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.
Grasping the reasons Palestinian Israelis had taken to the streets, then prime minister Ehud Barak last October announced a four-year plan for their communities, earmarking $4 billion for investments in roads, sewage, schools, housing, and job development.
But 11 months later, none of the money has been allocated. “We have to play the game again,” says an exasperated Jamil Dakwar, staff attorney for the civil rights group Adalah (“Justice” in Arabic). “We go to court to demand the state make good on its promise, and by the time the courts rule in our favor, they tell us, ‘Too bad, the budget has already been spent, so there’s no money to give you. Try again next year.’ ”
In the meantime, the heads of the Arab councils, which represent Palestinian towns and villages, have called for various protest actions. On August 9, nearly 60 of the towns observed a 24-hour strike to object to the government’s failure to honor its agreement—but to little effect. “These alerts do not find open ears,” says Dakwar. “There was hardly anything in the papers. That in itself shows how marginalized we are. Imagine the impact and attention if 60 Jewish municipalities went on strike. The only way we get attention is when we get into confrontations—and then we’re regarded as troublemakers who don’t ‘deserve’ our rights.”
Indeed, the prevailing Jewish view of the October demonstrations—some of which turned violent—is that they represented a terrifying betrayal, an expression of loyalty to Palestinians across the green line that superceded allegiance to the state. For Palestinians in Israel, however, the betrayal was all Israel’s—not only those Jewish Israelis who rampaged through Palestinian neighborhoods in attacks victims likened to pogroms, but the state itself. “What kind of democracy is it when people go out to exercise their right to protest and get shot?” asks Farah.
It’s the sort of question Farah often raises as he and other community organizers seek to improve conditions by appealing to Israel’s stated democratic ideals through its democratic institutions. Some 100 civil suits charging the state with violation of citizens’ rights during the October events are currently in the works, for example. And in a groundbreaking discrimination case decided last year, Israel’s Supreme Court challenged the land-distribution policy on which the country was founded, ruling that the government could no longer allocate land to its citizens based on their religion or ethnicity. More and more, activist organizations are trying to shine a light on—and at least symbolically redress—the huge discrepancies in spending and development in Palestinian areas.
One such group is Ta’ayush (“Cooperation”), a new coalition of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis who carry out direct actions both in the occupied territories and within Israel. It is one of only a few joint Jewish-Arab efforts that are flourishing now. In mid August, Ta’ayush organized a three-day work camp in Dar el Hanun, a Palestinian village just northeast of Tel Aviv that is unrecognized by the state—which means that, though it has been there for at least a century, it does not officially exist and thus is not eligible for water pipes, electricity, a sewage system, and other state-supplied infrastructure.
Some five dozen Ta’ayushniks—teenagers to seniors—pitched in over the long weekend, working alongside villagers to pave a road and build a playground with donated supplies and equipment, and taking long breaks during the mid-day heat to eat and talk and mingle. Police tried to prevent the work, first asserting that it was too noisy, then demanding to see documents proving that the road was on private land and not state property. They also asserted that a makeshift wooden platform to be used as a stage for a concert at the end of one workday violated laws against building houses without a permit and would have to come down. Lawyers on hand—not to mention newspaper reporters looking over their shoulders—persuaded the police to relent, and the project went forward, a three-day utopia in the midst of nightmarish times.
“We are Jews and Arabs working together in equality,” says Ronen Wolf, 33, who has been active with Ta’ayush since it began in October. “We offer a practice. That is all.” These days, that’s a lot, Falasteen Ismail admits. Still, she feels little hope. “The terrible situation in the West Bank and Gaza will eventually find its solution. There will be a Palestinian state,” she says. “Our fight is much more difficult.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2001