Al-Ahram Weekly – 11 October 2001
In the immediate aftermath of the 1948 war that founded Israel, the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, established a new law: families would receive a large cash sum on the birth of their 10th child. The policy was a central plank in Ben-Gurion’s plans to repopulate a land from which most of the Palestinian people had fled or were forcibly expelled.
The policy did not last long, however. A short time later, when he asked his officials how the scheme was doing, Ben-Gurion was surprised to learn that, although many women had been claiming the payment, almost none were Jewish. The main beneficiaries were the 150,000-strong community of Arabs that had stayed on their lands and become Israeli citizens. The scheme was scrapped.
Ben-Gurion’s fears that the Jewish state was about to be submerged in a sea of Arab babies quickly faded as waves of Jewish immigrants over the next five decades ensured that the Arab population remained a clear minority. But since the start of the Al- Aqsa Intifada a year ago, the “demographic time bomb” has again started ticking loudly in the ears of newspaper columnists, government ministers and professors in Israeli universities. Buzzwords like “land transfers” and “population exchanges” are becoming respectable, masking a policy that, in the words of one leading Israeli Arab, might more realistically be called “ethnic cleansing on the quiet.”
A confidential report passed on to Al-Ahram Weekly from a recent meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee considers changing the country’s borders so that 100,000 Muslims in an area known as the Little Triangle can be stripped of their citizenship, including the right to vote. The report, written in March by Arnon Sofer, a professor at Haifa University and one of the research gurus of the Palestinian demographic “threat” to Israel, was obtained last month by Hashem Mahameed, the first ever Arab member of Parliament to sit on the committee. Although Mahameed has access to the main committee, most of the work is done in subcommittees from which he is excluded.
He and others fear that Israel may be waiting for a pretext, possibly during a moment of crisis in the Intifada, to discard its Arab population in the Triangle, which runs along the Green Line with the West Bank from Umm Al-Fahm in the north to Kfar Kassem in the south. The Israeli Defence Force is already implementing an unofficial policy of creating a “seam zone” along the Green Line as a buffer against terrorist incursions which could be extended to include the Triangle.
“Why was this report presented to the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee?” asks Mahameed. “I am not a ‘foreigner’ or a ‘security problem’. I am an Israeli citizen.” He added: “I have no doubt this plan is still being considered by the security establishment and they are waiting for the right moment to implement it.”
In his report, Sofer suggests turning the Triangle into a Muslim enclave that would be neither within Israel nor within the occupied territories. Its inhabitants would in effect be stateless, finding themselves in much the same position as the Arab population of East Jerusalem. The proposal is part of wider attempts to marginalise the country’s rapidly growing Arab sector. Although the proportion of Arabs has held steady at roughly 18 per cent of the Israeli population since 1948, this has been mainly because of Jewish immigration. Sofer and many others fear that most sources of immigration have now dried up.
According to his figures, the country’s Muslim population is growing by at least 3.5 per cent a year, compared with a natural increase among Israeli Jews of only one per cent. Within 20 years he expects Arab numbers to have swollen from their current 1.3 million to 2.1 million. This, he says, would allow them to elect as many as 30 Knesset members — a quarter of the Knesset — and give Arab parties the balance of power in the governing coalition.
Much of the concern about demographics among Israeli Jews has been fuelled by a perception that the Arab minority has grown more militant since its widespread protests in support of the Intifada last October left 13 demonstrators shot dead by police. A blanket boycott of February’s election for prime minister by Arabs also angered many on the Israeli left.
Mohamed Zeidan, head of the Human Rights Association in Nazareth, said that Sofer is a “well-known racist.” “That he has come up with this plan for ethnic cleansing on the quiet is not surprising,” says Zeidan. “But what does disturb me is that he is being taken seriously by the governing parties.”
The Triangle is of particular interest to the Israeli government because it has an almost exclusively Muslim population into which Jewish immigration has made virtually no inroads. Sofer predicts that by 2020 the area will contain 800,000 Arabs and refers to it as “a lost cause.” He says that once it has been removed from Israel the Arab population will not rise above 1.3 million over the next 20 years — thus remaining at its current numbers.
Also considered by the committee is a scheme to flood the Galilee area, the country’s other main Arab stronghold, with half a million Jews. They would have to be relocated from other, overpopulated areas of Israel. Sofer fears that Galilee, whose population is split equally between Jews and Arabs, could try to secede if Arab numbers rise much above 50 per cent.
The Knesset meeting follows a conference in Herzliya at the beginning of the year entitled “The Balance of National Strength and Security in Israel,” in which 300 key members of the defence establishment and academics took part. An abstract of the meeting presented to President Moshe Katsav referred to Arab citizens as “a millstone around Israel’s neck.” It suggested policies to encourage fewer children, including withdrawing welfare benefits from larger families.
The Herzliya conference also suggested that the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank be reduced by forcibly transferring some of them “east of the Jordan [river].” Discussion of population transfers and exchanges are only the latest of recent examples of government hostility towards Israel’s Arab minority. Limor Livnat, the education minister, has suggested that schools should not receive funding unless they swear an oath of allegiance to the state and she has banned a new text book written by a panel of scholars for not being patriotic enough.
The public security minister, Uzi Landau, and the justice minister, Meir Sheetrit, have both offered public support for Alik Ron, the former police commander responsible for the 13 Arab deaths last October, thereby undermining the ongoing judicial inquiry into the killings. Several prominent parliamentarians, including Azmi Bishara, are facing possible indictments from the attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, for sedition or incitement.
Al-Ahram Weekly – 11 October 2001