October’s Legacy

Deepening Rifts Between Jews and Palestinians Inside Israel

 NAZARETH—The red tablecloths are pressed perfectly, the dishes set just so, the hummus and kibbeh and eggplant salad are cooked to perfection. At Al Jenina restaurant—the biggest and most famous in Nazareth—the staff stand poised with towels over their forearms, waiting for the lunch crowd. Well, hoping for them anyway, says Muhammad, a waiter here for 20 years, as he turns in orders from the three tables that have diners on this late-August day. The staff has stopped expecting the throngs that once packed the 200-seat restaurant on a daily basis—and that lined up down the block on Saturdays.

"A few customers are just beginning to come back now," Muhammad says, counting the long months since October, when Jewish Israelis stopped visiting Palestinian towns in Israel in the wake of local demonstrations against Israel's crackdown in the occupied territories. "We didn't see a Jewish face before January," he says, noting that napkin suppliers and other distributors key to running the business failed to make deliveries for months. "These were our friends," he adds with a rueful shake of the head. "They felt free and comfortable here. But something is broken now, and we can never go back."

The "October events," as they have come to be known, during which Israeli police killed 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel and wounded hundreds more, shattered the facade of easy coexistence between Israel's majority Jewish population and the nearly one-fifth of the citizenry that is Palestinian. Nearly a year after the breach, the Palestinians inside Israel (a designation they prefer to the old-school label "Israeli Arab") have not recovered. If anything, the situation has gotten worse.

"The October events proved to a lot of Palestinians who wanted to assimilate fully into Israeli society that they cannot do so," says Falasteen Ismail, 29, an activist with I'lam, the Media Center for Palestinian Society in Israel, who says her communist father's hopes for equality and unity around a shared social dream are no longer imaginable. "We will always be treated as different, inferior, and threatening," she says.

Israeli leaders regard such sentiments as exaggerated, given that Palestinians in Israel attend universities and are elected to the Knesset. Even so, in every election cycle candidates for prime minister solicit the votes of Palestinians in Israel by acknowledging—and promising to rectify—inequities in spending for their communities. But in the last election, faced with the choice of Ehud Barak, who was in charge when police opened fire on demonstrators in October, and Ariel Sharon,who has long openly expressed his mistrust of Arabs, Palestinian citizens boycotted.

Only 18 percent voted, compared with 76 percent in the previous election. For many Jewish Israelis such numbers—along with remarks like Falasteen Ismail's—reflect a rapid erosion of Palestinian Israeli attachment to the state. Jews tend to view the new generation as increasingly radical and identified with Palestinians in the occupied territories.

For Ismail, however, it's the state's refusal to grant full equality—and the culture's rising attitude of distrust—that breeds dissent. Her voice rises with indignation when she describes how she gets suspicious and hostile stares nowadays simply for speaking Arabic on a bus. "It has always been the case that if you spoke Arabic on line for a disco, for sure you wouldn't get in," she explains. "Now it's as though we can't speak Arabic in public at all."

The climate, in fact, is more baldly antagonistic than ever, as Israelis on the right express their fears in blatant anti-Arab slogans. Banners strung from apartment windows in Jerusalem assert, "No Arabs, No Terrorism," and people calling in to radio shows go unchallenged when they speak in favor of unleashing chemical or nuclear weapons to "wipe them out." Arab Knesset member Azmi Bishara came under indictment by the attorney general this summer of charges of "aiding the enemy" and "publishing seditious material" because he expressed sympathy for the Palestinian resistance in the territories. And op-ed pages are filled with articles callingPalestinian Israelis an "internal enemy."

At the same time, Palestinians in Israel are hardly immune from the militant resistance from the territories that has declared everyone in Israel a target. One of the people injured in the suicide bombing at the pizza parlor in Jerusalem on August 9 was a Palestinian Israeli worker.

"People went to the streets in October not only out of outrage at the killing of Palestinians in the territories, but also out of their own frustration," says Jafer Farah, director of the Haifa-based organization Mossawa ("Equality"), the Advocacy Center for Arab/Palestinian Citizens in Israel. "Now the frustration is much bigger—and more dangerous."

That frustration is born of 53 years as second-class citizens of a state whose very flag and national anthem exclude its non-Jewish populace. "Imagine how it feels," says Farah, "if you ask a Palestinian whose family has lived in Haifa for a hundred years where he lives, and he has to answer, 'Zionism Street,' knowing full well that his grandparents had called it 'Mountain Street' and that it had been there long before any Zionists came."

Such symbols sting all the more sharply, of course, because of the material ramifications of policies that favor Jews: Though Palestinians make up more than 19 percent of the population, they receive only 4 percent of the national development budget. That translates into only 3.6 percent of the budget for housing, 3.1 percent for education, and 2.7 percent for infrastructure. The 10 communities in Israel with the highest unemployment rate are Palestinian, and 40 percent of Arab families in Israel live below the poverty line.

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