a Bedouin community that is treated fairly and whose population is provided good-quality health, education and social-welfare services.

As for the JNF legislation, this is a clear-cut moral issue for us at the New Israel Fund. The JNF was created to purchase land in Palestine for Jewish settlement years before Israel was founded. After the state’s founding, the purchased land was transferred to the Israel Lands Authority, which became responsible for administering the properties on the state’s behalf.

The policy of discriminating in favor of Jewish land buyers once was deemed integral to the Zionist enterprise. Today this policy is properly viewed by Israel’s Supreme Court, the state attorney general and civil rights advocates as incompatible with Israel’s status as a democratic state committed to treating its citizens equally.

The effort to reverse progress toward a non-discriminatory land policy by reserving JNF land exclusively for Jewish use represents a dangerous trend. Israel is obligated by its own Basic Laws to avoid discrimination in all matters, and particularly in the sensitive area of land sales. In a country where Israeli Arab citizens own a small percentage of the land and routinely are denied permits to build or expand their housing, this legislation provides fuel for those who seek to portray Israel as a racist state.

Finally, the decision by Israeli Education Minister Yuli Tamir to authorize use of an Arabic textbook that refers to the “nakba,” the term meaning “catastrophe” used by Israeli Arabs to describe the events of 1948, deserves support. While right-wing politicians have criticized the textbook for legitimizing anti-Israel propaganda, provoking a thoughtful consideration of divisive issues is critical to the ultimate reconciliation by the two peoples that inhabit the State of Israel.

Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora have nothing to fear from the integration of Israel’s Arabs as partners with a stake in the future well-being of Israel.

The Israeli Arab community too often listens to the most radical voices — voices that urge separation and opposition to a common destiny.

Israel may be in danger from without, but it must have the courage to reach out to its own citizens, on mutually beneficial terms, within its own recognized boundaries.

Larry Garber is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.

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