Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Israeli Arabs torn by Gaza violence

Israeli Arabs hold an anti-Israel rally in Israel
Israeli Arabs have been vocal in their opposition to the Gaza conflict

By Paul Moss
BBC News, Haifa, Israel

"We are in a very difficult position," the woman told me. And then she burst into tears.

We are at a political rally held in this northern city to oppose the war in Gaza. Around us protesters held banners and chanted slogans.

Nearly all of them were Israeli Arabs, including my sobbing interviewee.

"We are citizens of Israel," she said, "but we are Palestinian. Emotionally, we are part of the people in Gaza."

She started crying again, and then explained why she had found the past two weeks so difficult.

"At the street, or at the supermarket, people are supporting the killing of children. And we are living among these people."

The people she lives among are, of course, Israel's Jewish majority.

Arabs make up just 20% of the Israel's population, people whose families lived here before the state of Israel was created, but who accepted citizenship afterwards.

A Palestinian youth is carried on a stretcher after an Israeli attack in Gaza City
Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed and injured by Israeli action

The relationship between the two communities has been under severe strain since the death toll in Gaza started climbing.

"They say there is co-existence," another protester told me.

"But how can we co-exist when Israeli people are saying the army should carry on, no matter that people are dying?"

A young man sporting a keffiyeh, the Palestinian scarf, is one of several who goes further, and voices sympathy for Israel's arch-enemy, Hamas.

"Hamas is struggling for the Palestinian people. I'm not supporting everything they do. But I'm supporting the struggle."

It marks a radical departure to hear sentiments like this shouted on Israeli streets.

Security threat?

Despite the appalling history of bloodshed between Jews and Palestinians in this part of the world, very few Israeli Arabs have ever taken up arms against the state, or openly supported those who do.

Israeli Arabs have tended to work within the law here, to fight for their rights, and to improve their lives.

But conservative Israeli politicians are warning that Israeli Arabs now represent a "fifth column" that threatens the country's security.

Every Arab is seen as the enemy. There is no trust. I can see only a very dark horizon ahead, and we don't know where it goes
Leah Tsemel
Israeli lawyer

Danny Ayalon from the party Israel Beiteinu is particularly alarmed at the stridency of opposition among Israeli Arabs to the war in Gaza.

He accuses some of lacking sufficient loyalty to the Israeli state.

"Israel is a very small country, six million Jews, surrounded by 250 million Arabs. If they connect with Palestinians on the other side of the border, then we have a problem."

The Israeli Beiteinu Party was behind recent moves to ban some Arab politicians from standing for re-election to the country's parliament, the Knesset, on the grounds that they were not loyal citizens.

The move has been passed provisionally, though may yet be struck down by the country's Supreme Court.

Police questioning

Meanwhile, Israeli police say they have brought "a number" of Israeli Arabs into police stations who have not committed any crimes, but just to warn them to stay within the law - a move one told me amounted to blatant intimidation.

"They are scared, that's my reading," says Ameer Makhoul, who was taken for questioning by a senior officer last week after organising a series of anti-war protests.

"He told me: 'you are terrorist, you are supporting the enemy'.

"But they cannot tell me how to behave. I am not an immigrant. I didn't come to Israel - Israel came to me."

Incidents like this have alarmed some Israeli lawyers, who fear that basic civil rights are being infringed.

Leah Tsemel sees it as part of an ongoing erosion of liberties, one that is corroding the very fabric of her country.

"I cannot promise to my children that they will grow up in a liberal democratic society," she says.

"Every Arab is seen as the enemy. There is no trust. I can see only a very dark horizon ahead, and we don't know where it goes."

Paul Moss is reporting for The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4.

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