The Arabs of Israel: Citizens without Citizenship

On the corner of Balfour and Arlozoroff in Haifa, there’s a pizza joint around the corner where the deliveries are done on Vespa scooters. This part of Haifa, midway up the Carmel Mountain, gets wealthier as you go higher up the slopes. This neighbourhood, together with Massada and Hillel streets further down, and other streets like Ben Gurion at the footsteps of the Bahai Gardens, are a model of Jewish and Arab co-existence – coffee shops, bars and young families, far away from the conflict and a five minute sherut ride away from the Mediterranean beach front.

Places like Cafe Elika, Cafe Kitan, Hagar and Beneinu are where are all the beautiful people go. Not far from here, you can catch the French built Carmelit up or down the mountain.

This is the Israel nobody sees or hears about – one in which Jews and Arabs can live together as equals.

This is perhaps painting too idyllic a picture. Just last year on October 4, 2003, the Maxim restaurant was hit with a suicide bombing by 29-year-old Palestinian female Hanadi Jaradat. Twenty one Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, were killed, and fifty one others were wounded. Among the victims were two families and four children, including a two-month-old baby. Earlier, in March of 2003, seventeen people were killed and fifty three wounded in a suicide bombing of a bus in the Carmel section of Haifa, en route to Haifa University. This is also the city where Saddam Hussein sent one of his errant scud missiles during the first Gulf War. Haifa is far from isolated from Israel’s troubles.

The irony is that the Arab citizens of Israel sometimes also find themselves as the unintended victims of Palestinian violence. They have the unique ability to see many perspectives.

On some days, Israel could just as easily be 1960’s Alabama because the language of the debate here is about equal rights. And 1948 is not a distant memory -it is still the recent past and defines social relations to a large degree. Here, just like everywhere in Israel, your politics matter.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav recently said that, "Human rights are basic rights and should not be based on obligations." In a young nation without a constitution, there are opportunities and pitfalls for those seeking an equal playing field. For the Arab citizens, they are not alone in this fight for recognition – international law is largely on their side.

But since the situation in the Occupied Territories is more acute and more dire, the situation for the Arabs within Israel is left off the front pages of the major international papers and the issues are left off the negotiating table during the peace processes. The Israeli Arabs see themselves as the ones who can actually broker a just peace in the region since they consider themselves to be both Palestinians and Israelis.

Earlier this year, Bnei Sakhnin, the first Israeli Arab soccer team to win the national title, competed in the Uefa Cup. As opposing sides shouted ‘Allahu Akbar (God is Great) and ‘Death to the Arabs’ it highlighted the division that still exists between Israel and its own Arab citizens. Sakhnin is the home of the annual Land Day event which still draws thousands and commemorates the death of six unarmed demonstrators at the hands of security forces in 1976. The Sakhnin residents were protesting the state confiscation of their lands in the area known as the ‘Iron Triangle.’

While the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are in the news every day with stories of the Occupation, the Arab citizens of Israel are mired in a similar but different struggle. While comprising twenty percent of the population and holding Israeli citizenship, they are engaged in the much more delicate struggle to win equal rights, have them enshrined in law and to actually have them implemented at the governmental level.

This is a different kind of diplomatic chess game, ‘shatranj’ as the Arabs call it – one which is played in the peripheries, in Haifa, in Nazareth, in the Galilee, in Jerusalem and the Negev. It involves briefings with foreign diplomats, lobbying at the Knesset, taking cases to the Supreme Court, building coalitions between Arabs and Jews, Ethiopians and Russians. It means writing reports, documenting human rights abuses and being in the media at every opportunity whether Binyamin Netanyahu is calling them a demographic time bomb or another Cabinet Minister is calling for ethnic transfer of the Arab citizens of Israel into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It means putting internal and international pressure to bear on the state with just enough pressure so as not to exacerbate tensions with the powerful forces who oppose their agenda.

Recently, the Arab citizens of Israel called a General Strike on October 1st after declaring that the Israeli government had failed to implement the recommendations of the Or Commission report which had originally been set up to investigate the systemic failures that resulted in the deaths of 13 Arab citizens during the riots following Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in the months following the collapse of the Camp David Accords. Since October 2000, Israeli security forces have killed an additional 17 Arab citizens of Israel.

In the Mossawa Center’s recent report called ‘Racism in Israel,’ there were reports of 17 acts of violence and incidents of physical attacks against Arab citizens, fifteen acts of inciting and verbal violence and nine cases of discrimination related to entering public places. There have also been ten incidents of legal discrimination including passage of the "Citizenship Law" which denies the right of Arab citizens to sponsor the citizenship of their spouses in to Israel if they live in the Occupied Territories. There is also a disturbing trend towards a greater percentage of the Jewish population supporting the ethnic transfer of Israeli Arabs and 70% which believe that that Arab citizens pose a threat to state security.

Despite years of lobbying to address the socio-economic concerns of Arab citizens, the statistics reveal that there is still a huge gap between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel. 60% of Arab children were below the poverty line in 2003. The income subsidy cuts were disproportionately affecting women, children and the unemployed.

In the Negev where much of the Bedouin population lives, the infant mortality rate is 17 out of 1,000 infants in contrast to 4 out of 1,000 in the Jewish community. The situation is expected to deteriorate following the increase in health taxes on housewives and the closure of mother and child clinics by the health ministry.

There continues to be a housing crisis where selective permitting is resulting in thousands of homes being built without permission. There are also dozens of home demolitions occurring annually within Israel.

The per capita income of Arab citizens is 4,472 NIS, only 60%of the income of Jewish citizens. The percentage of Arab employees in government is only 6.1%.

In the eyes of Arab leaders in Israel, budget and resource allocations continue to be unequal, lack of military service for Arab citizens continues to confer wider social and economic privilages to those who do serve and the law continues to be implemented unevenly.

Added to this, the spectre of new discriminatory legislation such as those limiting international funding of non-governmental organizations or the Removal of Intruders Law which streamlines the process to evict citizens from their land could continue the downward spiral in Arab and Jewish relations in Israel.

History has always shown that societies built on inequitable foundations will collapse in on themselves over time. When equality comes, it is not so much a tidal wave as it is usually the result of constructive dissent waged on a thousand fronts, in everyday life, the conversations at the coffee shop, the challenging of opinions and deeply held views on the street, as much as the Supreme Court victories, the boardroom dramas, the backroom arm twisting, the subtleties of high diplomacy and the legislative coups.

For the Arabs of Israel, the citizens without citizenship, there is a large and increasing base of support in the Jewish community ready to enlist in their struggle.

Time, planning and persistence have felled greater situations of inequality – the Arabs of Israel will find a way to get to the place they want and deserve to be, but their greatest impediment today is the lack of initiative and empathy from the Israeli leadership for their struggle.