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Israel’s Arabs Feel Hopeful As They Prepare to Remember Their Defeats

March 30, 2005
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As Arabs throughout the region prepared to commemorate Land Day, an annual protest day in the Israeli Arab community, the mood among Israel’s one million Arab citizens rarely had been better. Viewed objectively, the situation of Arabs in Israeli society has not improved drastically, but at least they’re starting to feel that they’re being taken seriously.

This week’s good news for Arab Israelis began at the soccer stadium. Israel’s national team escaped from a near-certain defeat to Ireland thanks to a last minute goal by Abbas Suwan, 29, one of two Arab players on the national team.

On the political front, legislators Abdul Malek Dahamshe and Talab al-Saneh of the United Arab List struck a deal with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — a man long despised in the Arab world based on exaggerated descriptions of his belligerence — for their party to abstain in Tuesday’s critical budget vote. In exchange, the two parliamentarians won assurances that Israeli Arabs would receive government grants, and that the 150,000 Bedouins who live in the Negev would benefit from them.

The Arab legislators won promises of 550 new school classes; $4.5 million for the development of industrial zones in Arab towns and villages; $5.5 million for paving roads and other infrastructure projects; new access roads, water and electricity networks to Bedouin settlements in the Negev; “and most important, waiving of fines on delayed payments of property tax,” Dahamshe told JTA.

He added that none of the six other Arab legislators, who belong to different political parties, could claim similar achievements.

About 74,000 Bedouin live in some 45 illegal settlements in southern Israel. These settlements, which lack official recognition, are not supplied with basic services such as education, health care and garbage collection, and have no direct access to water, electricity or sewage systems.

The United Arab List’s agreement with the government is aimed mainly at improving living conditions for the Bedouin.

“There’s still a long way to go,” Dahamshe said.

Dahamshe’s political rivals rushed to downplay the deal’s importance. Jamal Zahalka, a legislator from the radical Balad party, said the government should have given those grants anyway, and that there was no need to strike any deals with Sharon to receive the funding.

But Dahamshe scoffed at Zahalka’s argument.

“All governments have promised us equality for the past 56 annual budgets. Look where it got us,” he said. “Now that we have a chance to make good on some of those promises, so should we have said, ‘No thank you, you owe it to us anyway?’ “

The transformation of Ariel Sharon from Mr. Land of Israel — steadfastly opposed to giving up land to the Arabs — to Mr. Disengagement, who is planning to dismantle Jewish settlements this summer, has transformed public opinion throughout the country, among Arabs as well as Jews.

The United Arab List’s abstention was considered vital to secure a majority vote on the budget, until the main opposition party Shinui agreed at the last minute that it, too, would support the budget.

“Sharon was very fair to us,” Dahamshe said. “After the agreement with Shinui he could have dumped us, and all our critics would have been proven right, but although he no longer needs us he honored the early agreement.”

He added, almost apologetically, “I never would have believed that I would talk this way about Sharon.”

What makes his language even more interesting is that Dahamshe is one of the leaders of the Islamic movement in Israel — albeit of its southern wing, which is considered more moderate and practical than its northern counterpart.

“We Islamists are realistic,” Dahamshe said. “We know how to take advantage of an opportunity.”

“This has tremendous political significance,” he added. “We live at the end of a period in which no one was willing to talk to us, when the political establishment has actually boycotted the Arab Knesset members. This is no longer the case.”

It was against that background that this year’s Land Day commemoration was to take place Wednesday.

Land Day first was marked in 1976. What started as a protest against government confiscations of Arab land to allow for the development of Jewish communities in the Galilee ended in clashes with police that left six Arabs dead.

In following years, Land Day was commemorated throughout the Arab world as a day of protest against Israel. Israeli Arabs often hold a general strike on Land Day, but not this year.

This year the day will be marked with two major rallies, one in Sakhnin — the hometown of soccer hero Suwan — and the other in the Negev.

Not everyone cheered when Suwan scored the tying goal against Ireland.

Comments left by fans on the Web site of Beitar, a Jerusalem soccer club, show that some weren’t happy to accept an Arab as a hero.

“Never in my life shall I rejoice over a goal by an Israel-hating terrorist. Shame on the county that such a player wears the team’s uniform,” read another posting signed by “a sane hooligan.”

Such opinions weren’t based on Suwan’s actions. When the match ended he fell to his knees, kissed the ground and thanked God.

“I want to thank him for having given me the privilege to prove once again that in the State of Israel we are one people,” Suwan said.

“Stop talking about Jews and Arabs,” he continued. “We are one country and we are all happy together. I want to wish the entire State of Israel a Happy Purim. My goal is dedicated to everyone, so that there will be more joy on Purim.”

In a way, these two days in Sakhnin — Sunday’s joy and pride over a soccer victory, and Wednesday’s national Arab protest — reflect the ongoing dilemma of Israel’s Arabs, as they shift between alienation and integration.

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