The alienation of Israel's Arab citizens

THE AMERICAN "road map" for peace in the Middle East has been all but shredded by the inability of both Israel and the Palestinians to carry out any agreement in the occupied territories other than mutual murder. But for Israel, a recent commission's findings have highlighted a potentially deadly problem even closer to home than the territories under their occupation. In 1948, when the dust settled, the victorious Jews found themselves with their own state in a hostile Arab sea and with an Arab minority within the state's borders. Then there were only 156,000 Arabs inside Israel. Most of them were uneducated and rural, the rest having fled or been forced out by the victors.

In theory Israel wanted to make life acceptable for their Arab minority, although there was to be no doubting that this was a Jewish state. The Arab minority were made full citizens, with the vote, and Arabic was an official language to be printed on bank notes alongside Hebrew. The Arabs were to be allowed to practice their religions in peace. Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, was quoted as saying: "History will judge us by how we treat the Arabs."

In practice, however, Israel's Arab citizens were always short-changed when it came to funding their municipalities, schools, roads, and public services. Arabs were regarded as a potential fifth column and were never asked to join the armed forces, the great integrating factor in Israeli life.

Not that the Arabs wanted to be integrated. But on the whole they accepted their Israeli citizenship, realized they were probably better off than their kin in neighboring Arab countries, and did not become a fifth column, even though they bitterly chafed under what they saw, and still see, as rank discrimination against them by the Israeli majority.

When I first came to live in Israel some 27 years ago, a confidential document called the Koenig Report, named after an Israeli Interior Department official, was leaked to the press. The report outlined ways to curb Israeli-Arab population growth and limit their education and development so that they would never challenge the status quo. The Koenig Report was never adopted as official policy, but there were strikes by Israeli-Arabs protesting its racist tone.

The Israeli-Arab mayor of Nazareth said that the demonstrations were in no way directed against the state of Israel, however, and a prominent Israeli-Arab journalist, Atallah Mansour, said that his community still felt "Israeli first and Arab second."

Then the Israeli-Arab population stood at 450,000, about 13 percent of the population of Israel. Today there are 1.2 million out of a total population of 6 million, and the result of two intifadas has been that Israeli citizens who are Arabs more and more indentify with their brothers in the occupied territories. This is exacerbated by the growing Islamic militancy that is sweeping the Middle East. Christian Arabs have been emigrating in great numbers for years and are no longer the influence they once were.

Recently, an official Israeli investigative body called the Or Commission, after Israeli Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or, issued its report on the shooting deaths of 13 Israeli-Arabs at the hands of Israeli police three years ago. Israeli-Arabs had been demonstrating in support of their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank in the early days of the present intifada, when the Labor Party was still in power.

The police opened up with lethal fire. The report said that the root cause of the fatal fusillade was systematic discrimination by Israel against its Arab citizens, a discrimination that "is the core subject, the most important and sensitive that is on the state's agenda," the commissioners wrote.

In the years between the Koenig report and the Or Commission, the Jewish state has made efforts to do more for its Arab citizens. "Too little, too late," said the respected Israeli journalist, Yuval Elizur, but at least an effort was made. Money was allocated to close the gap in education, for example, and just a few weeks ago Ariel Sharon's government announced that more Israeli-Arabs would sit on the boards of state-owned companies.

Many more Arab-Israelis are now educated and have college degrees than 30 years ago. But as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy, many of Israel's young Arab citizens now want to be identified as Palestinians first and Israeli citizens second.

Israeli Arabs are still underrepresented in almost every facet of Israeli life, except in the ranks of the unemployed. They have only eight seats in a parliament of 120, for example. Israel's main chance to keep its considerable Arab minority comfortable with its citizenship will be to come to a fair settlement with the Palestinians in the occupied territories. If the "road map" fails, and the awful status quo of occupation remains, then Israel's Arab citizens will become even more estranged from the state than they already are. And no state can be comfortable with the alienation of nearly 20 percent of its citizens.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company