For Israel's Arab Citizens, Isolation
by Scott Wilson, Washington Post
December 20, 2007
Fatina and Ahmad Zubeidat, young Arab
citizens of Israel, met on the first day of class at the prestigious
Bezalel arts and architecture academy in Jerusalem. Married last
year, the couple rents an airy house here in the Galilee filled
with stylish furniture and other modern grace notes.
But this is not where they wanted to live.
They had hoped to be in Rakefet, a nearby town where 150 Jewish
families live on state land close to the mall project Ahmad is
building. After months of interviews and testing, the town's admission
committee rejected the Arab couple on the grounds of "social
They petitioned Israel's high court to
end such screening, claiming discrimination, a charge town officials
"We can't just be good citizens,"
said Fatina, 27, who is expecting the couple's first child. "If
they won't develop our villages, then we will choose where we
want to live. The problem lies not with us, but with Jewish society
that does not accept the other."
The Zubeidats are players in a wider ethnic
clash unfolding in the Galilee, a northern region where Arabs,
those who remained in Israel after its creation in 1948 and their
descendants, outnumber Jews. Israel's policies have deepened the
gulf between Arab and Jewish citizens in recent years, through
concrete walls, laws that favor Jews, and political proposals
that place the Arab minority outside national life.
This process of separation within Israel's
original boundaries mirrors in many ways the broader one taking
place between Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories.
With most of Israel's land controlled
by a government agency, Israeli Arabs have long had more trouble
acquiring property than Jews, who outnumber them five to one in
a population of about 6.5 million people. In response, Arab lawmakers
joined a Jewish parliamentary majority this year in endorsing
the construction of a new Arab city in the Galilee, where demographic
rivalry and ethnic separation are most pronounced. Arabs say it
will be the first city built on their behalf since the state's
But some Jewish political leaders have
suggested that Israel's Arabs, who commonly refer to themselves
as Palestinian citizens of Israel, should eventually live in a
future Palestinian state, the subject of peace negotiations inaugurated
last month in Annapolis, Md. Israel's foreign minister and lead
negotiator, Tzipi Livni, said before the meeting that such a state
would "be the national answer to the Palestinians" in
the territories and those "who live in different refugee
camps or in Israel."
Arabs and Jews study in separate schools
in Israel -- the Arab system receives fewer resources -- and learn
Israeli history in different ways. Israel's Jewish education minister,
Yuli Tamir, ordered this year that Arab third-grade textbooks
note that Arab citizens call Israel's 1948 War of Independence
"the catastrophe." Many Jewish lawmakers reacted with
Except for a relatively small Druze population,
Arabs are excluded also from military service mandatory for all
but ultra-Orthodox Jews, an essential shared experience of Israeli
life and a traditional training ground for future political leaders.
Arab lawmakers have lined up now against a new proposal for Arabs
to perform "national service" in lieu of time in the
army, an institution they hold responsible for enforcing the Israeli
occupation of the Palestinian territories.
"We have lost the Arab citizens of
Israel," said Amir Sheleg, 63, who is head of security for
the Jewish community of Nir Zevi on Israel's coastal plain. "They
no longer want to be a part of the state, and I am sorry for it."
Sheleg, burly and bald, patrolled in a
black pickup truck along a concrete wall that rises along the
town's edge. The 15-foot-high barrier, funded by the government,
divides the leafy streets of Nir Zevi from the adjacent Arab community
of Lod. Rising crime, he said, prompted his town to begin building
the wall four years ago.
"It only adds hatred," said
Rifat Iliatim, 39, an Arab resident of Lod who sells horses for
a living. "All our lives we lived together and there was
respect on both sides. Do they want this part of Israel to be
like Jerusalem or Gaza where Jews and Arabs are separate?"
Acre is a city of 52,000 Arab and Jewish
citizens, many living in mixed neighborhoods along a sweep of
Arabs dominate the seaside Old City, a
U.N. World Heritage Site of crenellated stone walls possessed
over the centuries by Greeks, Egyptians and Crusader kings. A
single crowded high school just outside the ancient walls serves
the entire Arab population, 27 percent of Acre's total. The city's
five mosques, including el-Jazzar, the second largest in Israel
and the territories after al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, are also concentrated
in the area.
Jews live in the newer, outlying neighborhoods
that ring the Old City. For more than two decades, Jews rising
into the middle class left the older neighborhoods and Arabs filled
in behind them.
"This is a mixed city and that's
a fact," said Ohad Segev, Acre's Jewish director general,
who believes the two groups should mix as little as possible.
"Just as I wouldn't allow a yeshiva to open in the Old City,
I wouldn't allow a mosque to open in the new one."
In the past year, conflict between Arabs
and Jews -- over business hours, the right to open mosques, and
an increasing Jewish presence in Arab-majority areas -- has flashed
through neighborhoods running between the two largely ethnically
distinct parts of the city.
Yeshiva Hesder-Acco is dwarfed by decrepit
apartment buildings with laundry hanging from balconies. Once
populated by new Jewish immigrants, the apartments are filled
now by Arabs. Young girls walk the streets in head scarves. Arab
boys play soccer on the asphalt court next to the yeshiva.
"It's just background noise, part
of the scenery," said Mordechai Behar, a 22-year-old yeshiva
student, referring to his Arab neighbors. "We try not to
interact with them."
Yossi Stern, a 35-year-old rabbi, runs
the yeshiva with a bustling energy. He arrived in 2001 from the
West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, one of the earliest and most
radical in the territories, where he was a teacher.
His move reflected a shift in his focus
from settling the West Bank to promoting a larger and more politically
aware Jewish majority within Israel's original boundaries. He
has grown the yeshiva from 20 to 120 students since then.
"Inside the Green Line, people have
not awakened to their role of the last 100 years," Stern
said, referring to the 1949 armistice line that marked Israel's
boundary until it seized the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the
Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war. "If we fall asleep
here, we will wake up to an Arab majority."
His students volunteer in public schools
and direct tours of the Old City, where a state-run development
company is buying Arab property and selling it to Jewish businessmen.
Stern works with the city government,
led by a Jewish mayor, on projects designed to attract Jews to
Acre, including a recently approved housing development designated
for Jewish military families. Built on state land, the development
will include a new, 350-student yeshiva that Stern advertises
as "the center for Jewish identity in the Galilee."
"We're not trying to build a settlement
in this city," he said. "Here we're mature enough to
see this as a long process."
But Ahmad Odeh, an Arab member of the
city council, calls Stern precisely that -- "a settler"
trying to make Arab neighborhoods more Jewish. Odeh's family fled
from the Galilee village of Shaab during the 1948 war, eventually
settling in a neighborhood not far from Stern's yeshiva. Odeh
has sued the Jewish-majority council successfully six times for
violating Arab rights to education and property.
Odeh, a slight, wiry man with spiky hair,
has been lobbying the council to reopen a mosque outside the Old
City that the government closed decades ago. It sits among some
of the city's more than 50 synagogues.
Because the single Arab high school is
overcrowded, Odeh's eldest daughter commutes to one in a village
45 minutes from town, reversing the rural-to-urban migration patterns
of recent decades.
"This is all part of the project
to Judaize the Galilee," said Odeh, 48. "We want to
be partners in our city."
This hilltop community with streets lined
by date palms and split by lush grassy medians emerged in the
1960s as a Zionist response to the large Arab population in the
Galilee. The Zubeidats are among a tiny fraction of Arabs who
The couple considered building a home
in Sakhnin, a nearby Arab town. But as with many Arab towns and
villages, its public services pale next to those of Jewish ones.
The prospects appeared better in Rakefet, and they applied to
live there after marrying.
The Israel Land Administration controls
93 percent of the land in Israel, including the hilltop where
Rakefet sits. The government agency has a say in who is allowed
to live in such communities with a representative on the local
"absorption committees" that weigh the applications.
For the Zubeidats, who speak Hebrew and
Arabic fluently, the months-long process began in the summer of
2006. It included a series of interviews and tests, some taken
with the dozen or so Jewish applicants also seeking to move in.
"All the questions had to do with
how we would integrate into the community," Fatina said.
"We have many, many Jewish friends. We spend our holidays
with them, and they do the same. We're not from outer space, we're
The rejection letter followed a conversation
the Zubeidats had with an official from the Misgav Regional Council,
which oversees Rakefet and dozens of other nearby towns. He told
them, Fatina recalled, that although they were "very nice
people," he would have to begin marketing Rakefet as a "mixed
community" to possible buyers in Tel Aviv if they moved in.
The designation would hurt sales.
"Obviously, this whole process was
designed to push us back to Sakhnin," Ahmad said. "And
the way these Arab towns are now, it's like a ghetto."
Maya Tsaban, a spokeswoman for the regional
council that oversees Rakefet, said, "This decision was based
on rules we didn't make," referring to regulations established
by national government agencies. She declined to comment further.
The Israel Land Administration, which
set the selection criteria, rejected the Zubeidats' appeal this
year. An agency spokeswoman, Ortal Tzabar, said, "One aspect
taken into consideration in deciding whether to accept someone
is the homogeneity of the community."
The houses of Rakefet are set along steep,
curving streets lined with pines and cedar. Nadav Garmi, a 35-year-old
engineer, is building a home there. He makes a short drive each
day from his neighboring community -- also populated only by Jews
-- that falls under the same regional council.
"I'm very left-wing, but I think
Arabs should live in one place, ultra-Orthodox Jews in one place,
secular Jews in one place and so on," Garmi said. "If
you want a good neighbor, you have to have a place for everybody.
It's best not to mix too much."