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Israeli Arabs fear being dragged into a new intifada

Daily Star – 9 August 2005

Until last weekend, Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens had stayed well out of the debate about the country’s imminent disengagement from Gaza. “It’s not our story,” they would say when pressed. “This is an entirely Jewish conversation.” While for months Jewish car drivers have been flying blue and orange ribbons – showing respectively support for and opposition to the disengagement – car aerials in Israel’s Arab towns and villages remained bare.
 
That is no longer the case. At the weekend, Arab drivers in the Galilee could be seen flying black ribbons to commemorate the deaths of four Arabs shot dead on a bus last Thursday afternoon by a Jewish extremist with his Israeli Army-issued rifle. Now Israel’s Palestinian citizens are part of the conversation, whether they like it or not.
 
The mourners at the funerals in the Arab town of Shefaram on Friday agreed that the bus was attacked because it was a soft target for extremist settlers prepared to use any tactics to stop the disengagement from taking place. The 19-year-old gunman, Eden Nathan Zada, presumably hoped that by killing Arab citizens he could provoke riots across the Galilee that would draw the massed ranks of soldiers around Gaza away from the strip and allow settlers to reach the threatened settlement of Gush Katif.
 
Whatever the intention of the settlers, the country’s Arab minority is refusing to be dragged into a confrontation with the security forces. And for the moment, at least, the government is on the side of Arab citizens against the extremist settlers. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who lost no time in denouncing Zada as “a bloodthirsty terrorist,” needs the Arab minority to stay “on side” as he takes on those opponents who hope to bring about his downfall over the disengagement.
 
But what about the day after the pullout from Gaza? What are Sharon’s plans then? In this respect, the country’s Arab citizens have strong grounds to be extremely fearful, as many of their leaders privately admit. Their reasoning is based on an understanding that the second intifada is all but finished and that a third intifada – with very different features and goals – will begin soon after disengagement. The signs are that, despite its success in staying out of the previous intifadas, the Arab minority this time will be dragged into a new struggle.
 
That assessment is based on a view shared by almost all Palestinians that Sharon has no intention of turning the disengagement into the first step toward Palestinian statehood. As if to confirm such fears, Sharon and his generals are already warning they will “respond very harshly” (as the prime minister recently told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) against any signs of what Israel regards as Palestinian “terrorism.” General Eival Giladi, a Sharon military adviser, has said there is likely to be “major collateral damage” if Gazans refuse to keep quiet post-disengagement. In such circumstances, it is difficult to believe Palestinians and Israelis will not be forced into another round of bloodletting.
 
For the time being, Palestinians are adopting a wait-and-see attitude as they try to divine their future and the likely response of the international community. They are aware that the disengagement will transform the nature of the occupation and require new strategies of resistance.
 
So what will be the battleground of a third intifada? Most likely, it will be shaped by Israel’s current policy of “ethnic consolidation,” of which disengagement is only a small part. Israeli demographers believe that today’s slim majority of Jews in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River – 5.2 million Jews to 4.9 million Palestinians – will erode within a decade. For Israelis that revives issues dormant since the Jewish state was established in 1948.
 
The disengagement will instantly erase at least 1.2 million Gazans from the balance sheet. But as historian Benny Morris and the former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon have suggested, the Israeli government’s greater concern is the “unfinished business” of 1948: the 20 percent of the Palestinian population not expelled from Israel. Today, comprising more than one million Israeli citizens, they are perceived by the Sharon government as a double threat. First, they challenge Israel’s self-promotion as a “Jewish and democratic” state by exposing the fact that its politics are framed in entirely ethnic and religious terms.
 
But, more importantly in the eyes of Israeli policy-makers, a large Palestinian minority at the heart of the Jewish state fatally undermines Israel’s territorial ambitions in the Occupied Territories. Through potential marriage to the one million “Israeli Arabs,” Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were offered a back-door route to Israeli citizenship, thereby reversing the ethnic cleansing of more than half a century ago.
 
As Israel turned up the heat in the Occupied Territories, Israelis began fearing that more Palestinians would choose this path. That was why the Knesset passed an amendment to the Citizenship Law last month, making it impossible for most Palestinians to be naturalized as Israelis upon marrying an Israeli Arab. It closed once and for all the door on potentially tens of thousands of Palestinians, and many more of their offspring, who might have been eligible for Israeli citizenship.
 
The other strategy being formulated by Sharon against Israel’s Palestinian minority is the “silent transfer” of land known as the “little triangle,” close to the West Bank, along with its quarter of a million Arab citizens, from Israeli to Palestinian Authority sovereignty. In return Sharon would demand the annexation to Israel of illegal Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, including Maale Adumim and Ariel.
 
Despite the overwhelming opposition of the triangle’s residents to the plan, Sharon is reported to be working to devise a way to “sell” the transfer of the territory to the international community. If completed, the triangle’s inhabitants would lose all citizenship rights, and instead would find themselves encased behind a new section of Israel’s wall.
 
According to Professor Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University, Israel has reached a “dangerous turning point” where it is searching ever more desperately for a pretext to remove the citizenship rights of the Palestinians it unwillingly inherited in 1948. The goal, says Peled, is to create a demographically pure Jewish state and alongside it a stunted, phantom Palestinian one.
 
As a result, Palestinians under Israeli rule – whether Arab citizens or those under occupation – are finding themselves being pushed into the same corner. The more Israel presses on with its “unfinished business” from 1948, the more likely it is that a third, even more violent intifada is around the corner.

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