Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth - www.jonathan-cook.net

Unwelcome citizens of a racist state

Al-Ahram Weekly – 26 September 2002
 
Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister whose approval of his political rival Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram Al-Sharif two years ago unleashed the Intifada, recently gave his first full interview to an Israeli newspaper since his defeat at the polls in February 2001.
 
Concerned only to justify his part in the events that led to the current violent confrontation between the Israeli army and the Palestinians, he refused to express regret or contrition. Of the much shorter-lived clash between the Israeli police and the Palestinian citizens of Israel, in which 13 members of the Arab minority were shot dead, he had nothing to say at all.
 
Instead Barak told the Ha’aretz daily newspaper that he counted the violence that followed the failure to reach an agreement with Palestinian negotiators at Camp David, and a few months later at Taba, as a personal achievement.
 
“Even when the results were not desirable, that does not mean we failed — it means that this is the reality in which we live. I clarified the reality in which we live.”
 
For the Palestinians and the Arab minority — which comprises a fifth of the Israeli population — those words will have rung uncomfortably true, even if not in the way Barak presumably intended them.
 
For if Barak achieved any sort of clarification it was this: as far as the overwhelming majority of Israelis were concerned, Camp David and Taba exposed the Palestinians as a monolithic horde opposed to a peaceful solution of their dispute with Israel. They were an enemy that Israel had to fight, contain and possibly evict if its own future was ever to be secure.
 
Such a clarification depended on a gross simplification: that Israel’s fight was between “them and us”, between Arab and Jew.
 
Barak’s success was to create among Israelis the impression that various Palestinian identities had been elided, that groups with diverging recent histories and agendas — the various factions of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians in the refugee camps of neighbouring countries and those in the Israeli heartland itself — were a single enemy with a common goal.
 
Barak has claimed that he faced an Intifada on two fronts: in the territories and inside Israel. To him and most Israelis these uprisings proved once and for all that Palestinians on either side of the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border, were essentially the same creature — and one all too ready to prey on the Jewish state.
 
If the Palestinians were the enemy, the Arab minority was a fifth column. They were the traitors in the midst of Israel, and therefore even better-placed to destroy it. In an address to the Knesset, the head of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, even blamed the Arab protests in Israel for triggering the Palestinian Intifada.
 
More sophisticated explanations for the coincidence of these two separate explosions of anger were rejected outright by Israelis. No one wanted to accept that the Palestinians were reacting to the long frustration of being denied a state, and of being subjected to a peace process that promised nothing more than Israeli security at the expense of Palestinian development. Similarly the idea that Israel’s Arab minority was responding to decades of economic discrimination, social marginalisation and political exclusion had few takers.
 
By and large both communities had pinned their hopes on an imminent resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — and therefore on the outcome of the Camp David talks that July. For the Palestinians the negotiations were the last hope that their state could be born; for Israel’s Arab citizens a deal promised desperately needed liberation from the shadow of their status as “the enemy within”.
 
But with the collapse of the talks, the long- simmering resentment in both communities only needed a trigger, and Sharon’s visit to the Haram Al-Sharif on 28 September, 2000 provided it. Israelis refused to accept any interpretation of the events in this way. So far was the fallout from reaching Sharon’s door that within a few months he was being crowned prime minister.
 
Although both Intifadas were spontaneous and erupted at the street-level, there were big differences. After the initial outburst in the territories the Palestinians began embarking on a campaign, one that soon became militarised and hijacked by the various political leaderships, to end the occupation and win themselves a state. The Arab citizens’ uprising lasted no more than five days and largely adopted the methods of the first Intifada of 1987-1993: taunts and stone-throwing. Although the minority took to the streets in an emotional reflex of sympathy with their ethnic kin in the territories, their actions had no other goal than the protest itself.
 
In the main, the Arab minority’s Intifada did not deserve the name. It has suited the needs of politicians such Barak, who with his Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben Ami and 12 others is facing warnings over their role in the police crackdown in the Galilee, to paint these events in such colours to the investigating Or Commission.
 
But originally the Arab citizens had only turned out for a general strike, to show the state both that they were angry at what was happening to their ethnic kin in the territories and at their treatment by their own state. They staged marches and burnt tyres at the entrances of their towns and villages, true, but they had been doing much the same with regularity on Land Day, the anniversary of the Land Strike of 1976 when six demonstrators were killed by police during protests over land confiscations.
 
Only in the town of Umm Al-Fahm did the demonstrators start out more provocatively. There, on 1 October, the youth took over a ridge above the Wadi Ara road and threw stones at cars passing below.
 
There was always a danger that, faced with widespread discontent from the minority, the state would allow things to get out of control. The police force, like other Israeli institutions, is imbued with the values of a state that educates its Jewish citizenry to regard Arabs both as inferior to Jews and as a threat to their state. The police are no more racist than the rest of Israeli society but, unlike other institutions, they deal directly with the minority, implementing decisions taken elsewhere. When a house demolition is ordered, for example, it is individual officers who enforce the decision, often resorting to violence.
 
The result was that relations between the police and the minority had long been marked by tension and mutual suspicion.
 
That the clashes did not have to turn out the way they did is illustrated by the tactics used by police forces close to Tel Aviv and in the Negev, where more restrained commanders managed quickly to calm the situation, negotiating with local leaders, despite the whirlwind being unleashed in the Galilee.
 
But the northern commander, Alik Ron, had a different strategy. He had been trying to provoke a fight with the local community all that summer. Only weeks before the Intifada he had held a press conference at which he mischievously, and falsely, declared a group of 41 Arab criminals to be members of a terrorist cell, and at which he incited against the local leadership.
 
When the October trouble started, as he later told the Or Commission, he believed he had to strike fast and hard, even bringing in an anti-terror sniper squad to the Galilee. Such tactics, combined with Ron’s singular lack of compunction about using military force against a civilian population, were all that was needed to light the fuse.
 
Ron was not alone in his racist assumptions. None of his junior commanders, or the snipers, or his policemen refused to carry out his orders to use live ammunition and rubber bullets against an unarmed population. Nor did his boss, police chief Yehuda Wilk, try to stop him. And the political command, Barak and Ben Ami, on the best interpretation turned a blind eye both during and after these events. Evidence presented to the Or Commission, however, suggests that Barak may in fact have personally approved the tactics used by Ron.
 
So instead of being seen for what it was — civil disobedience — the demonstrations in the north were read in military and ethnic terms. They were seen both as an attack on the state’s ability to defend itself (the Wadi Ara is considered an important strategic road) and as an assault on the Jewish populace (Israel has encouraged thousands of Jews to live close to Arab areas in what it calls a Judaisation of the Galilee).
 
Barak and others have rejected any suggestion that the events of early October 2000 were a “Land Day- plus”, but in fact this is exactly what they were. The Arab minority went out to vent its fury, and in reply it faced volleys of rubber bullets and live ammunition. The shock is something few in the community have fully recovered from.
 
For Israeli Jews Barak’s “clarification” provoked an immediate popular response.
 
They chose to boycott Arab areas, refusing to patronise the restaurants that served their favourite felafel or hummous. Arab businesses that depended on the weekly “Shabbat boom”, when secular Jews sought liberation from their own municipalities where religious restrictions applied, struggled to make a living.
 
But the popular kneejerk strengthened into something more sustained and official against the “Israeli Arabs”, as the Jewish state refers to them. The courts and political establishment shared the mob mentality, clarifying for the country’s one million Arabs their suspicion that they were citizens only on sufferance.
 
Since the outbreak of the Intifada, Israel’s Arabs have found the main marker of their difference from the Palestinians in the occupied territories — their citizenship — being steadily emptied of meaning.
 
The police shootings in early October 2000 were seen as a declaration of intent: no one seriously thought Jewish protesters would ever have been treated in this way. In fact, they weren’t. Jewish citizens rioting against their Arab neighbours in areas like Tiberias were treated with kid gloves.
 
After the internal Intifada, the focus of the assault on the Arab citizens shifted to the courts, where a series of legal rulings further eroded the minority’s sense of belonging to the state, even an ethnic one that had been forced upon it. Disturbingly, many of the court battles mirrored those faced by the Palestinians: over house demolitions, restrictions on freedom of movement, administrative detentions.
 
This month it culminated in the first case of an Israeli Arab being stripped of his citizenship, a step that breaches international law on the basic right to a nationality. It is the crossing of a red line that before the Intifada would have been unthinkable, but there has been hardly a peep from the Israeli media or the Jewish public.
 
More such revocations of citizenship are already in the pipeline for Israeli Arabs suspected of taking part in terrorism. The danger is that this sanction will be extended to cover anyone who dissents from the Jewish consensus or opposes the occupation.
 
Next there have been the legal investigations of the Arab leadership.
 
The appointment of the Or Commission to examine the events that led to the 13 killings was a grudging concession made by Barak to the Arab citizens in the vain hope of buying back their votes in the February 2001 elections — the one, and limited, influence Arabs still have on the political system.
 
With the final report of the inquiry still several months away, it may be too early to judge the commission. But there are worrying signs that it has already lost its way. It has signally failed to identify the police culprits who pulled the triggers, which might have made it possible to identify the chain of command that authorised the killings.
 
But worse it has chosen to part with the conventions of all previous commissions of enquiry by warning individuals who do not belong to the executive apparatus of the state. Thus three members of the Arab leadership have found themselves under suspicion of inciting the October demonstrations. The fear is that Or will choose to reprimand the leaders both to cast further doubt on the minority and to deflect criticism from those in the Israeli establishment who authorised the killings.
 
Another red line crossed has been the attorney- general’s decision, with parliamentary approval, to put Member of Parliament Azmi Bishara on trial for voicing support for Hizbullah, the Lebanese militia regarded by Israel as a terror organisation. The case is an erosion of the principle of free speech that is likely to hit the Arab minority hardest, making it hard for them to raise their voice against Israeli actions without being labelled traitors.
 
Bishara’s trial grew out of a series of attacks on the rights of Arab MKs to express support for the Palestinians or to visit them in the territories. Most of the nine MKs belonging to Arab parties (as opposed to the few who belong to Zionist parties such as Labour and Meretz) have found themselves under investigation for their comments, usually on suspicion of sedition or incitement. Arab politicians are now excluded, unofficially at least, from participating in Israeli media debates.
 
It is taken for granted by most Jewish columnists and analysts that the Arab leadership is dangerously irresponsible in its behaviour, even though there is plenty of evidence that the leadership has been trying to avoid friction with the authorities, especially in its handling of the last two Land Days. This year’s was even relocated to an inaccessible part of the Negev.
 
None of this has stopped the incitement from right-wing Jewish politicians who have referred to the minority as “a cancer” (cabinet member Effi Eitam) or suggested that disloyal MKs like Bishara be put up against a wall and shot (Michael Kleiner of Herut). None is under investigation for such incendiary comments.
 
Right-wing MKs have also been pushing through legislation to exclude Arabs from the Knesset, passing two bills this summer. The first, prompted by the Bishara trial, leaves any MK who expresses support for violence or terrorism facing five years in jail. The second bars candidates from running for election either if they deny Israel’s right to be a Jewish democratic state or if they voice support for an enemy state or a terrorist organisation struggling against Israel.
 
Given Israel’s current accusation that the Palestinian Authority is a “terrorist entity” and its trial of the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti on terrorism charges, this potentially leaves any Arab politician who supports Palestinian resistance to occupation open either to imprisonment or exclusion from the Knesset. Arab parties that have been demanding the end of Israel’s definition as a Jewish state so that it can become “a state of all its citizens” face being barred.
 
As Ahmed Tibi observed, these bills are a way “to create a Knesset without Arab MKs”.
 
Kleiner is currently trying to widen the scope of such legislation by demanding an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state from all voters before they are allowed to participate in elections. Some 50 per cent of Jewish public supports stripping Arabs of their right to vote.
 
But an even more disturbing development has been the increasing denial of the Arab minority’s right to live in Israel alongside the Jewish public. A poll earlier this year among the large Russian immigrant population found that more than a third wanted both the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs transferred out of historic Palestine.
 
As well as being a perennial obsession among the rightwing, demography has quietly preoccupied every government since Israel’s founding. Behind the scenes advisers have tried to devise ways to raise the numbers of Jews (mainly through immigration) and depress the growth of the Arab population. They have largely failed in the second ambition.
 
But government concern at the demographic trend in favour of the Arab minority has rapidly become noisier, and publicly proposing “solutions” to the “problem” is respectable.
 
Last month the National Security Council warned the prime minister that the country’s top security priority ought to be ensuring a Jewish majority. Within weeks the Labour and Social Affairs Minister Shlomo Benizri had reconvened the demography council after its closure five years ago, after accusations from Arab lawyers that it was a racist institution.
 
The council is exclusively staffed with Jews — mainly lawyers, physicians and gynaecologists — who are charged with advising the minister on ways to encourage childbirth among Jewish women. It was unclear if the council would also try to find ways to discourage Arab women from having babies, or possibly encourage them to have abortions. But the message to the Arab population that their continuing presence in Israel is unwelcome was loud enough.
 
It is a message they have grown well-accustomed to hearing over the past two years. On street corners across the country are to be found posters saying “No Arabs — No terror”, or “Peace + Security = Transfer”.
 
But the arguments for transfer — a polite term for ethnic cleansing — are nowadays equally articulated in the cabinet room as in pubs and restaurants.
 
Moledet leader and Tourism Minister Rehavim Zeevi, who was assassinated by Palestinian gunmen a year ago, and his successor, Benni Elon, have espoused transfer of both the Palestinians and the Arab minority to Jordan or Egypt.
 
Other ministers such as Effi Eitam, who is in Sharon’s inner circle in the cabinet, and Avigdor Lieberman have also advocated forms of voluntary transfer.
 
Even members of Sharon’s Likud Party have started openly talking of the threat posed by allowing a substantial Arab minority to exist within Israel.
 
The attorney-general recently ruled that such comments do not amount to incitement.
 
The problem for the Arab citizens, however, is that this kind of talk is likely to become self-fulfilling. Already a climate has been created in which the minority is regularly blamed for acts of Palestinian terror.
 
Although undoubtedly there is a growing militancy among the Arab minority, particularly among the youth and much of it provoked by the state’s continuing ostracism of the community, there have so far been only two recorded instances since the start of the Intifada where Israeli Arabs have been directly implicated in acts of terror.
 
One was a suicide bombing in Nahariya by an Islamic fundamentalist last year; the other was the alleged participation by two Israeli Arabs in a bus bombing by a Hamas member near Safed this summer.
 
But the secret security agency, Shin Bet, has been keen to publicise figures for arrests of Israeli Arabs on suspicion of belonging to terror cells. As some observers have pointed out, the Shin Bet has been far less keen to publicise statistics for how many were actually charged with such offences or what their crimes were. (Some Israeli Arabs have been arrested simply for waving the Palestinian flag).
 
Similarly, reading Israeli newspapers one could easily assume terror cells were being uncovered by the day inside Israel. Much of this is clearly mischief- making on the media’s part. Of the discovery this month of a terror cell in east Jerusalem that allegedly plotted to poison diners at Café Rimon, a Jerusalem Post editorial concluded: “Israeli Arabs must distance themselves more vocally from the terrorists among them.”
 
But, as the Post knows, “Israeli Arab” is a bureaucratic pigeon-hole used by the state for a very specific group: those Arabs who remained inside Israel’s borders at the end of the 1948 war and their descendants.
 
Increasingly, however, east Jerusalem Arabs, Palestinians with temporary or permanent residency permits and Palestinians who have recently married Israeli Arabs are identified as Israeli Arabs. Careless readers are left with the impression that the Arab menace is on their doorstep.
 
With the death of the left in Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab minority have been effectively abandoned, with no one in the Israeli mainstream prepared to defend their causes. The argument about Israel and its future has been largely hijacked, unopposed, by the right. Those few Jews who are brave enough to speak out are pilloried or themselves bullied — as happened to historian Ilan Pappe when Haifa University threatened to sack him.
 
For the first time debates in the newspapers and at political meetings discuss not how Israel should remain Jewish and democratic but whether the state can be both Jewish and democratic. The Zionist mainstream at least appears to be recognising that the two parts of the equation are incompatible. However, rather than draw the conclusion that they need to abandon the idea of a Jewish state, they are choosing instead to reject its democratic qualities.
 
The future for Israel’s Arab citizens looks bleak whatever the outcome of the Palestinians’ struggle for a state. The Israeli Arabs already have a state. But it is far from clear whether they will be welcome in it for much longer.

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