Monday, November 20, 2000

Arab Israeli dilemma

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by some Israeli friends to join them on a visit to an Israeli Arab village not far from here, the first time since the troubles began that I've been to an Israeli Arab village. In more peaceful times I had visited this village on a few occasions to shop in local stores, just as I would visit a Israeli Jewish village. Strangely though, despite the recent violence I did not feel overly worried about visiting this village, even though it was the scene of rioting only a few weeks earlier. 

On that Sunday it was quiet. No other Jewish Israelis ventured into the village, and locals told us that business is suffering terribly, as customers from local Jewish towns and villages are the prime markets for local stores. What struck me most though was the 'Palestinianisation' of the town. I noticed a number of Palestinian flags and nationalist graffiti.

Some local women invited us to join them for coffee. In the course of our conversation I sensed confusion about their place in the region. On the one hand much of their leadership was encouraging them to identify as Palestinians and to support the Palestinian revolt. On the other hand they are citizens of Israel, paying taxes to and receive services from the state of Israel. They work with Jews and use medical and other facilities in nearby Jewish towns. They themselves seemed stunned by the ferocity with which Israeli Arab youths had rioted in sympathy with the Palestinians. That evening on the news I heard a speech by the mayor of the same village, supporting the intifada and Yasser Arafat in the name of the residents. It felt strange to think that I'd been sitting and chatting with people in that village only a few hours earlier.

Arab citizens of Israeli continue to undergo a public identity crisis, trapped in the middle of this conflict. Many of the Israeli Arab members of Knesset and other community leaders continue to express their support for the Palestinian revolt. Knesset Member Mohammed Barakeh actually called on the Arab citizens of Israel to join in the intifada. There continue to be sporadic rock throwing attacks against Jewish vehicles near certain Arab villages in the Galilee, especially in the Wadi 'Ara/Nahal 'Iyron area which is close to Palestinian-controlled areas.

Over recent nights, youths from the Arab village of Arabeh in the Galilee have ambushed Jewish vehicles driving near their village. Last Tuesday, several residents of Arabeh came to the aid of the Jewish victims. In return, their property was vandalised and some were beaten up. The Jewish head of the Misgav regional council was quick to assert that the youths causing trouble in Arabeh are a minority, that police and local residents know who they are, and that the troublemakers will be arrested. However, police say the local Arab leadership is not cooperating fully in efforts to calm the situation.

One of the few Israeli Arab leaders to publicly reject support for the Palestinian intifada is the Mayor of Shfar'am, Orsan Yassin. In an interview with Israeli radio, he condemned the rioting and attacks on Israeli Jews by Israeli Arabs and called upon the Arab citizens of Israel to respect the law. He also condemned Israeli Arab members of Knesset for encouraging the intifada, saying that he views the anti-Israel incitement of certain Israeli Arab Knesset members very gravely and blames them directly for the recent riots by Israeli Arab youths. He added that it is wrong for people who receive their salaries from the state of Israel, who have pledged allegiance to the state and who serve in Israel's parliament to turn against the state and applaud those who burn the Israeli flag. 'If we demonstrate, we should be carrying the Israeli flag, because this is also our flag, the flag of the country of which we are citizens,' he said. Yassin also noted that he knows many Arab mayors who agree with him but are nervous about voicing their opinions in public. Perhaps there should be an independent Palestinian state, but it is not for us, the Arab citizens of Israel, to be a part of it because our home is Israel and we are Israelis'.

As hard as it is to be a Jewish Israeli right now I think that perhaps it is even harder for many Arab citizens of Israel, caught as they are between so many conflicting loyalties and emotions in this conflict. 

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