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March 6, 2004

Israel's Arabs: Second-Class Citizens in Their Own Land

by Jim Lobe

While world attention is focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a crisis is brewing among Israel's own Arab citizens.

"This is not a democracy, it is an ethnocracy," complains Assad Ghanem, senior lecturer in political science at Israel's Haifa University.

Ghanem is an Arab Israeli, a descendent of the indigenous population that did not flee, or was not driven away during the war in 1948/49 when the Jewish state was founded.

Arab Israelis now make up some 20 percent of Israel's six million-plus population. In a country that defines itself as Jewish and that has always been in conflict with the surrounding Arab countries and with the Palestinians, the position of this minority has always been uncomfortable.

Since the outbreak of the current Intifadah in the West Bank and Gaza, relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel have worsened. The Arab minority was shocked and traumatized when the police killed 13 members of their community during demonstrations inside Israel during the early days of the Intifadah in September and October 2000.

The rest of the Israeli public was equally shocked by the pro-Palestinian demonstrations and by the subsequent increase in the number of Arab Israelis said to have been aiding Palestinian terror attacks inside the country.

This week the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organization that aims to help resolve conflict situations issued a report on the tensions between Israel and its Arab citizens. It concluded that the problem has been ignored, relative to the attention focused on the country's relations with the Palestinians and the Arab countries. It also warned that further neglect could threaten the long-term stability of Israel.

Nowadays Assad Ghanem scoffs at being called an Arab citizen of Israel. "We are not full citizens, this country is only for the Jews," he told IPS. He has become markedly more disillusioned about the situation over the last couple of years. "The way the police killed our people in 2000 shows that we don't count, we don't even have the possibility to demand our rights."

The ICG report notes that the trouble "goes to the heart of Israel's self-definition as both a Jewish and a democratic state and because of the complex, multi-layered nature of inter-communal relations – an Arab minority living in a Jewish state that is in conflict with its far more populous Arab neighbors."

Ghanem agrees to an extent. He thinks the only solution is "regime change," meaning "the end of Jewish hegemony in Israel." The Jewish nature of the state, he says, can be expressed symbolically in things such as the flag and the national anthem. Short of that he sees no solution, since the Arab minority has nobody to talk to.

Yitzhak Reiter, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University who specializes in the country's Arab minority agrees to a degree. Neither Jews nor Arabs are willing at the moment to compromise on their demands, which means they are set on an inevitable collision course, he told IPS.

The Jewish majority is not willing to compromise on what it regards as the essential attributes of a Jewish state, while the Arab minority too often wants to eliminate all practical expressions of the Judaism of the state.

Reiter thinks this can be resolved eventually if, as the ICG recommends, an inclusive dialogue is started between the groups. The end result, he believes, could be a state that retains the symbolic attributes of Judaism as Ghanem suggests, but also some 'minimal' practical means of ensuring the function of the country as a haven for Jews. The state would retain a Jewish majority, meaning control over immigration policy.

The ICG report, Ghanem and Reiter all speak of serious discrimination against the Arab Israelis. Ghanem mentions the 'Judaization' campaigns in parts of the country such as the Galilee where the government thinks it is important to create Jewish majorities.

But Israel's Arab citizens also "enjoy political rights unknown to many in the region," the ICG report says. This includes a vote, and a high degree of freedom of expression and association.

Even so, they are politically under-represented, according to the ICG. Reiter says this is mainly because they are never included in coalition government by the "Zionist" parties, which means they never get the benefits of sharing power. Also, says Reiter, they are seriously underrepresented among the country's civil servants.

Reiter proposes creation of a formal Arab body as representative of the community, so that complaints can be discussed more readily.

The ICG and Reiter both note that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians may make reconciliation with the country easier. "Without a peace agreement, it is difficult to see how the situation can improve," says Reiter.

For the time being the Arab minority is feeling increasingly frustrated and isolated. "The fact that there is no violence now does not mean that we are happy," says Ghanem. "It means we are afraid."

The ICG calls these tensions a serious threat to the stability of the country. Reiter tones that down a bit. "It certainly is a challenge to the stability but the state has the military power and the security services to deal with it," he says. "We may see more demonstrations like the ones in October 2000 and more repression and that would be very bad both for the Jews and the Arabs in this country."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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