Jewish-Arab relations in Israel hit boiling point
By DIAA HADID
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 9:08 AM
UMM EL-FAHM, Israel -- Relations between Israel's Jewish majority and
its Arab minority have never been warm, but they appear to have hit a
new low that has activists on both sides worried the troubled
relationship is beyond repair.
In the past month alone, Israeli lawmakers have introduced a series of
bills that aim to marginalize Arabs. Rabbis in a northern town have
urged followers not to rent homes to Arabs. Extremist Jews marched
through this town and set off a violent riot. And a prominent Arab
activist has admitted in a plea bargain to spying for the Lebanese
guerrilla group Hezbollah.
These repeated run-ins have threatened to turn what has long been an
atmosphere of distrust into open hostilities as Jews increasingly
question the loyalty of their Arab neighbors while jittery Arab
residents fear they are being unfairly characterized as a threat from
"The Arab community is terrified. They see the legislation, they feel
the atmosphere. They see the discourse and they feel insecure. They
feel like they need to protect themselves," said Jafar Farah, head of
"Musawa," an organization promoting equality for Arab residents. "And
some of these people think they should fight back."
Arabs form about one-fifth of Israel's population of some 7.4 million.
In contrast to their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip, Israeli Arabs hold citizenship rights that give them access to
Israeli social services and other benefits. For the most part, however,
they identify with Palestinians. They also tend to be poorer and less
educated than their Jewish compatriots and often suffer outright
While relations have always been cool, the situation took a major turn
for the worse a decade ago after the outbreak of the second Palestinian
uprising. At the time, thousands of Israeli Arabs rioted for days in
solidarity with the Palestinians, and Israeli police killed 13 Arab
citizens while trying to quell the unrest.
For Arabs, the 2000 unrest became a symbol of their grievances. For
many Jews, the events instilled doubts that the Arab community could be
loyal to Israel and raised fears the Arabs could actively try to help
the country's enemies. Those fears have been compounded by events since.
Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, led his
Yisrael Beitenu party to large gains in last year's parliamentary
elections by questioning the loyalty of Israel's Arabs.
Last month, Lieberman managed to win Cabinet approval for his proposal
to force non-Jewish immigrants to swear a loyalty oath to a "Jewish and
democratic" state. The measure, which won support from Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, was widely seen as a swipe against Arabs since it
wouldn't apply to Jewish immigrants.
Another coalition partner proposed a bill that would allow small
communities to exclude potential residents, bringing charges of racism
from Israeli Arabs.
The deputy mayor of the northern Israeli town of Carmiel, Oren
Milstein, meanwhile, urged residents not to rent or sell their homes to
Arabs, according to local media reports. The politician's office did
not return messages seeking comment.
In the nearby town of Safed, prominent rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu has warned
Jews from doing the same. And last week, several dozen ultranationalist
Jews marched through the hilly Arab town of Umm el-Fahm, chanting
"death to terrorists," touching off clashes between rock-hurling
residents and police firing tear gas.
"I'm scared for the future, and I'm scared for my children," said Saeb,
a 37-year-old social worker who declined to give his last name, fearing
he would get in trouble with his employer.
Many Jews, however, have real concerns that Israeli Arabs pose a
potential threat, fueled by a series of high-profile cases involving
Last week, Amir Makhoul, a leading community activist, pleaded guilty
to handing sensitive information to Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla
group that fought an intense monthlong war against Israel in 2006. He
faces up to 10 years in prison.
In May, lawmaker Hanin Zoabi triggered harsh Jewish criticism by
joining a Turkish flotilla trying to break Israel's blockade of
Hamas-ruled Gaza. Zoabi, an outspoken critic of Israel, was nearly
attacked on the floor of parliament and called a traitor after the
Another lawmaker, Azmi Bishara, fled the country three years ago to
avoid facing similar espionage charges. Living in exile, he has since
become a frequent participant in Arabic TV panels, heaping scorn and
criticism on Israel and its policies toward Palestinians.
Ordinary Israeli-Arabs also have moved toward more extreme groups, like
the radical northern Islamic Movement, which has close ideological ties
to the militant group Hamas. It counts "tens of thousands" of
followers, said its acting leader, Sheik Kamal Khatib.
Others have become fervent supporters of Bishara's and Zoabi's Balad
Party, which emphasizes Palestinian identity. Many party members and
supporters want Israel to be dissolved and ultimately merged with the
"We have never been Israeli, and we won't be. We are Palestinians,"
said actor Hasan Taha, 27.
Such views have fueled Jewish anxiety, which in turn has led to support
for hard-line politicians like Lieberman, said Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu,
co-director of the Abraham Fund, a Jewish-Arab organization seeks to
Beeri-Sulitzeanu said although violence is down from 10 years ago, the
situation is far more dangerous because the push to isolate the
community was being led by politicians, elected community officials and
religious leaders - not by rabble rousers.
"What we are seeing is unprecedented," Beeri-Sulitzeanu said, adding
there is "racism and alienation and a very coordinated attempt to
marginalize and push the Arab community to the corner."