Monday, 19 May 2008

The Arabs of Israel

by Sultan Al Qassemi

There is a community of 1.3 million Arabs living within Israel but outside the Arab world. They have been neglected, ignored and often looked down upon by their fellow Arabs as traitors who have stayed behind while many Palestinian Arabs fled the violence of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

Upon the founding of the state of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs fled their homes and took refuge in neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, whereas about 120,000 Palestinians chose to stay and took up Israeli citizenship. These Arabs now make up about 20 per cent of the population of Israel; this number does not include the 600,000 Arab Jews who migrated to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, many of whom still identify with their ancestral homes.

These Arab Israelis, having lived in Israel for six decades, have among them third and possibly fourth generation citizens and are not likely to leave the country in the near future.

The Arab Israelis have every right to demand more representation and equal treatment in their adopted country as they struggle, like any minority, to assert themselves. Although the Israeli constitution guarantees them equal rights, their situation resembles that of the animals in George Orwell's literary masterpiece Animal Farm in which those who control the farm proclaim that "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" (no offence intended to either Jews or Arabs).

The sad truth is that the Arab Israelis enjoy more rights in a country that identifies itself as a Jewish homeland than they would have if they were living in any of the 22 Arab states that surround them. They can vote – genuinely vote with no pressure, rigging or strings attached. They have members of parliament who represent their rights, one of whom (Ghaleb Majadleh) holds a cabinet position, and they have the right to sue the government. Any of these would be considered an unthinkable excess in some parts of the Arab world.

In October 2000, a dozen Israeli Arab citizens were killed in clashes with the police as they marched in the wake of the second intifada. The Israeli government described the events as "tragic" and said that it "regrets the loss of life of citizens"; it paid compensation and censured the Israeli soldiers, one of whom was an Arab Israeli.

It is unimaginable that Arab states such as Egypt or Syria would entertain the notion of having the government sued, or opening an investigation into the many riots that turned violent in their streets in the past few years; nothing less than a total media blackout would have been imposed.

Israel, just like the US, has a system of lobbies that serve to look after and advance the causes of certain groups. We Arabs must take advantage of this opportunity and support our brothers and sisters who live inside Israel instead of ignoring and neglecting them.

Three times as many Arabs live in poverty as Jews in Israel. These are people with the power to vote in legislation that would protect the use of the Arabic language in a land over which we continue to recite poems, write articles and draw paintings to proclaim our love and devotion. People who maintain our traditions, culture and history, speak in our tongue and uphold our values – yet we turn our backs on them.

We claim that we care about the land of historic Palestine, but do we really? Is the best way to support the courageous people who have stayed in their homes and protected their lives and civilisation to ignore them for another 60 years?

Sadly, too few Arabs have decided to look beyond the animosity between Israel and the Arab world, and as a result we have almost no relations with our brethren within the state of Israel. None of the popular television song contests that broadcast in the UAE or Lebanon hosted even one Arab Israeli youngster. No summer camps invited Arab Israeli boy and girl scouts to interact with their kin on the other side. In fact there has been a policy of total exclusion between us.

Will the Arab world benefit from their departure from Israel? Who will take the 1.3 million additional Palestinians when we can't wait to expel those who already inhabit the numerous refugee camps in the Levant and North Africa? Why not support them financially, morally and psychologically?

It is only the Emir of Qatar in the Gulf who has donated a sum of US$6 million to build a football stadium in the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin in 2005 after it became the first Arab-Israeli side to win the Israeli Football Cup. Sixty years of waiting resulted in a meagre US$6 million from the ultra-wealthy GCC states. Sixty long years. And we wonder why…

Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is also founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai.

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Daniel said...

Again, an intelligent critique. Will it be so surprising to read one day that Israel has a Muslim president or prime minister? I think not. However, will it come as a surprise that Israel is still shunned by her Muslim majority (with the exceptions of Turkey and the UAE)regional neighbors? I suspect not. For far more dangerous to neighboring autocracies than a Jewish-dominated nation, is a nation that cherishes pluralism and democracy. After all, we may live to see a happy and liberal Muslim majority in Israel in a few generations. And yet, this Muslim majority may still celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel, not so much for establishing a Jewish homeland, as for establishing a democracy founded on the rule of law - for the benefit of all citizens, be they Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or other.

I think also of those Muslim Israelis who have died wearing the uniform of the Israeli army. Clearly there is some sense of appreciation for the benefits brought to them by the establishment of that imperfect Jewish nation.

Nasrawi said...

مرحبا يا سلطان, مشكور لالمقال هذا, ما قصرت.

It is one of the very few instances I have read an article talking about Palestinian citizens of Israel/Palestinians 48/Arab Israelis in an Emarati newspaper, and as someone who works with Palestinian civil society in Israel and whose wife is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, it feels good to having the community of over 1.2 million Palestinians being spoken about in an Arab Gulf newspaper. And in this I agree with you, for far too long the Arab world has ignored Palestinian Arabs as a consequence of the boycott of Israel and not to the benefit of the Arab states or to the Palestinian community.

However, I would like to offer a word of caution about the idea that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. In the Naqab (Negev) region of Israel, where I work, over 80,000 Palestinian Bedouin citizens of the Israeli state live in 'unrecognised villages', as part of official government policy and Israeli legislation, where they are being deprived of basic infrastructures – including water, electricity, adequate health care and education, sewage and refuse disposal, access roads, and other general services that a State is obligated to provide its citizens. They also lack local councils and are unable to obtain building permits and so live under constant threat of home demolition. This is despite the fact that these lands are their ancestral property that they have lived on and cultivated for centuries, and this policy is informed by a governmental agenda that focuses on land and demography concerns that aim to serve the Jewish population, at the expense of the Arab population in the State. Critics have also likened Ghaleb Majadleh's cabinet appointment as another layer of dressing on the facade that is Israeli 'democracy', where neither his appointment nor formal voting rights of Arab citizens offer any real hope to change the status quo and the institutionalized discrimination that Arabs face in Israel. Furthermore, as the 'Jewish and democratic' nature of the State cannot be challenged by those running for government elections according to Israel's Basic Law: The Knesset, any talk of parity and equality between the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants and Israeli Jews that would come about in realigning the nature of the State are automatically made moot.

As I'm sure you recognise, Sultan, social justice and democracy is not just defined in the formal political arena through voting but in having access to education, to land, to healthcare, adequate housing, and economic opportunities to sustain individuals and communities. This is not the case in Israel, as evidenced by the fact that 56% of Arab children and over 46% of Arab families live under the poverty line, even after governmental support of transfer payments and progressive taxation on income (The National Insurance Institute (2005), Sikkuy (2007)). I would like to say that such access to education, healthcare, social services, land, housing and economic opportunities is very existent for citizens of the UAE and some surrounding Gulf states.

Again, thanks for opening up the debate. Hopefully this is one of several steps to open channels of dialogue between Palestinians in Israel and the Arab world.

Anonymous said...

Hello Young Sultan,

Have read your article and that of the two readers, daniel and nasrawi. Well written views from all.

Don't you feel there is a double standard on both sides. How come none of the Islamic states, whether they are bordering Palestine or not have never given these refugees residency permits, passports, work permits, etc. While in every UN or major negotiation, conference, we show we want a homeland for our "brothers"(BIG JOKE!). Do we really care about them? Why did we not invite them to UAE, even as laborers, rather than getting everyone from India, Pakistan, and other Western countries. We know our brothers and sisters have been living in "HELL", squalor, worse condition than the pets in North America, etc. If we dont look after our own how can we invite an Israeli Arab to summer camp!

At least, theyPalestinians would have got dignity, have intermarried with the Emiratis whether male or female. Now more than ever, the population is marrying outside the community. It has become the thing to do. How many secret relationships with foreigners. Give me a break!!

For reading material read:

The Next Year in Jerusalem by Daphna Golan-Agnon.

Or for fiction read Dan Silva's books!

It always breaks my heart when I see the Hypocrisy of The Islamic Nations! Let's change it! Talk is cheap! Infact there are Israelis who are introducing music and bringing both sides together and trying to broker peace through youth! I do not know his name. I think I saw him on BBC.

Did the Egyptian government not throw out Palestinians recently, while they receive fair amount of aid to "Keep The Peace"!!!!!!!