Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Israel's Arab minority ambivalent about Independence Day
By DIAA HADID and IAN DEITCH, Associated Press Writers 52 minutes ago
KUFR QASSEM, Israel - The highway leading to this Arab town in central Israel was lined with blue-and-white Israeli flags Wednesday to mark the country's 60th Independence Day. But no banners fluttered in Kufr Qassem itself.
Israeli Arabs, who make up a fifth of the population of 7.25 million, weren't celebrating the founding of the Jewish state.
They mix their Arabic with Hebrew and participate in Israel's democracy. But for the most part, they define themselves as Palestinians who live in Israel, and remain a distinct and largely disadvantaged minority.
"It doesn't mean anything to me," Umm Ziad, owner of a bookshop in Kufr Qassem, said of the festivities in the Jewish community of Rosh Haayin just a few hundred yards away. "It's not our party," added the 32-year-old mother of three, dressed in a maroon robe and white veil.
Many Israeli Arabs are torn between two loyalties.
Israel gives them more freedoms than most Arabs have in the Middle East — even though they spent the first 18 years of Israel's history under military rule — and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza tend to resent them for their more comfortable lives. Yet Israeli Arabs are distrusted by the Jewish majority and have been subjected to decades of official discrimination.
"We are ready to build bridges with parts of the Jewish community, but coexistence can only happen when there are equal rights," said Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of Israel's parliament and a longtime adviser to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Tibi said Israeli Arabs face unequal treatment in all walks of life, from land allocation to education. He noted only 4 percent of Israel's development budget is spent in Arab communities.
Kufr Qassem, with 20,000 residents, hasn't been allocated an industrial zone, although the mayor, Sami Issa, said he has lobbied for years for the Israeli government to invest in one.
That would help earn tax money to fix the town's bumpy roads and shabby buildings, adorned with garish Arabic and Hebrew signs. The 50,000 people in nearby Rosh Haayin have smooth roads, chic coffee shops, a large industrial district and gleaming buildings that house international companies.
Over the past 60 years, Israel's Arab and Jewish communities have largely remained separate. Intermarriage is taboo, and only a few towns, such as Haifa, Jaffa and Ramle, have mixed populations.
Israeli Arabs are less educated, on average, and earn less than their Jewish counterparts. Arab families are generally larger than Jewish ones, and Israeli Jews fret over statistics that show Israeli Arabs have one of the highest birth rates in the region, ahead of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.
Kufr Qassem, a conservative Muslim town, is considered well off because of its proximity to Tel Aviv, Israel's business capital, which offers plenty of jobs. Residents freely admit economic opportunity is one reason they want to stay in Israel.
They don't like recent talk by hard-line Israeli politicians who want Arab towns in Israel to become part of a future Palestinian state, in a swap for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Ismail Issa, 39, a barber and poet who is a distant relative of the mayor, said he would like to see a bi-national country of Arabs and Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, rather than the separate Jewish and Palestinian states envisioned in current peace efforts.
In the meantime, he said, "I carry an Israeli passport, and I have to respect it."
A monument in Kufr Qassem commemorates the events of 1956 when nearly 50 villagers were shot to death by Israeli border police as they returned home — unaware a curfew had been imposed on Israeli Arabs on the eve of Israel's Sinai campaign.
Every year, thousands of Israeli Arabs gather at the monument, and townspeople frequently refer to the massacre by way of emphasizing that they will stay here, regardless of what happens.
The fate of Israel's growing Arab minority is seen as the key to Israel's future. Further alienation could one day destabilize the Jewish state, while Arab citizens with a sense of belonging could build bridges to Israel's neighbors.
For now, the future doesn't look bright, said Kufr Qassem's mayor, Sami Issa.
"People here, generation after generation, don't have hope, and don't feel like they have a future. That's very dangerous," he said. "If you are full and live next to a hungry man, he might not hurt you today. But he'll hurt you tomorrow."