NIF panelists at UCSF call for Arab rights in Israel

Yuli Tamir wanted to pay a condolence call to the family of one of the 13 Israeli Arabs killed by Israeli police in October. The minister of absorption under the Barak government knew the family personally, and she called the mayor of Nazareth in advance. But government protocol requires that when a minister visits an Arab village, a police escort must be on either side of the car, complete with sirens. No such thing happens if she visits a Jewish town.

"The mayor said, 'Do me a favor, don't come,'" Tamir said. "We can never enter an Arab village without creating a feeling of alienation and suspicion."

She recounted this on Sunday to some 175 people gathered on a beautiful spring day to hear a symposium called "A Tale of Two Peoples: The Crisis of Coexistence in Israel," sponsored by the New Israel Fund. The event took place in the Laurel Heights Conference Center at UCSF.

The Arabs inside Israel, who since October largely call themselves Israeli Palestinians, make up almost 19 percent of Israel's population. And it was the relationship between them and Israeli Jews that was the focus of the day, although at many points the discussion spilled over to include the Palestinians in the territories as well.

In some introductory remarks, Yoram Peri, president of the international board of the New Israel Fund shared the following statistics:

*In Israel, 32 percent of Arabs live below the poverty line, compared with 14 percent of Jews.

*Arab faculty members at Israeli universities number 50, out of 5,000 total.

Since October, which has come to be known as "Black October," Basel Ghattas has not missed an opportunity to speak to American Jews. The director-general of the Galilee Society, which is the oldest Palestinian non-governmental organization in Israel, has a fellowship at the University of Maryland this year. So far, he has been averaging about one such appearance a week.

Ghattas offered additional statistics, saying that more than 50 percent of the children living below the poverty line in Israel are Arab. He also said Arabs cultivate more than 15 percent of the land in Israel but receive less than 3 percent of the water allocated for agriculture.

The domestic water allocation in Israel is 125 cubic meters per capita per year for Jews, 45 for Arabs and 35 for Palestinians in the territories. These figures show that "despite being supposedly equal citizens, Palestinians in Israel have suffered and have been completely marginalized by all Israeli governments," said Ghattas, in a speech that would set the tone for the rest of the day. "It's been acknowledged by Israeli prime ministers from both wings, but little has been done. We no longer need to work to prove it."

While Ghattas had the crowd's sympathy on those points, he lost some of it when he advocated a binational state as the solution, with power shared among Jews and Arabs. "No Israeli government will be able to transfer thousands of Jewish settlers back within the Green Line," he said.

Tamir disagreed, saying that a one-state system wouldn't work. Even in Belgium, where tempers were nowhere near what they are in the Middle East, it didn't work so well, she said.

"While the binational state is becoming more and more of an option that is seriously discussed by Arabs and Jews, our situation is not right for it."

However, the fact it is even mentioned has raised awareness among the Israeli public about the dangers of prolonged occupation, Tamir noted.

She called the Israeli Palestinians loyal citizens, saying, "There are Jews sitting in jail for spying against Israel. No Israeli Arab has ever done that."

In a panel on the shaping of public opinion over the al-Aksa intifada, Nitzan Horowitz, the Washington bureau chief for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, said since few Israelis actually go into the territories, their views are largely influenced by the Israeli media.

"When Jews are killed, they are murdered," he said. "Arabs are killed, not murdered."

Furthermore, he said, when a Jew is killed, the Israeli media will interview the victim's family members and neighbors, and cover the funeral. But in the territories, it will be written that a Palestinian was killed without mentioning his name.

"Israeli Jews have the feeling that they are being attacked all the time, while the Palestinians are not being killed at all," he said. "If we are really for peace and trying to stop the violence, it is absolutely necessary that we be fair in covering the pain and suffering on both sides."

He acknowledged that this is difficult since both Israeli Jews and their American Jewish counterparts tend to believe that it's not in Israel's best interest to report on such things.

In a breakout session on "Advocacy and Action," panelists Ghattas; Yohanna Lerman, an NIF civil liberties law fellow; and Heather Harris, the former director of resource and strategic development for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel; discussed ways in which Jews and Arabs could work together on such nonpolitical issues as the environment.

One questioner asked Ghattas to explain why Israeli Arabs had not done more to improve their own status. After he replied, Tamir then jumped in, adding, "It's amazing that every time we discuss the inequality of Arabs, the first question always asked is what they can do to fix the situation."

At the end of the day, Len Traubman of San Mateo, a pioneer of Jewish-Palestinian dialogue around the Bay Area, said he agreed with what journalist Horowitz had to say.

"We don't listen," Traubman said. "There's a general ignorance in Israel and the U.S. about what the Palestinian people are experiencing. But the ignorance is mutual."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."