July 2009

A leading Arab educator in Israel has denounced the decision of Gideon Saar, the education minister, to require schools to study the Israeli national anthem. Officials announced last week that they were sending out special “national anthem kits” to 8,000 schools, including those in the separate Arab education system, in time for the start of the new academic year in September. The anthem, known as Ha-Tikva, or The Hope, has long been unpopular with Israel’s Arab minority because its lyrics refer only to a Jewish historical connection to the land.

No one would have been more surprised than Fawziya Khurd by the recent pronouncement of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, that Israel operates an “open city” policy in Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday that Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem following the 1967 war — what he called the city’s “unification” — meant that all residents, Jews and Palestinians alike, could buy property wherever they chose.

The passionate support for Israel expressed on talkback sections of websites, internet chat forums, blogs, Twitters and Facebook may not be all that it seems. Israel’s foreign ministry is reported to be establishing a special undercover team of paid workers whose job it will be to surf the internet 24 hours a day spreading positive news about Israel. Internet-savvy Israeli youngsters, mainly recent graduates and demobilised soldiers with language skills, are being recruited to pose as ordinary surfers while they provide the government’s line on the Middle East conflict.

Thousands of road signs are the latest front in Israel’s battle to erase Arab heritage from much of the Holy Land, according to critics in both Israel and the wider Arab world. Israel Katz, the transport minister, announced this week that signs on all major roads in Israel, East Jerusalem and possibly parts of the West Bank would be “standardised”, converting English and Arabic place names into straight transliterations of the Hebrew name. Currently, road signs include the place name as it is traditionally rendered in all three languages.

The reality of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promises of “economic peace” for the Palestinians is nowhere under greater scrutiny than in Jenin, the northern West Bank city being aggressively promoted as a potential model of co-operation with Israel. Once known as the City of Martyrs for the high number of suicide bombers it despatched into Israel, today Jenin is being feted – at least by Israel – as a successful experiment in peacemaking.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has been much criticised in Israel, as well as abroad, for failing to present his own diplomatic initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to forestall US intervention. Mr Netanyahu may have huffed and puffed before giving voice to the phrase “two states for two peoples” at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, but the contours of just such a Palestinian state – or states – have been emerging undisturbed for some time.

Israel’s housing minister called for strict segregation between the country’s Jewish and Arab populations last week as he unveiled plans to move large numbers of fundamentalist religious Jews to Israel’s north to prevent what he described as an “Arab takeover” of the region. Ariel Atias said he considered it a “national mission” to bring ultra-Orthodox Jews – or Haredim, distinctive for their formal black and white clothing – into Arab areas, and announced that he would also create the north’s first exclusively Haredi town.