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
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
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,"
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."