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Israel’s Arab Minority Feeling Economically Isolated, Israeli Arabs Reach out to Jews

May 6, 2003
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After a long and winding drive through the narrow alleys of this congested Arab town, one finally gets to the prize — a mountain with a breathtaking view.

On the left lies the green and brown carpet of Israel’s Jezreel Valley. In front are the biblical hills of the northern West Bank, checkered with the white rooftops of Palestinian settlements and red-tile roofs of Jewish ones.

This could have looked like an earthly paradise — were it not for the new, ugly fence that cuts through the attractive scenery, a bitter reminder of the political reality that denies both Jews and Arabs the pleasures this place could have offered.

The fence was erected only a few weeks ago, part of a security barrier under construction along Israel’s border with the West Bank to prevent Palestinian terrorists from crossing into Israel — and which might one day form a border between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Umm el-Fahm lies west of the fence, inside Israel proper. With 42,000 residents, it is the second largest Arab enclave within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, after Nazareth.

Most Israeli Jews don’t know of the beautiful view from the top of the hill — and they wouldn’t care to check it out.

For some Israeli Arabs, however, the reality of the fence is motivating them to try to mend fences with the Jewish majority: As Israel celebrates its 55th birthday this week, some Israeli Arabs appear to have rediscovered their Israeli identity.

Two and a half years ago, days after the Palestinian intifada began, residents rampaged at the entrance to Umm el-Fahm, cutting the major Wadi Ara traffic artery and assaulting drivers who appeared Jewish.

Since then, Jews have avoided Umm el-Fahm, not patronizing its restaurants, discount furniture stores and olive oil shops. In fact, Israeli Jews largely avoid Arab areas anywhere in the Galilee since the October 2000 riots.

With an upsurge of terror attacks along the Wadi Ara road and in the neighboring Jewish towns of Afula and Hadera, local Arabs also have cut down on visits to their Jewish neighbors, avoiding the unpleasantness of feeling like suspects. As a result, the two populations are growing further apart.

Some Israeli politicians have suggested that as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Umm el-Fahm should be handed over to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for West Bank settlements that would be annexed to Israel.

That set alarm bells in Umm el-Fahm ringing nervously. Though the strength of the Islamic Movement has made Umm el-Fahm nearly synonymous in recent years with anti-Israel radicalism, most residents — like the vast majority of Israel’s 1.3 million Arab citizens — would prefer to be a minority in the Jewish state than to live under the Palestinian Authority.

Thus, even though the new fence cuts them off from their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank, many Israeli Arabs welcomed it. Perhaps, they said, it means the government didn’t really consider turning them over to the Palestinian Authority after all.

There is a general consensus here that the fence is a good idea, said Kassem Zeid, a retired journalist, at his home in the eastern suburbs of Umm el-Fahm.

Kassem still fears that the idea of a future territorial exchange between Israel and Palestine may be revived. That’s why he and a group of some 20 friends are working on a new campaign designed to mend relations with the Jews.

The group meets once a month in a private residence to work out the details.

Eventually they want to call a news conference under the title “Umm el-Fahm greets its Jewish neighbors.”

Large posters will be posted at the entrance to town — where three local youngsters were shot to death in the October 2000 riots — residents will open their homes to Jewish visitors and local stores will cut their prices by half.

“Umm el-Fahm is now perceived as a second Jenin,” the reputed terrorist capital of the West Bank, Kassem said. “This does injustice to both Jews and Arabs.”

Kassem is a strange bird on the Arab scene. For years, he worked for the defunct daily paper Al-Hamishmar, published by the defunct, leftist Zionist party Mapam — which eventually merged with Ratz to form the Meretz Party.

At the same time, he is a devout Muslim, praying five times a day, staying away from wedding halls because men mingle there with women, and proud of his title as Haj, indicating that he has made the pilgrimage to the Islamic holy places in Mecca and Medina.

“I am absolutely convinced that most of the residents of this town share the same feelings,” Kassem said. He longs for the days when Jews and Arabs will not fear each other.

The driving force behind the soul-searching in Umm el-Fahm is clearly economic: Only after the October 2000 riots did Israeli Arabs realize how much they depended on Jewish customers. The colorful Nazareth market that used to be a major attraction for Jewish neighbors now closes down by midday.

Only a trickle of Jews visit Nazareth’s restaurants. But most window signs are still in Hebrew, an indication that residents haven’t given up hope.

Whatever the reason, as Israel celebrates its 55th birthday this week, some Israeli Arabs have rediscovered their Israeli identity, for better or worse.

Now the residents of Nazareth, Umm el-Fahm and the rest of Israel’s Arab population nervously await the outcome of the Orr Commission. The committee was appointed to investigate how 13 young Israeli Arabs were killed by police during the October 2000 riots.

It is difficult to predict how the committee’s findings will affect the delicate relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Whether the committee finds police responsible for the deaths, or whether it puts the blame on Arab rioters, extremists may try to take advantage of the committee’s findings.

Therefore, the committee “will probably share the responsibility between both sides,” said Dr. Afu Aghbariya, a city councilman who works as a surgeon at Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba.

Aghbariya, a member of the Hadash Party, says Israeli authorities actually welcome the Islamic Movement because it gives them a justification for their alleged discrimination against the Arab population.

A devout Communist, Aghbariya has little good to say about the Islamic Movement, which is the dominant force in Umm el-Fahm and which seems intent on antagonizing the Jewish state. That’s why Aghbariya welcomes the initiative of Zeid and his friends: The wider Umm el-Fahm opens its gates to Jewish visitors, he feels, the better chances it stands to get rid of its fundamentalist Muslim bosses.

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