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Israeli Arabs struggle for land

Sami Salameh at the site of his demolished home (l) and with his family in Majdal Krum (r)
After Sami Salameh's house was destroyed (l) his 14-member family moved to an illegally built three-room house (r)

After Israel's housing minister called on Jews to move to the north of the country to stop what he described as "the spread of Arabs" there, the BBC's Katya Adler reports on the struggle for land in the area.

Sami Salameh has taken me to what used to be his home before the Israeli authorities flattened it.

Metal rods and slices of skirting board are all that's left, among an expanse of sun-scorched wild grass.

He has brought along some photographs and kicks the earth as he shows them to me. The wiry 65-year-old man is angry and emotional.

"When the house collapsed so did my dreams," he says.

He insists this plot of earth belonged to his family dating back to Ottoman times. But Israel has claimed it as state land. He is not allowed to build here now.

Mr Salameh's new home is in the Arab town of Majdal Krum, in northern Israel. It's illegally built, as is the whole neighbourhood.

Ron Shani,head of Misgav Regional Council
"Zionism is not racism... Northern Israel is Arab, it's Jewish, it's Druze - we have to value and admire each other"
Ron Shani
Head of Misgav regional council

His family of 14 lives in three rooms. The sewage system is poor.

Mr Salameh's wife, Ashi, tells me the atmosphere in the house is listless and depressed.

He blames their birthright - living as Arabs in the Jewish state of Israel, he says.

"I lost everything when they demolished my house. If I had equal rights, I wouldn't be in this mess. Jewish communities get building permits easily. They have electricity, water, sewage, street lights and parks. How come they live like that and we don't?"

Just outside Mr Salameh's home, a group of boys plays football in the street. Their identity, like his, is complex.

They are Israeli but also Arab. Their families stayed put in Israel after its war of independence 60 years ago.

Israel's Basic Law says all its citizens are equal, but Israeli Arabs say some Israelis are more equal than others.

Neighbouring the town is the leafy, affluent, self-proclaimed Zionist village of Manof.

It is one of the growing predominantly Jewish communities encouraged in the north by Israeli governments since the late 1970s.

'No discrimination'

Northern Israel is home to the highest concentration of Israeli Arabs.

Israeli Arab children playing football in Majdal Krum

They complain they are being squeezed. Intentionally.

But Ron Shani, the head of the Regional Council, insists there is no discrimination here.

"Zionism is not racism. Not for me. Not for most people who live in Israel. Northern Israel is Arab, it's Jewish, it's Druze. We have to value and admire each other.

"We have a few Bedouin villages in my council. And it's not true that Israeli Arabs are barred from our Zionist Jewish villages - as long as they understand and accept this is a village under the Jewish Israeli ethos.

"Of course I came to live in the north with Zionist ideals in mind but Misgav villages were formed on government-owned land. No confiscation was done from Arab-owned land."

But a lot of Arab land was turned into Israeli state property in the years following Israel's independence.

The majority of Arab land expropriated was labelled "deserted property" by Israel's authorities before its acquisition by the state.

Towns 'restricted'

Hanan Swaid is an Israeli-Arab member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

He takes me to a vantage point overlooking the Israeli-Arab town of Sakhnin.

Israeli-Arab town of Um al-Fahm
An Israeli government commission found many Israeli-Arab towns are effectively blocked from expanding

He points out the problems Israeli Arabs face - overcrowding, poverty and the ways, he says, Israel's authorities strangle Arab towns, restricting construction, progress and growth.

"You can see surrounding Sakhnin this military base - which of course prevents Sakhnin and the people from using these lands which they used to own," he says.

"You can see there are only tens of metres between the houses of Sakhnin and the industrial zone.

"Of course all the benefits of this industrial zone go to Misgav - which is the Jewish regional council."

An Israeli government commission came to the same conclusions.

The Orr Commission published a report on the status of Israeli Arabs in 2003.

It says Israel has effectively blocked the expansion of its Israeli Arab towns by surrounding them with highways, nature reserves, Jewish councils, military zones or other entities.

'Cultural, not political'

The Israeli-Arab population has roughly increased sevenfold since Israel's independence.

Bearing in mind loss of land and building restrictions, human rights groups say the land available to Israeli Arabs has actually shrunk over the years.

"We don't intend to put them in ghettos, or limit their growth, they receive all the rights"
Ariel Atias,
Israeli housing minister

The Orr Commission concluded that "[the Israeli] government's handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory".

Hanan Swaid says it is not that the rights of Israeli Arabs are ignored, but they are given low priority.

"Israel is Jewish and democratic in theory but on the ground the two things don't mix.

"The definition of Israel as a Jewish state leads to giving the best to Jewish citizens. We Arabs are therefore discriminated against."

In Jerusalem I put the complaints and concerns of Israeli Arabs to Israel's Housing Minister Ariel Atias.

He dismissed them. He has caused quite a storm here, suggesting what he called the "spread of the Arabs" in northern Israel should be curbed and urging Jews and Arabs in Israel to live separately.

"We believe that the land of Israel was given to us Jews by the Lord. Eighty percent of Israelis are Jewish," he says.

"Having said that, there are citizens of Israel who are Arab. We want them to identify with the goals of the state of Israel. We don't intend to put them in ghettos, or limit their growth, they receive all the rights.

"They work for us, with us in factories, in all the restaurants. But each one wants to live with his own culture. It's not that, God forbid, we have anything against Muslims. We want to prevent friction. You may not like what I'm saying, but it's cultural. Not political."

One in five Israelis is Arab.

But academic studies, such as those completed by Oren Yiftachel, a professor at Israel's Ben Gurion University, suggest this 20% of Israel's population lives on around 3% of Israel's lands.

Living separately is one thing, but Israeli Arabs say no new Arab town has been built for them since 1948, when the state of Israel was created.



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