Torn between two worlds: Israel's one million Arabs

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The Independent Online

All his life Mohammed al-Sakhen has been a man caught between two conflicting worlds but he has never felt it more acutely.

His 19-year-old daughter, Kifah, is today lying in hospital in Israel while doctors work to save her bomb-shattered left thigh, knowing that she will be maimed for life.

The family are among the million Arabs with Israeli citizenship who have long been subjected to discrimination but are now treated with added hostility in Israel because of the fear and suspicion engendered by the Palestinian intifada.

Yet the wounds that have wrecked Kifah's life were inflicted by a fellow Arab, a Palestinian only one year her senior who sneaked into Israel from the neighbouring occupied territories to blow himself up on a bus. "We are not entirely accepted by either side," said Mr al-Sakhen, as he sat with his shocked family in Umm al-Fahm, an Arab town one mile inside Israel's border with the northern West Bank. "We are neither here nor there."

His daughter Kifah was injured as she was climbing aboard a bus on Wednesday to travel to her morning computer class in Nazareth Illit, 15 miles away. A few moments earlier, Raafat Diab, stepped on board, his black coat concealing a bomb strapped around his waist. He was yet another young man dispatched to Israel by Islamic nationalists on an horrific kamikaze mission to kill Israelis.

The attack – which murdered seven people, including four soldiers – was claimed by Islamic Jihad as "one link in a chain of strikes of rage" carried out to avenge the killing and mayhem sown by the Israeli army when it stormed into Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank earlier this month.

But the bomber, from Jenin, appeared to show little regard that his attack – unjustifiable, no matter how great the injustice that it seeks to correct – was also against the Palestinians of Israel, his relatives and neighbours whose forefathers remained on the land after the 1948 war which accompanied the creation of Israel. There were a number of Arabs on the bus, of whom at least five were hurt.

The bombing left Kifah's father, Mohammed, 54, in a state of confusion and unhappiness. Like many of the Arabs of Israel, he feels caught in the middle of the conflict He sympathises with the suffering of the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, who have endured a military blockade, deepening poverty, assassinations, F-16 and tank attacks, and the death of many hundreds of civilians, including children.

And yet he despises the violence, and yearns for action from the world's politicians – notably George Bush, and the US envoy General Anthony Zinni, who remains in the region, ploughing away with ceasefire talks with little evidence of progress and despite three suicide bombings within three days this week.

"We are here to live, not to destroy life," said Mohammed al-Sakhen – mixing Hebrew words with his Arabic. "You cannot liquidate a whole nation. There are two peoples in this landscape. You cannot wipe out the Jews and you cannot wipe out the Arabs. So they should learn to live together. Get a solution here, and this will be the greatest place in the Middle East." The conflict had disrupted his life long before his daughter's injury. He used to work as a cook in Tel Aviv. Now he can't get a job. His family of eight depends on the meagre income from a sparsely stocked grocery shop at the front of his house.

He is not alone. In an Umm al-Fahm cafe, all the men we spoke to had stories of hardship. Israeli employers – mindful of the strong ties between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians fighting the intifada, and one instance of an Israeli Arab suicide bomber – have fired Arab employees.

Kamal Yusef, 41, used to work in a Tel Aviv restaurant, but was told not to return after it was firebombed by a Jewish crowd in the early weeks of the intifada. Adnan Jabarin, 27, has lost his job as a supermarket worker, and relies on whatever he can earn as a manual labourer. Both men say that they are now repeatedly stopped and searched by the police.

Adding further to the stress in relations between Israel and its Arab minority, the authorities have chosen this tense period to put on trial the country's most prominent Arab parliamentarian, Azmi Bishara, who is accused of incitement by arguing that resistance to Israeli occupation is legitimate. The case, which resumes next month, is the first in which a member of the Knesset is being prosecuted for making political statements in the 54-year history of the state.

Israel is also nervously awaiting the findings of the Orr commission, the official inquiry into the killing of 13 Israeli Arabs by the police in October 2000. Both these events have the potential to cause a fresh explosion of unrest.