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April 28, 2005

Israelis Resist the Arabs in Their Midst


by Ferry Biedermann

JERUSALEM - More than four years of violence between Israelis and Palestinians may have abated at least temporarily, but its effect is still being felt on relations between Jews and Arabs inside Israel. A string of recent polls, events and policy issues shows that both popular and official attitudes toward the country's Arab minority remain problematic.

From separate polls, it emerged that more than half of the Jewish population does not wish Arabs to live in their neighborhoods and that many Israelis would like to see the government encourage Arab citizens to leave the country. There has also been an upsurge of racism on football fields.

The Beitar Jerusalem football club was fined earlier this month after its fans shouted "death to the Arabs" among other slogans during a match against the largely Arab club Bnei Sakhnin. This comes in the wake of Bnei Sakhnin's captain Abbas Suan scoring the equalizer against Ireland in a World Cup qualifier. "Abbas Suan doesn't represent us," a Beitar fan had said earlier, echoing the view of most fans.

Arab and Jewish researchers agree there is a high level of antipathy between the two communities, but emphasize different causes. While a prominent Arab Israeli researcher points at the Jewish nature of the state and the inherent bias this has always brought, a Jewish political scientist says that the violence over the past four-and-a-half years has further polarized the communities.

The Arab researcher, Assad Ghanem from the University of Haifa, released a poll earlier this month that had been carried out for the Madar research center in Ramallah. The poll indicated that 42 percent of Israeli Jews want the government to encourage Arab citizens to leave the country. Another 40 percent did not agree.

"I'm fed up," Ghanem told IPS. "I will stop doing this kind of research, always presenting figures that show the same thing."

The other poll, in which it emerged that more than half the Jewish population does not want to live in the same neighborhood as Arabs, was presented to parliament last month on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The findings refer to Israel's Arab citizens, not Palestinians in the occupied territories. The Arab minority in Israel are the people who did not flee or were not driven out during the war of 1948/1949 when Israel was founded, and their descendants. They now make up some 1.2 million of Israel's 6.8 million citizens.

They have the vote and are represented in parliament, both by specifically Arab parties and in the major Israeli parties. Very few serve in the army, and their relationship with the Jewish state is ambiguous at best. They feel like second-class citizens, often have strong bonds with Palestinians outside the country, and are regarded by many Israelis as fifth columnists.

Ghanem is disturbed both by what he regards as the prejudices of the general population and by the official attitude of the state. "These attitudes influence each other. The government and the bureaucracy often respond to popular pressures and fears, but the people are also influenced by the attitudes of their politicians from the beginning of the state that have emphasized, among others, the demographic aspects."

The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) regularly presents demographic projections in which the proportion of Jews to Arabs usually grabs the headlines. Recently the CBS estimated that the ratio of Jews to Arabs would change to 70-30 by 2025, from 80-20 now.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also recently admitted that demographic considerations played a role in establishing the route of Israel's controversial separation barrier on the West Bank, to leave as many Palestinians as possible outside it, and to include as many Jews as possible on the Israeli side.

Demographics have lately been cited by Sharon and his supporters as a reason for "disengagement" from the Palestinians, because the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will soon have a Palestinian Arab majority.

The demography issue and the link between Palestinians and Arab Israelis also emerges in the naturalization law that in 2004 specifically banned residents of the West Bank who married Israeli citizens from taking up residence in the country. Since this is almost exclusively aimed at Arab Israelis who marry Palestinians, the UN Human Rights Commission has condemned it as racist.

There was another striking example recently of the official attitude of the state, which according to Ghanem and Arab Israeli rights groups fluctuates between active discrimination and neglect. The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported last month that a study carried out by the Ministry of Health that mapped the incidence of cancer throughout the country had left out all Arab towns.

The official responsible said this was due to budgetary constraints, because data in Arab municipalities was often not easily accessible, and there was no money to uncover the information.

Arab rights groups regard it as simple discrimination, because the state is equally responsible for both its Jewish and Arab citizens. They have appealed to the Supreme Court to order the Ministry to correct the study.

Yithak Reiter, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who specializes in the Arab minority, agrees that Arab towns and villages are underfunded compared to Jewish municipalities. They receive less for infrastructure, education, and health services.

This is partly because Arabs have traditionally been underrepresented in the bureaucracy that often disburses the funds, according to Reiter.

Recently things have improved, he said, because of late the Arab community has decided to work more within the system. Reiter cited several instances where Arab Israeli politicians had started working more with the political establishment.

Most significantly, though, the new Interior Minister from the moderate Labor party has for the first time appointed an Arab Israeli to the powerful position of general manager of the ministry. The government has made several other appointments that are encouraging.

Assad Ghanem agrees that some progress has been made, but calls it mostly cosmetic. "I do think the appointment at the Ministry of the Interior is significant and it is progress, but in order really to improve things, the state has to change its entire attitude, it has to become a state for all its citizens."

(Inter Press Service)


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