'Nakba Day' is focus for Arab fury in Israel

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The Middle East is bracing itself for one of the most volatile dates in the calendar, on which many thousands of Palestinians will take to the streets in Israel and the occupied territories.

The Middle East is bracing itself for one of the most volatile dates in the calendar, on which many thousands of Palestinians will take to the streets in Israel and the occupied territories.

As the conflict goes from bad to worse, the region is nervously preparing for Tuesday's Nakba Day. Israeli helicopters yesterday fired rockets at the car of a Palestinian intelligence officer, killing two people. Another Palestinian was killed when Israeli tanks fired into a refugee camp south of Gaza City.

Nakba ­ "catastrophe" ­ Day is the Arab anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which caused the exodus of more than 720,000 Palestinians and the destruction of 417 Arab villages.

Last year, three Palestinians died and 1,000 were injured in the worst confrontations with Israeli security forces since 1996. There was no stronger signal of the explosion of violence to come; four months later, the intifada detonated.

One year on, the fury and frustration among the Palestinians in the occupied territories runs even deeper, stoked up by nearly 500 deaths, 15,000 injuries, a punitive economic siege, assassinations and shelling and rocketing of their cities.

But less attention is paid to the anger among Palestinians living on the Israeli side of the 1967 Green Line. Israel's Arab minority, nearly a sixth of the 6.4m population, have long complained of unequal civil rights and ­ in some cases, such as access to housing ­ blatantly apartheid policies. But their relations with the Jewish state suffered a huge blow in October when Israeli police shot dead 13 Arabs during riots at the start of the intifada. And they have been corroding steadily in the aftermath.

"The situation is very dangerous," said Mohamed Zeidan, of the Arab Association for Human Rights. "Some small event could set off the whole thing."

In November, Ehud Barak, then Israel's prime minister, reluctantly agreed to establish a commission of inquiry into the incidents surrounding the 13 deaths. An earlier attempt to fob off the Arab minority with a toothless "public clarification" committee had been boycotted.

Since then ­ far from healing any wounds ­ the commission, through no fault of its own, has become the source of even deeper hostility. Its hearings began with a brawl in the chamber. A police officer had his nose broken when a victim's relative attacked him while he was in the witness box. Plagued by controversy, the commission has only sat for 10 days in more than six months.

But the main blow to Arab confidence in the commission is inflicted by senior Israeli officials. Independent commissions of inquiry are usually treated with much respect in Israel. But ­ though its three members were appointed by Israel's Chief Supreme Justice ­ the commission is proving an exception.

Allegations abound that the Israeli government is trying to undermine it. Much of this is due to remarks by the hard-line right-winger whom Ariel Sharon appointed as Public Security Ministerin March. Uzi Landau, whose responsibilities include the police, has declared that the commission was established "by mistake, and for political motives".

Similar sentiments were expressed by the Israeli police's northern commander, Alik Ron ­ the man whose own conduct, along with that of his officers, lies at the centre of the commission's inquiries. He has described it as a "slap in the face" and declared that his officers had not made a single mistake. To the horror of Israeli Arabs, two senior policemen involved in the fatal events of Black October ­ as they are known by Palestinians ­ have been promoted.

The conclusion drawn by Israel's Arabs is that the Sharon government and the police force will ignore the commission's findings if they prove to be critical. "These kinds of statements and conduct have been delegitimising the inquiry, and challenging its credibility and importance," said Jamil Dakwar, a lawyer with Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

All this is taking place in an atmosphere in which Israel's Arabs find themselves treated with deeper suspicion and prejudice than ever, because of the hardening attitudes spawned by the intifada. Fresh evidence came last week, when it emerged that Israel's internal security service, Shin Bet, has been hauling in Israeli Arab poets, novelists and publicists to warn them against incitement in their writings.

"The Jewish majority is going more and more to the right," said Mr Zeidan. "More and more people believe that the Arabs don't deserve any basic rights. They make no distinction between us and the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza."

On Tuesday, several thousand Israeli Arabs are expected to march on government offices in West Jerusalem to demand the right of return for Palestinians who were internally displaced in 1948. It will be a very tense moment, a test of precisely how badly relations between the Jews and Arabs of Israel have deteriorated in the last 12 months.