Israel's enemy within awakens

The violence of the last week has finally stirred Israel's Arab citizens to take up arms alongside their Palestinian brothers

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The delicate patched fabric in which life in Israel is quilted has again been ripped at the seams. After two days of violent, deadly confrontation between the Israeli army and the residents of the Palestinian Authority, Israel's Arab citizens joined the fight. For a week now, thousands of demonstrators, most of them young, have been blocking intersections, severing major transportation arteries, stoning police and wrathfully razing all evidence of Israeli rule. By Friday, 10 demonstrators - Israeli citizens - had been killed and about a thousand wounded.

The delicate patched fabric in which life in Israel is quilted has again been ripped at the seams. After two days of violent, deadly confrontation between the Israeli army and the residents of the Palestinian Authority, Israel's Arab citizens joined the fight. For a week now, thousands of demonstrators, most of them young, have been blocking intersections, severing major transportation arteries, stoning police and wrathfully razing all evidence of Israeli rule. By Friday, 10 demonstrators - Israeli citizens - had been killed and about a thousand wounded.

Once again, in the blink of an eye, efforts to create a common civic culture bridging religious and national differences have been erased. Once again, the tragedy of our common Jewish-Arab existence in the state of Israel is plain for all to see. More than ever the crisis appears to have no solution. It is frightening and disheartening.

The root of the problem is, of course, that Israel's Jews and Palestinians never chose to live side by side. Being neighbours was imposed on them in 1948. The Palestinians, who until then had been a majority in Palestine, fled or were expelled. Those who remained became a minority in a territory conquered by the Jews, enjoying full rights of citizenship.

Yet in practice, the Palestinians in Israel suffered, and still suffer, from extensive discrimination. They receive less than their share of government funds, have had much of their land confiscated, and are permanent suspects in the eyes of the authorities. Israeli Jews seldom make any distinction between Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and those who live in the West Bank and Gaza. Both are seen as potential human bombs.

Over the years, Palestinian citizens have grown in number and now constitute about a fifth of Israel's population. However, for several decades the Israeli Arab minority has been anaesthetised by the fear of what might happen to them if they were to manifest support for an autonomous Palestinian identity. Even at the height of the intifada, when a bitter conflict raged between the Israeli army and the Palestinians of the occupied territories, Israel's Arabs sat on their hands. They never dared convene a mass demonstration. The thought of 100,000 Palestinian Israeli citizens marching towards Rabin Square in Tel Aviv is a nightmare for most Israeli Jews. But the Palestinians' own fear of the idea, and of the reaction of the Jewish majority, was apparently no less potent.

For their part, the Jews ignored the moral contradictions the situation caused and the way it distorted the image they wished to project - of an enlightened people living in a progressive, democratic nation. They were too busy with their own lives, in which the question was absent, and anyway there were always more urgent problems.

Slowly, the two communities, Jewish and Palestinian, taught themselves to live together by ignoring each other. There was no great mutual fondness. The Israeli body politic squirmed around the question of the Arab minority as if it were a bone that had broken and healed badly - gingerly, avoiding contact. From time to time, there would be outbreaks of violence, usually isolated, at which point, the Jewish majority would angrily demand of the Palestinian minority that it "prove its loyalty to the state".

While, over the years, steps were taken to correct injustice, they were too few. Even today, under the Barak government, there has been no significant improvement in the allocation of government funding to the Arab population. No Arab, in the 52 years of Israel's existence, has served as a cabinet minister. Sewage in many Arab villages flows down the streets in open gutters; the schools are in a sorry state, and the curriculum, when it addresses Arab identity and national history, is both biased and humiliating.

But the problem is not economic or social. It touches on the very foundation of the Israeli experience. It is hard to describe how complex, for example, is the dilemma of a Palestinian who wants to be an equal citizen of Israel, a country that defines itself as a Jewish state. This Palestinian citizen funds, with his taxes, a ministry of absorption that has, over the past decade, brought to Israel almost a million Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, with the declared goal of reinforcing the Jewish majority.

These new immigrants have taken jobs from Israeli Arabs, and to make room for them the state has more than once expropriated land that has for generations belonged to Arabs. Most chillingly, Palestinian citizens fund the Israeli army, in which they do not serve and which shoots their Palestinian brothers living a kilometre away, over the border.

Equally, how complicated is the position of the Jewish citizen of Israel, whose profound, authentic and legitimate aspiration has been, after thousands of years of exile and persecution, to live in a country run in accordance with Jewish tradition, Jewish culture, and Jewish historical memory. He has had to share his national home with a partner who, with all his soul, objects to every Jewish symbol and views any mention of the Holocaust as manipulation, meant to justify Jewish actions towards the Arabs.

In recent years, many Israeli Arabs have despaired of the possibility of egalitarian integration, and this despair has helped to reinforce the sense that only through their own efforts can they improve their position.

The effect of this shift has been that the Palestinian voice has become one of the most strident and militant in the Israeli chorus. The leaders of the Arab public have made brilliant use of Israeli democracy to articulate their interests. They have repeatedly posed challenges to the justice system, using every legitimate means to expose overt and covert discrimination against them.

Today, there are open calls for the establishment of an autonomous Arab State of the Galilee in the heart of the state of Israel. Arab students interviewed on Israeli television refuse to speak in Hebrew and insist on speaking their own language. With the events of the past week, the gulf has opened wider. Israel may well reach a final peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. But, then, a much deeper, and more threatening confrontation will begin between the Jews and their Arab fellow citizens.

Israel has only one way to prevent the bloodshed that such a process would unleash. It must immediately rectify the status of its Arab minority. It is impossible for the country to continue to separate a fifth of its citizens from its national life. The status quo is both immoral and destructive. Palestinians, in developing their heritage and culture, are bound to foster their natural links to the Arab world, as well as to the Palestinian state now being built. But the hope must be that they can do so while accepting the laws and precepts of the state in which they live.

These thoughts, conceived as the shots ring out around us and the odour of tear gas sometimes reaches the room in which I work, seem almost absurd just now. But there will be no life here, for Jews or Palestinians, if we do not reach an understanding that recognises differences in approach and interests, and strengthens the moderates - and these are not small in number - in both camps. Without such an accord, Israel, divided and in agony, is doomed to a lengthy, frightening and violent conflict within its own borders.

 

Translated by Chaim Watzman. David Grossman is a novelist and essayist.

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