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Last Updated: Monday, 2 May, 2005, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Israeli Arabs: 'Unequal citizens'
Jonathan Marcus
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

Nazareth Market, Israel
The alleyways of Nazareth market were once full of tourists

The narrow streets and alleyways of the old Arab market in Nazareth in northern Israel used to be packed with tourists and shoppers.

But that was in the good old days, before the start of the Palestinian uprising or intifada. Now, five years on, business is still suffering.

"People just didn't come back," one stall holder tells me.

His friend adds: "Some tourists come, but they stay elsewhere, they eat elsewhere. Just a quick look at Nazareth and then they are gone."

We wanted to be treated as equal citizens inside the State
Mohammad Daroushe

Nazareth is one of the great centres of Arab population in Israel.

There are some 1.3 million Arab citizens of the country - just under 20% of the population.

Around 80% are Muslims; the rest divide almost equally between Christians and Druze.

Intifada

The outbreak of the Palestinian intifada at the end of September 2000 prompted unprecedented clashes between Israeli Arabs and the Israeli police.

Mohammad Daroushe, Nazareth resident
Daroushe: Dream of equality has not materialised

In a week of rioting and violence 13 Arabs - 12 of them Israeli citizens - were killed.

A special commission was established under a Supreme Court Judge to investigate what happened. Its report made sombre reading.

While pointing to a growing Arab radicalism it said that the government's handling of the Arab population had been both "neglectful and discriminatory" and it criticised the police service for its attitude towards Arab demonstrators.

For an assessment of the impact of the intifada on Arab attitudes in Israel I turned to Mohammad Daroushe, a member of one of Nazareth's most prominent families and a leading researcher on Jewish Arab relations in Israel.

He told me that the intifada had highlighted the essential dilemma facing Israel's Arab population.

"We wanted to be treated as equal citizens inside the State," he said. "But this is a dream that has not materialised."

The intifada had inevitably served to strengthen people's Palestinian identity. The outcome was that today the majority of Israeli Arabs identify themselves as Palestinians by nationality and Israeli by citizenship.

Israeli Arab riots in October 2000
Arab Israeli riots in October 2000 left 13 dead

In the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem I met Azmi Bishara, who has been an Arab member of the Israeli parliament since 1996.

He told me that the intifada had similarly strengthened the nationalist Jewish tendencies of the State of Israel.

All he wanted, he said, was equal citizenship for Israel's Arab minority.

"I will never be able to celebrate the Independence Day of Israel, but I accept Israeli citizenship and Israeli law," he told me.

"If I accept that, I want full equality. We are not making a compromise about this," he added emphatically.

One of the major complaints of Israeli Arabs is that their municipalities benefit from far less government funding than Jewish areas.

'Affirmative action'

I put this point - especially with reference to educational spending - to Israel's Deputy Education Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, a widely respected champion of inter-faith dialogue.

Israel had never had a day of peace and inevitably it was still working out its relationship with its Arab minority, Rabbi Melchior said.

But he argued, more spending had to be directed towards Arab areas.

"There is a very clear understanding now that there had to be affirmative action to repair the errors of the past," he said.

And he argued that while the problems faced by Israeli Arabs could not be separated from the wider conflict, this relationship could no longer be "held hostage", as he put it, to the lack of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Urgent action was needed and education in his opinion, represented one of the best places to start.

It would be wrong to suggest that dramatic change is just around the corner for Israel's Arab population.

But the intifada has helped to establish a new identity for Israeli Arabs, as Palestinian citizens of Israel.

It's a label that even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has used; a small sign that old attitudes are slowly shifting, even as the struggle against decades of discrimination continues.


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