Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth -

Town angry at Israel’s secret plan for land swaps – 26 January 2011

BAQA AL GHARBIYYA // A towering concrete wall looms over the main street of what was once a flourishing market in the northern Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiya, or Western Baqa.

Unlike most other Israelis, the town’s residents struggle to find a good word to say about the 8-metre high barrier that separates them from the West Bank.

Immediately on the other side, and unreachable, is Eastern Baqa, a Palestinian village that one inhabitant of Western Baqa described as “an amputated limb” since Israel built its wall to divide the communities in 2004.

Western Baqa’s 22,000 Arab residents say they are opposed to living in the shadow of a wall that separates brothers from sisters and children from their parents.

But they were equally unhappy to learn this week that, as part of peace negotiations with the Palestinians three years ago, Israel secretly proposed redrawing the borders to strip them and potentially tens of thousands of other Israeli Arabs of their citizenship.

According to leaks of what are believed to be official Palestinian papers, Israel wanted a final agreement in which Western Baqa was placed on the far side of the separation wall.

The “land swaps”, as they were called by negotiators, were raised as a way to increase the number of West Bank settlers included inside Israel’s final borders.

But in Baqa the widely held impression is that Israel also wanted to lose as many of its 1.4 million Arab citizens as possible to ensure the state’s continuing “Jewishness”.

Essa Alfar, 47, the owner of a grocery store only metres from the wall, said Baqa’s inhabitants were used to hearing “such racist plans” from far-right Israeli politicians but it was shocking to discover that the policy was “now so much in the mainstream”.

“I am Palestinian by nationality but I am Israeli by birth,” he said. “I have an Israeli passport and pay my taxes to Israel. They can’t just change my citizenship for me.”

A fifth of Israel’s population are Arab, the remants of the Palestinian people who did not become refugees in 1948.

Baqa’s residents learnt of their intended fate after the confidential papers were revealed this week by al-Jazeera television. On at least two occasions, Israeli negotiatiors pressed the Palestinians on a “population exchange”, according to the documents.

Tzipi Livni, who was then foreign minister and is today leader of the centrist opposition Kadima party, is quoted naming Baqa – along with the nearby village of Bartaa, and the Beit Safafa suburb of East Jerusalem – as among the locations she wanted to swap.

All are communities that uncomfortably straddle the pre-1967 Green Line, the effective border between Israel and the West Bank.

Livni referred to the inhabitants of Western Baqa and other communities as “Palestinian” – a dramatic break with the usual Israeli terminology of “Israeli Arabs” for its non-Jewish citizens.

In a blunt additional statement, one of Livni’s advisers, Tal Becker, implied that Israel’s goal was a clean separation of communities along ethnic and national lines: “Divided. All Palestinian. All Israeli.”

Ahmed Qureia, the chief Palestinian negotiator, responded at one point: “This will be difficult. All Arabs in Israel will be against us.”

The leaking of the documents comes in the wake of reports last October that Israel staged an emergency drill in northern Israel based on a scenario in which just such a population exchange was agreed.

The training exercise included setting up a large detention camp to deal with massive riots that were expected to break out among Arab citizens.

Baqa, like the other split communities, is a legacy of the region’s turbulent history.

It was a single village until an armistice line was drawn through its middle following the 1948 war that established Israel and left Jordan in control of the West Bank. The two Baqas had to wait until 1967, and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, to be reunited.

After nearly four decades of living together, the inhabitants were forced apart again when Israel built its barrier six years ago. Now, it seems, Israel wants the two halves of Baqa re-joined, but only if it is in a future state of Palestine.

“We are not pieces in a chess game that Israel can simply move when the mood takes it,” said Nizar Anabusi, 45, a hospital nurse. “My four children hear this kind of talk and it frightens them.”

Anabusi said he opposed being moved into a future Palestine because such a state would be powerless. “The Palestinians are too weak – and Israel is too strong – to have propr control over their state. There will be no real freedom. Palestine will have no air force, no army. Israel will control our movement and our trade. It offers no future.”

A survey last month conducted by the Brookings Institution, based in Washington DC, found that 58 per cent of Israel’s Arab citizens were opposed to land swaps of the kind Livni proposed.

Another poll, conducted a decade ago in Umm al-Fahm, a city of 45,000 close to Baqa that is also often mentioned as part of a population exchange, found 83 per cent of residents wanted to remain in Israel.

Such findings have not silenced far-right groups in Israel, including the current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. He has been espousing his own controversial land swaps for the past seven years.

But Mohammed Zeidan, head of the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth, said Lieberman’s “crazy” ideas had now “contaminated the whole Israeli political culture”.

It is not the first time Livni has upset Israel’s Arab minority. In late 2007, she said a future Palestinian state should be considered “the national answer to the Palestinians, wherever they are”, including, she added, in Israel.

Some observers assumed she meant that Arab citzens who identified as Palestinian could choose to move to a Palestinian state.

“Those comments were bad enough,” said Zeidan, “but here we see Livni, who is considered in Israel to be almost on the left, proposing that people in places like Baqa be forcibly stripped of their citizenship, whatever their views.”

Jamal Zahalka, an Arab Knesset member, said he was not surprised by Israel’s proposals. “European diplomats have been asking me for several years what I thought of a population exchange. It was clear that Israel had been quietly sounding them out.”

He said Israel’s main Arab leadership body, the Higher Follow-Up Committee, had written to the main parties, including the Palestinians, the US and the Arab League, urging them to block transfer plans and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

According to the leaked papers, the Palestinian negotiators agreed to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, a position rejected by Arab leaders in Israel, who fear it would stifle their fledgling campaign for civil rights.

Zahalka said he believed the Palestinian leadership later revoked such recognition. “We have recently lobbied them hard on this issue and I believe they have withdrawn their support.”

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