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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 August 2005, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Israeli Arabs fear for the future

By Martin Asser
BBC News website correspondent in Jerusalem

Amid the high emotion of Israel's evacuation from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank enclaves, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's acknowledgement of why the settlements were untenable has passed with little comment.

Palestinian man eyes Israeli border police officer
Ethnic tensions are simmering in Jerusalem

"The changing reality in the country [...] required a change," Mr Sharon said in his televised speech last week.

"We cannot hold on to Gaza forever. More than a million Palestinians live there and double their number with each generation."

In other words, demography - not security - is driving the so-called disengagement plan.

This has long been the explanation of most analysts, but it is the first time it has been articulated so clearly by Mr Sharon.

Israel's dilemma is, how can it be a Jewish state if there is a Palestinian Arab majority residing in territory under Israeli control?

The demographic struggle manifests itself in several ways, some of them constructed in steel and concrete - the "strengthening of settlements" and the West Bank barrier - but other manifestations are more subtle.

Divided population

Take, for example, Beit Safafa - a dilapidated Arab village long since engulfed by the southern expansion of Jerusalem - now surrounded on all sides by Jewish settlements and neighbourhoods.

The village is famous for straddling the old post-1948 Green Line between Israel and Jordanian-controlled West Bank, with both halves coming under Israeli control after the 1967 war.

That means about half its residents have Israeli citizenship while the rest are West Bank Palestinians with Israeli-issued Jerusalem residency papers.

In the past, the former have always felt superior to the latter - enjoying rights and privileges as "Israelis" that their "occupied" cousins lacked.

"That is all changing," says one Israeli Arab resident. "Jews used to view us with respect, now they look at us the enemy, like people from the West Bank."

The speaker, and everyone else I met in Beit Safafa, spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared the consequences of getting on the wrong side of the Israeli authorities.

Sticking together

Residents cite a litany of official government measures, as well as their daily interaction with Israeli Jews, that underline a clear message.

Recently they don't want me around anymore. They are more sympathetic to the Jewish settlers, their own kind
Arab Israeli

"They are all saying the same thing: It's not your land; what are you doing here?" says one young man, a sound engineer.

"Most of my friends were Jews," the engineer says. "We used to do concerts together and went to parties. But recently they don't want me around anymore. They are more sympathetic to the Jewish settlers, their own kind."

Many of the older residents talk fondly of past times when Jewish and Arab Israelis used to attend each other's weddings or enter business partnerships. Not any more.

They reminisce about when the police were even-handed in dealing with disputes between Jews and Arabs.

An unemployed labourer says wryly: "Imagine if some Arabs had thrown acid on police, like the settlers in Gaza did. Oh, they'd be really for it."

The Arab inhabitants also claim to be discriminated against at work. When for example a business is facing difficulties it is always the Arab employees who are made redundant first, they say.

Marital problems

It is hard to say whether Israel's current efforts to make itself more Jewish has any bearing on this deterioration in relations.

Being an Arab in Israel means that you have lost your identity. You don't have any satisfaction at the end of the day, like a normal citizen of a normal country
Arab Israeli schoolteacher

But there are some tell-tale signs that Arab citizens are not valued by the state in the same way as their Jewish counterparts.

Marriage is a major issue for Beit Safafa residents, especially the fact that, if they marry someone from outside Jerusalem, the Israeli authorities are very reluctant to offer their spouses residency.

Take one man I met. His son has been married for five years to a woman from Bethlehem - just a couple of kilometres to the south. The whole time they have been applying for a Jerusalem residency, but in vain.

"The Israeli government official who we applied to has suggested that one of them lives here and the other in Bethlehem. That's their solution," he says.

Another of the man's relatives married a Jordanian man. He cannot even get a visa to visit her in Israel, despite the existence of full diplomatic relations between the two countries.

"Israelis can come and go in Jordan as they please, they buy land and run companies," the man says.

Moreover, Jews and their spouses can come from anywhere in the world and exercise their "right of return" to settle in the world's only Jewish state.

"It is true there are no Arab democracies," the man says. "But when Israel claims to be the only democracy in the region it should add, 'it is the only democracy for Jews'!"

Financial concerns

The sense of grievance among Arab citizens of Israel arises from economic issues too.

Israeli protesters at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office
The Gaza withdrawal has widened gaps in some cases

A local schoolteacher claims Arab schools receive about 2% of the education budget, even though the community makes up 20% of pupils.

Arab districts in Jerusalem are visibly more run-down than Jewish ones. Urban improvement projects pass them by.

Building permits take years to obtain and cost upwards of $30,000. This disproportionately affects Arab residents, as Israelis tend to live in flats.

Additionally, although all Israeli citizens must perform army service, the law is not enforced on Arab citizens - for "humanitarian reasons" - so they do not have to bear arms against their own kind.

But there are financial benefits from being in the military, such as improved credit ratings and national insurance rebates.

Fear

Arab citizens make up about one-fifth of Israel's population, but they are far from being a contented minority.

"Being an Arab in Israel means that you have lost your identity," says the schoolteacher.

"You don't have any satisfaction at the end of the day, like a normal citizen of a normal country."

An eminent doctor at an Israeli hospital says: "I feel I have to prove myself again every day".

A young visitor from the north of the country describes how her behaviour has changed since two shooting incidents in which eight Israeli Arabs and Palestinians were killed by Israeli settlers trying to disrupt the Gaza pullout.

"I have never been afraid of being an Arab before, but I am now.

"I was on a train the other day talking to this Jewish girl. She asked where I did my army service, and I had to lie, saying I hadn't done it yet because I've been away, but I'll do it soon.

"I don't want to be recognised as an Arab, because at any time someone could put a gun to my head, and it would be all over for me."


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