Israeli Arabs find no joy during Independence Day

Every Independence Day, Michael Fanous, an Arab city councilman in Ramle, tries to be far away from home. It conjures up bad memories, he says, so he'd prefer to leave the city's Jews to celebrate on their own.

Fanous has no plans for Thursday, Israel's 50th Independence Day. "I definitely won't be celebrating, though," he says. "I understand that the Jews are happy over winning their independence, but they have to understand that what happened in 1948, which is what makes them happy, is the reason most of my family is no longer in Ramle."

Every Independence Day, many of Ramle's 12,000 Arabs (out of a population of 65,000) come shake hands with officials and watch the dancing and fireworks. Many will no doubt do the same this time. "But I don't think any Arab citizen of Israel is happy in his heart on Independence Day," says Fanous.

"Together in pride, together in hope" is the theme of Israel's jubilee. But the country's nearly one million Arab citizens are not part of this togetherness. They can't be.

The Arabs started the war in 1948, and the Jews' victory was their loss. Some 700,000 Arabs became refugees. Most fled the country, but some, including nearly all of Ramle's Arabs, were expelled.

Palestinians have a different term for the War of Independence — they call it the nakba, or calamity. They plan to commemorate their nakba in a low-key way, with lectures and exhibits in some West Bank and Gaza cities.

Israeli Arabs are debating whether to observe a kind of "anti-Independence Day" of their own. The Monitoring Committee, which includes Arab Knesset members, as well as mayors and public figures, has entertained the idea of declaring Independence Day the "50th Anniversary of the Palestinian Calamity." Other suggestions include treating the Israeli holiday as a day of mourning, and publishing a "black book" listing the many Arab villages destroyed in the war.

Arab Democratic Party MK Taleb a-Sanaa has recommended that Israeli Arabs mark the day with "a minute of silence" in memory of the Palestinians killed since 1948.

The jubilee celebrations will not address the alienation felt by Israeli Arabs. "Our job is to plan the events, not to try to solve the Arab-Jewish conflict," says Nava Inbar, spokeswoman for the official jubilee planning committee.

For the most part, the celebrations will not make distinctions between Jews, Arabs or any other national group, says Inbar.

However, there will be parades for Druze and Circassians — who serve in the army, unlike the Muslim and Christian majority among Israeli Arabs. A special event for Bedouin in the Negev, many of whom also serve in the army, will also be held.

Their defeat and mass exile 50 years ago is one reason why Israeli Arabs say they have nothing to celebrate. The discrimination they feel to this day is another reason.

"The military rule over Israeli Arabs is over, but there are still confiscations of our land, especially the land owned by Bedouin in the Negev," says Samih al-Kasim, editor of a Nazareth newspaper and one of the Arab world's leading poets.

"And there are still Arab `refugees' inside Israel today — over 40 of our villages remain unrecognized. The plans to `Judaize the Galilee,' the warnings of a `demographic problem' in the Haifa area — how can we see this as anything but racism?"

Another reason Israeli Arabs are embittered is the near collapse of the peace process. Fanous, 39, says the one year when he took part in local Independence Day events was 1994, because he believed the Oslo Accords, signed the previous year, would bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since then, his optimism has steadily dwindled. "I'll only be able to celebrate Israel's Independence Day when my relatives and my people in Palestine can celebrate theirs," he says.

Fanous, whose local Arab party, Progress and Equality, is part of the municipality's Likud-led coalition, says that Arabs in Ramle have gotten better treatment in recent years. Arab neighborhood schools and infrastructure have been upgraded somewhat, and more money and attention have been given to Christian and Muslim holiday events.

Ramle city manager Yagil Levy admits that holding an Independence Day that both Jews and Arabs can celebrate is impossible.

"Many local Arab citizens come to city hall, and are attracted by the festivities in the streets, but this doesn't change the fact that the holiday speaks principally to the Jewish population," he says.