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Israeli Arabs defiant on 'loyalty laws' plan

The BBC's Heather Sharp reports from the Israeli-Arab town of Um al-Fahm, where residents are angry over two proposed laws apparently aimed at increasing their loyalty to the state of Israel.

Suleiman Fahmawi, Nakba march organiser from Um al-Fahm
Next year, Suleiman Fahmawi hopes to march to his parents' old village

"They're welcome to jail us," says Suleiman Fahmawi.

He is planning next year's Nakba march, even though it could be illegal.

Every year, as Israelis celebrate their independence with flags and barbecues, he organises mourning marches to destroyed Arab villages.

In the 1948 Nakba, or "catastrophe", 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes as Israel claimed its independence.

A controversial bill backed by a government committee in Israel's Knesset last week is seeking to ban marking it in Israel.

Next year's planned march is to the village Mr Fahmawi says his parents were forced from three years before his birth.

They remained in Israel, meaning he was born into the conflicted situation of the state's Israeli-Arab minority - Israeli citizens who identify themselves with Palestinians.

'Fifth column'

The bill, proposed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu, is part of what many see as a drive to demand deeper loyalty from Israeli Arabs.

Artist Nasreen Abu Bakr, Um al-Fahm gallery
They are deleting our memory... They're going to delete our language, our Arabic street names... We'll become Jewish
Nasreen Abu Bakr
Israeli-Arab artist

They make up 20% of Israel's population and face widely documented discrimination, but are feared by some Israelis as a potentially hostile "fifth column".

Mr Lieberman's party also wants all Israeli citizens to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state and perform some form of national service.

Member of parliament Alex Miller, who proposed what is being called the Nakba bill, says citizens who want equal rights should shoulder "equal responsibilities", and not "go on demonstrations against the existence of the state".

The town of Um al-Fahm, where Mr Fahmawi lives, is in some ways a symbol of the issues that irk Yisrael Beiteinu.

Clusters of new-looking red-roofed villas declare at least modest prosperity amid the battered pavements and dense jumble of concrete houses.

Many residents work in construction, commuting to Israel's mainly Jewish towns.

But the green flags of the Islamic Movement, which controls the council, flutter on lampposts.

'They control everything'

Last Nakba day, its deputy leader declared "the Zionist sun will set, as the sun of the Islamic state rises".

Its head has previously accused Jews of using children's blood to bake bread and called for Jerusalem to be the seat of a wide-reaching Muslim state, or caliphate.

In offices adorned with photos of the iconic Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, sits Abdelhakeem Mufeed, editor of the movement's newspaper.

Abdelhakeem Mufeed, Editor of Islamic Movement's newspaper
Abdelhakeem Mufeed says his loyalty is "to Palestine, not Israel"

His voice rises at the suggestion his leaders' statements might alarm Israelis. "You care for the Israelis? Why are they afraid when they control everything? The Palestinians are the ones who are suffering!"

He believes clashes - and possibly even a third intifada or uprising - will result if the bills are pushed through.

"Our loyalty is to our nation, Palestine, not Israel. We cannot be loyal to the country that demolished our houses, the one responsible for our Nakba," he says.

But the Islamic Movement by no means represents the feelings of all Israeli Arabs.

ISRAELI-ARABS
About 1.2m, a fifth of Israel's population, are Israeli-Arabs
They are citizens of Israel, but face widely documented discrimination
Outgoing PM Ehud Olmert said there is "no doubt" Israeli-Arabs have faced discrimination for "many years"
Israeli-Arabs own 3.5% of Israel's land, get 3-5% of government spending and have higher poverty levels than Jewish Israelis*
There are 13 Israeli-Arabs in the 120-seat Knesset, 10 representing [primarly] Arab parties
*Source: Mossawa Center

Further down the town's steep streets, Said Abu Shakra shows me round the white-walled art gallery he founded 13 years ago.

It promotes dialogue by hosting work by Palestinian, Jewish and international artists.

"Of course, I accept Israel's existence," he says. "In spite of all our history… We have to look forward."

Mr Abu Shakra understands why statements such as those of the Islamic Movement worry Israelis, but feels they are taken to represent the wider population in a way that the rhetoric of Jewish extremists is not.

Installation artist and painter Nasreen Abu Bakr, 31, has just returned from visiting a Jewish friend.

"In reality there is a state of Israel, but I inside I still have a problem with it. There is a conflict between my identity and my life in Israel," she says.

Ms Abu Bakr says the two bills will be a "disaster" if they pass - although they face many hurdles.

"They are deleting our memory and they're not going to stop here. They're going to delete our language, our Arabic street names. We'll become Jewish."

'It's part of staying'

Many people in Um al-Fahm do not feel they owe Israel anything beyond the taxes they already pay.

They blame Israeli under-investment for the lack of work in the town, and say they have little option but to work for Jewish Israelis.

"Israel does not give us our rights," says Mr Fahmawi, "we take them".

Houses in Um al-Fahm
Many of Um al-Fahm's residents work in construction around Israel

In his comfortable house he says he battled discrimination to become a civil engineer and now works for both Jewish and Arab companies.

"It's business," he says. "And I want to stay in this land - living and working is part of staying."

Analysts say the gap between Jewish and Arab Israelis is growing.

An annual Haifa University survey recently found only 53% of Israeli-Arabs recognised Israel's right to exist, down from 81% in 2003, while 40% denied the Holocaust, up from 28% in 2006.

Israeli-Arabs cite the recent Gaza and Lebanon wars and ongoing discrimination as reasons, while some in Israel fear such findings show Israeli-Arabs becoming more radical.

Even with Israel's right-leaning government, the two draft bills are drawing vocal opposition and may never become law.

But many fear that they are already widening the gulf.



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