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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 August 2006, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
Israeli Arabs caught in middle
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Jerusalem

About 700,000 Israeli Arabs live in the north of Israel, putting them in the firing line of rockets fired from Lebanon by Hezbollah.

Awatef Sheikh, 30, a consultant, lives in the Galilee village of Ibillin.

When the sirens go off, she grabs her nieces and nephews and ushers them into her parents' home.

Arab-Israeli woman closes shop in Akko, 8 August 2006
Arab-Israelis say they are caught in no man's land
But while Ms Sheikh says that the children are traumatised by the Hezbollah rocket attacks, she insists that Israel - and not Hezbollah - is responsible for the current conflict.

"The Arabs die in villages because of Israeli aggression against Lebanon. Hezbollah is firing these rockets to defend its people," says Ms Sheikh, an Israeli Arab, speaking on the phone from her village in northern Israel.

The current conflict in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah militants is sharpening the divide between Israelis and their Israeli Arab fellow citizens.

While opinion polls show that the Israeli public overwhelming supports continued military action in Lebanon, many of the Jewish state's approximately one million-strong Israeli Arab community blame Israel for the violence.

The division between us and the Lebanese is artificial - they are Arabs, they look like us, laugh like us, and eat the same food
Dr Azmi Bishara
Israeli Arab politician

"We're caught in the middle," says Ms Sheikh. "We are on the wrong side of the battle."

Representing about a fifth of Israel's population, most of this community are descendants of Palestinian families who remained in their towns and villages after the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Legally considered to be full Israeli citizens, many Israeli Arabs say they face discrimination in all walks of life - education, health and the workplace.

In the current conflict, more than a third of the civilian casualties on the Israeli side of the border have been Arab - of the 39 civilians killed by Hezbollah rockets, 15 have been Israeli Arabs.

Arab-Israeli Christian funeral in Haifa, 7 August 2006
Arab-Israelis have been among the victims of Hezbollah strikes

Even while suffering a disproportionately high number of casualties in Hezbollah rocket attacks, Dr Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Arab Knesset member and leader of the Balad political party, says that most Israeli Arabs empathise with the Lebanese.

"The division between us and the Lebanese is artificial," he says. "They are Arabs, they look like us, laugh like us, and eat the same food."

Some Israelis are angered by what they see as Israeli Arab sympathy with their enemy.

"Despite the developments that threaten their very homes, they (Israeli Arabs) are still capable of expressing solidarity with the Lebanese and attacking Israel's policy," wrote Dganit Kenig in the mass market Maariv Israeli daily newspaper.

'Human shields' claim

Dr Bishara says the current "nationalistic" climate in Israel means that it is impossible to oppose the war without being denounced as a "fifth columnist".

He has accused the Israeli government of providing no bomb shelters for the Arab population and using them as "human shields" by placing artillery units beside Israeli Arab villages in the north.

At the Knesset, there have been ugly scenes between Jewish and Israeli Arab politicians. They were reports in the Israeli media that one of the Israeli Arab representatives received death threats.

"The Arabs in Israel are excluded from politics right now," says Dr Bishara.

"They just sit and watch the television."

Like many Israeli Arabs, Dr Bishara believes that there will be repercussions for the community when the war ends.

"We will have to pick up the bill on this," he says. "If they lose they will turn against us, if they win they will turn against us."

For Ms Sheikh, the war has made it clear "that there is no illusion of co-existence any more."

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