The delicate relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel suffered another blow last week as thousands of Israeli Arabs staged a general strike, the first in six years.
Six years ago, the Arabs in Israel declared a general strike in protest against the confiscation of land in the Galilee for mainly Jewish development projects. Although the Arabs persisted in noting. “Land Day” every March 30 since then, they are careful not to strain relations with the Jewish majority and refrained from holding strikes.
But following the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in west Beirut, the moderate elements among the Israeli Arabs were pushed aside or else joined hands with the radicals. The rage against the massacre swept through all the segments of the Arab population. It was not accidental that the decision to call a general strike last week was taken unanimously at a meeting of Arab mayors which was hosted by Mayor Ibrahim Nimer Hussein of Shefaram, a moderate.
LEGITIMACY FOR THE DEMONSTRATIONS
Undoubtedly, the protests which engulfed the country following the massacre provided the legitimacy the Arab population needed to take to the streets. Although no one said so outright, there was a strong feeling among the Arabs that any protests and demonstrations the Jews could stage, the Arabs could do better.
The truth, however, is that the Arab pains over the carnage were much deeper than those felt by the Jews. The inhabitants of the refugee camps in Lebanon are members of Israeli Arab families. As the names of the victims began to reach Israel, many families went into mourning.
In addition, while Israeli Arabs generally refrained from overly vocal protests against the war in Lebanon — although there were a few demonstrations — partly because of shock and partly because of fear of challenging the Jewish majority in time of war, the massacre caused the Arabs to lose all their inhibitions.
A DAY OF VIOLENCE
The general strike took on violent overtones, especially in Nazareth, which, with 50,000 residents, is the largest Arab town in Israel proper, Police had to use force, including firearms, to disperse the demonstrators there. When it was all over 49 civilians had been wounded, one of them seriously, and 30 policemen were wounded.
The organizers of the strike demanded government inquiry commission to investigate what was said to be excessive force, but the police department instead appointed a departmental inquiry commission, standard procedure in cases where firearms are used against civilians.
Arabs also clashed with police elsewhere in the country and demonstrations spread for the first time to centers where there are small numbers of Arabs, such as Haifa and Jaffa, although in those places there were no reports of anyone being hurt. The end result of the day of demonstrations was a widening rift between Arabs and Jews, particularly between Arabs and the Jewish government.
The government as a whole was fairly silent about the unrest among the country’s 680,000 Arab citizens. Interior Minister Yosef Burg and Premier Menachem Begin’s advisor on Arab affairs Binyamin Gur-Arye merely said they shared the grief of Israel’s Arabs over the massacre. President Yitzhak Navon said he understood the Arabs’ feelings, but urged them to restrain themselves.
COMMUNISTS ARE IMMEDIATE BENEFICIARIES
The Rakah (Communist) Party is the immediate beneficiary of the renewed crisis. The party, which is predominantly Arab, was subjected to serious criticism by Israel’s Arabs during the war in Lebanon because of the Soviet Union’s failure to come to the aid of the PLO. But in the aftermath of the Beirut massacre, Rakah realized that it could act to change its tarnished image and it rose to the challenge.
Communist organizers worked feverishly to help stage the demonstration and many Arabs who had shunned the party previously now rallied around its flag. One of the demonstrators wounded in the general strike was Amin Zayyad. 14, the son of Nazareth’s Communist Mayor Tawfik Zayyad.
The Communists, who lost a seat in the Knesset to the Labor Alignment in last year’s election, are not losing any time in preparing for the next election. They are honing a more militant anti-government stand in an effort to counter the criticism by Israeli Arab nationalists that they have been too moderate. If Rakah continues to pursue this policy it stands a good chance of displacing the nationalists among the Arabs.
Furthermore, with the radical leadership of the West Bank Arabs neutralized to an extent, the nationalist struggle of the West Bank Arabs may, for the first time, be led by Israeli Arabs and not by Arabs in the administered territories. It may also mean that in the period ahead, the lines of battle over the future of the West Bank may take shape not only in Nablus and Washington but also in Nazareth and Shefaram.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.