The Guardian – 20 July 2006
After two Hizbullah rocket strikes on the largest Arab city in Israel yesterday, the residents of Nazareth might have expected a little sympathy from their Jewish compatriots. “Rockets don’t discriminate between Jew and Arab,” said one young hijabbed woman close to the site where two brothers, aged three and nine, died from the spray of shrapnel as a rocket landed outside their uncle’s home.
These were the first deaths among Israel’s 1.3 million Arab citizens since Hizbullah’s rocket attacks began more than a week ago, though several of their towns and villages had previously been hit. Some Arab citizens may have hoped that the arrival of the minority’s own moment of grief would help remedy the popular image of it as “a fifth column” inside the Jewish state.
But sympathy was in short supply yesterday. Israeli TV called in one of the community’s political leaders, Shawki Khatib, a rare honour nowadays, but it was not to offer condolences. Instead Khatib was subjected to a barrage of questions on one theme only: what was his message to Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in the wake of the deaths?
Artfully, Khatib dodged the question, arguing that as an Israeli citizen his message was directed to the leaders of his own state: Israel should stop the killing in Lebanon, agree to a ceasefire and come to the negotiating table. The interviewer was far from satisfied.
Like most Arab citizens, Khatib believes Israel’s first duty is to seek non-violent ways of resolving its differences with Hizbullah. The two deaths in Nazareth are unlikely to dent a local Arab consensus that condemns Israel’s rush to arms and the heavy toll it is taking on Lebanese – and Israeli – civilians.
Few Israeli Jews watching Khatib, however, will have been ready to hear his message. According to polls here, some 80 per cent of Israelis support the continuing attacks on Lebanon – reflecting almost precisely the proportion of the Jewish majority.
That Jewish consensus extends to the Israeli parliament, where MPs are hurrying through legislation to ban anyone from the Knesset who expresses support for a terrorist organisation. Given the current belligerent mood, the fear is that the law’s loose definitions of “support” and “terrorist” may be used to silence the beleaguered voices of the handful of Arab MPs, who want negotiations with Hamas and Hizbullah over the captured soldiers.
There are other ways in which the rocket hits on Nazareth are likely to aggravate rather than heal Israel’s ethnic fractures. Arab town and villages, long discriminated against, have none of the protection from attack provided to Jewish communities, even though the army has chosen several in the north as sites for military installations.
In Nazareth there were no sirens to warn the population to take cover, and in any case there were no public shelters in which they could seek sanctuary. According to the city’s mayor, Ramez Jeraisi, his repeated calls for civil defence funding have been rebuffed by the government.
Equally, the Galilee’s Arab inhabitants know there is no longer-term escape from the rockets. Although the Israeli press has been reporting on a growing exodus from northern communities to the safer Jewish heartlands of the country’s centre, especially Tel Aviv, Arab citizens are expecting to stay put, whether they want to or not.
With Jews and Arabs mostly forced to live in entirely separate communities, Arab citizens say there would be none of the welcome currently being extended to the Jewish refugees if Arab fugitives from the rockets turned up on the doorsteps of Tel Aviv.
And there is one final, far older and more dangerous ethnic wound being reopened by Hizbullah’s bombardment, one that dates back to the war of nearly six decades ago that founded the Jewish state.
One in four Arab citizens is classified as an internal refugee – a descendant of the Palestinian families who fled their homes in 1948 but remained inside the new state and received citizenship. These 250,000 or more refugees – referred to in Orwellian terms by the government as “present absentees” – have been stripped permanently of their right to return to their original homes and land.
Israeli Jews have always defended the state’s large-scale dispossession of the Arab population on the grounds that, in fleeing their homes in 1948 (though in truth some were expelled), the Palestinians effectively renounced their right to their properties. That is the view of the government too, which has passed on the families’ title deeds to an official known as the Custodian of Absentee Property.
But watching their Jewish neighbours flee their homes for the safety further south, just as Palestinian civilians took to their heels six decades ago, Israel’s Arab citizens are being forced to confront an unsettling double standard. Why does the law justify the continuing dispossession of one ethnic group for behaviour that carries no consequences for the other?
It is clear that any of the solidarity that Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs should have forged in this moment of mutual suffering at the hands of Hizbullah was stillborn. The chance of the two ethnic communities finding common ground will continue to elude them until Israel recognises what in practice it already is: a binational state.