Israel's Arabs Make Their Presence Felt amid Increased Tensions

Article excerpt

UMM AL-SAHALI, Israel - The 800,000 Arabs living within the Jewish state are finally becoming Israelis after 50 years.

An outburst of violence this month in this tiny Bedouin village on a hilltop 13 miles from the Arab city of Nazareth has focused attention on Israel's Arab minority.

They live mostly in the northern Galilee region and in the arid southern Negev, and they have struggled for five decades with the unease that comes from being Arabs - either Christian or Muslim - in a Jewish state.

Police acting on a court order more than 4 years old demolished three Bedouin houses in the village April 2 because they had been built illegally.

Two days later clashes broke out when volunteers helped the families rebuild.

When police tried to stop them, Arab demonstrators struck back with clubs and stones. A police spokeswoman said 22 police and 11 civilians were injured.

The violence, rare among Israeli Arabs, was reminiscent of the repeated clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

It prompted the government to sympathize with the Bedouins, whose village is one of about 70 in Israel that are not recognized by Israel.

Those unrecognized villages appear on no maps and receive no water or electricity.

Yet about 60,000 people, mostly Bedouins, live in them, according to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel that was established about a year ago. It is based in the Arab city of Shefaram, down the road from Umm al-Sahali.

Adalah, the Arabic word for justice, represents a new trend for Israel's Arabs, who have long been treated as second-class citizens in their own country, Israeli Jewish leaders acknowledge.

For the first time, in part because of the peace agreement between Israel and their Palestinian cousins in the West Bank and Gaza, they are using the Israeli legal system to stand up for their rights as a minority. It is akin to an Israeli Arab civil rights movement, with Adalah playing a role similar to that of the NAACP.

The incident occurred only weeks before Israel's 50th anniversary - April 30 on the Hebrew calendar - a day the Arab community for the first time is considering marking as a catastrophe.

Israeli independence sparked a war in which an estimated 780,000 Israeli Arabs fled the country. Those who remained, the Israeli Arabs, generally have kept a low profile for 50 years.

"The Israeli Arabs are undergoing a significant process of change, a process of Israelization," said Elie Rehkess, an expert on Israeli Arabs at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. …