Magazine article Insight on the News

Israel's Arab Citizens Look for Normalcy

Magazine article Insight on the News

Israel's Arab Citizens Look for Normalcy

Article excerpt

After decades of dodging cross fire, Israeli Arabs are seizing upon the peace process to raise their heads and demand that the Israeli establishment give their rights and opinions more consideration.

There are approximately 1 million Arab citizens in Israel, nearly 19 percent of the total population, and their rallying cry is "Equality Now." They have become increasingly vocal and politically active in a display of dissatisfaction with what they regard as their second-class status. Addressing these demands has become one of Israel's thorniest problems.

By Israeli law, Arab citizens are equal to Jewish citizens. But few in Israel think it works out that way. Arab politicians and businessmen recite a litany of woes: discrimination in services and budget allocations to Arab neighborhoods and lack of employment opportunities (especially in the public sector) and a sundry assortment of laws and regulations that work to the detriment of Arabs.

There also are disparities in pay. Moneir Saloum, a building contractor, tells Insight that most of the Israeli Arabs he knows are self-employed because other options are closed to them and because they are paid lower wages than their Jewish counterparts. "They have no choice," says Saloum. "They have to accept lower wages, otherwise they cannot work." He says this carries over even to contracting, because it is assumed that as an Arab he will employ Arab workers and pay them a lower wage: "If I bid for a contract, [clients] expect me to be lower-priced than the Jewish contractor. If I have the same price as the Jews, [the client] will prefer them."

There is also, of course, the issue of attitude. The Jews "do not think of me as equal," Saloum says. "They think they give me the right to live by grace, and I don't accept that. I am their equal and I don't accept less than that."

Ironically, it is the progression of the peace process that is triggering these equality issues. As resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appears nearer, Israeli Arabs say they feel psychologically freed and increasingly confident to focus on their own needs and aspirations. Seeing their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza achieve higher political status has raised their own expectations for life in Israel.

According to a government source, the peace process will exacerbate the problem, at least in the short term. Before the peace process began, the disparity between Israel's treatment of Jewish and Arab citizens could be attributed to security needs, Insight's source says. After all, the logic went, Palestinian Arabs were the enemy "Now with peace, [Israeli Arabs] are saying, "What is your excuse for not guaranteeing our equal rights?'"

And the options for dealing with the problem diminish in a peacetime environment, the government source says. "It will make it more difficult to handle. Before, we had the option of force. Now we have to face the problem and solve it - or it will explode."

The real problem, like the root of the whole Arab-Israeli conflict, is that both Jews and Arabs see the land of Israel as their land. Issa Nikola, head of the Haifa municipal council, tells Insight: "Look, I was born in Haifa; my father was born in Haifa. I want to live beside the grave of my grandfather." And Saloum typifies the position of his community: "I don't think being Israeli is being Jewish. They call [the state] Israel now. Okay, I accept it should be the homeland of the Jews - but it is my home too."

Israeli Arabs say they have two identities: Palestinian first and Israeli second. They are adamant that they will relinquish neither, but the identity crisis is obvious. A key example is the call by the Israeli-Arab community for recognition as a "national minority," an ambiguous term highlighting the equally ambiguous Israeli-Arab identity While many experts say the Arab community is becoming more Israeli, there also is an underlying resistance to integration implied in being a "national minority. …

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