Israeli Arabs grow more involved in Palestinian terror

JERUSALEM — Once it was considered unthinkable that Israel's Arab citizens would lend a hand to Palestinian terror.

That assumption is among the many illusions that have been shattered by the 20-month-old Palestinian intifada.

In the latest incident, two Bedouin brothers from the town of Rahat near Beersheva were detained this week on suspicion that a Palestinian militant paid them to kill a senior Israeli police officer.

The Rahat case is one in a steadily growing chain of incidents where Israeli Arabs are suspected of collaborating with Palestinian terrorists.

Last week, five Israeli Arabs were indicted at the Nazareth District Court on charges that they assembled bombs. The five allegedly watched an "educational program" on Saudi television that showed viewers how to manufacture bombs from common household chemicals.

The Israeli Arabs carefully followed the instructions and prepared some samples for future use against Israeli targets, police allege.

Is Israel's nightmare scenario — that Israeli citizens are being recruited to the service of Palestinian terror — being realized? Or, as some of the suspects claim, is the Israeli General Security Service pestering its own citizens just because they are Arabs?

Previously, police detained four residents of the town of Taibeh, near Kfar Saba, suspected of having planted a bomb underneath a nearby bridge. The bomb exploded, but no one was hurt.

Two weeks ago, police detained Lina and Lamis Jarabouni, 29 and 28 years old respectively, from the Galilee village of Arrabeh. The sisters were suspected of "contacts with a foreign agent and assistance to the enemy."

According to the charge sheet, the sisters engaged in initial assistance to terrorists — such as copying Israeli identity cards for use by Palestinian terrorists — and Lina Jarabouni was ready to help terrorists cross the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank.

Earlier, police detained Latifa and Buheisseh Sa'adi, two sisters from the nearby town of Sakhnin, on similar charges.

Since the intifada began in September 2000 — and Israeli Arabs rioted in sympathy — scores of Israeli Arabs have been detained for alleged contacts with Palestinian terrorists.

In most cases they were suspected of having used their freedom of movement within Israel to help terrorists reach their targets.

In one case last September, a resident of the Arab village of Abu-Snan served as a suicide bomber near the Nahariya train station, killing three Israelis.

There are no official figures on the detention and indictment of Arab citizens. According to a national police command spokesperson, police statistics do not distinguish among Jewish and Arab Israelis.

However, according to unofficial figures based on sources in the defense establishment, at least 110 Israeli Arabs were detained last year on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities — a record high, and about three times the number in the previous year.

Some of the suspects allegedly engaged in terrorist acts themselves, while others assisted Palestinian terrorists from the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

By comparison, only 400 files were opened against Israeli Arabs in the previous six years.

"These figures are a clear sign of the growing tendency among young Israeli Arabs to join the ranks of Palestinian terrorism," said Eli Rekhess, a professor at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center and an adviser to the Abraham Fund.

However, security sources said they still consider Israeli Arab involvement with terrorism to be the exception rather than the rule. The rule is that the vast majority of Israeli Arabs, regardless of their political viewpoints, see terrorism as the red line.

Yet that could be changing. Since the signing of the Oslo accords and the rise of Palestinian autonomy just yards away from some Israeli Arab cities and towns, Arab politics in Israel has been radicalized.

Polls show a marked increase in the number of Israeli Arabs who identify as Palestinians who happen to reside in Israel, rather than as Israeli citizens. The Palestinian Authority has sponsored efforts to deepen this identification. Arab members of the Knesset have become increasingly provocative in denouncing Israel and sympathizing with the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, the Israeli Arab riots of October 2000 — when police shot dead 13 rioters — have deepened the community's feelings of alienation.

In an interview last week in the New York Review of Books, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak told historian Benny Morris of Ben-Gurion University that Israeli Arabs might serve as the spearhead of the Palestinians' national struggle.

That could necessitate "changes in the rules of the democratic game," Barak said, perhaps even the transfer of areas heavily populated with Arabs — like the city of Umm al-Fahm, a stonghold of the radical Islamic Movement — to a future Palestinian state.

Are such views merely a reflection of Barak's frustration? In the 1999 elections, Barak won almost total support from Israel's Arabs. In 2000, however, they boycotted the elections, contributing to Barak's landslide defeat.

Barak's role as prime minister during the October 2000 riots is still being reviewed by a commission investigating the events.

"Ever since the beginning of the intifada, the Arab Knesset members are busy with the 'national' issue," Rekhess said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Undoubtedly, the high profile of their activities created an atmosphere of unrest."

That is particularly true in areas where the Islamic Movement is strong.

Leaders of the Arab community, however, insist that authorities are intentionally exaggerating the Israeli Arab role in terrorism.

"What is happening in these very days is a case of political mutiny by the establishment against the Arab minority," said Yassin Yassin, the mayor of Arrabeh. "As long as the leaders of this country regard the Arab minority as hostile citizens and judge the entire community based on one case, this country has a problem."

"The truth is that I have no trust in the establishment," added Shauki Khatib, head of a steering committee for Israeli Arabs. "As long as I am boycotted by the establishment, how can I have any trust in it?"

Rekhess agrees.

Frustration has grown, particularly among the young, because of continued government neglect of the Arab sector, he said.

"The link between socioeconomic discrimination and national awakening creates violence," Rekhess said. "If one does not wake up for a comprehensive treatment of the entire spectrum of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, the situation might only deteriorate further."