One of the more disturbing developments in the Middle East is a growing consensus among Israelis that it would acceptable to expel—in the words of advocates “transfer”—its Arab citizens to either a yet as unformed Palestinian state or the neighboring countries of Jordan and Egypt.
Such sentiment is hardly new among Israeli extremists, and it has long been advocated by racist Jewish organizations like Kach, the party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, as well as groups like the National Union, which doubled its Knesset representation in the last election.
But “transfer” is no longer the exclusive policy of extremists, as it has increasingly become a part of mainstream political dialogue. “My solution for maintaining a Jewish and democratic state of Israel is to have two nation-states with certain concessions and with clear red lines,” Kadima leader and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told a group of Tel Aviv high school students last December, “and among other things, I will be able to approach the Palestinian residents of Israel, those whom we call Israeli Arabs, and tell them, ‘ your national solution lies elsewhere.’”
Such talk has consequences.
According to the Israeli Association for Civil Rights, anti-Arab incidents have risen sharply. “Israeli society is reaching new heights of racism that damages freedom of expression and privacy,” says Sami Michael, the organization’s president. Among the Association’s findings:
Some 55 percent of Jewish Israelis say that the state should encourage Arab emigration;
78 percent of Jewish Israelis oppose including Arab parties in the government;
56 percent agree with the statement that “Arabs cannot attain the Jewish level of cultural development”;
75 percent agree that Arabs are inclined to be violent. Among Arab-Israelis, 54 percent feel the same way about Jews.
75 percent of Israeli Jews say they would not live in the same building as Arabs.
The tension between Israeli democracy and the country’s Jewish character was the centerpiece of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party’s campaign in the recent election. His party increased its Knesset membership from 11 to 15, and is now the third largest party in the parliament.
Lieberman, who lives in a West Bank settlement near Bethlehem, calls for a “loyalty oath” from Arab-Israelis, and for either expelling those who refuse or denying them citizenship rights. During a Knesset debate last March, Lieberman told Arab deputies, “You are only temporarily here. One day we will take care of you.”
Such views are increasing, particularly among young Jewish Israelis, among whom a politicized historical education and growing hopelessness about the future has fueled a strong rightward shift.
In a recent article in Haaretz, Yotam Feldman writes about a journey through Israel’s high schools, where students freely admit to their hatred of Arabs and lack of concern about the erosion of democracy.
“Sergei Liebliyanich, a senior, draws a connection between the preparation for military service in school and student support for the Right” Feldman writes, “‘ It gives us motivation against the Arabs. You want to enlist in the army so you can stick it to them…I like Lieberman’s thinking about the Arabs. Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the rightwing Likud Party] doesn’t want to go as far.”
Feldman polled 10 high schools and found that Yisrael Beiteinu was the most popular party, followed by Likud. The left-wing Meretz Party came in dead last.
In part, the politicalization of the education system is to blame.
Mariam Darmoni-Sharviot, a former civics teacher who is helping implement the 1995 Kremnitzar Commission’s recommendations on education and democracy, told Feldman, “When I talk to a civics class about the Arab minority, and about its uniqueness in being a majority that became a minority, my students argue and say it’s not true that they [Arabs] were a majority.” She said when she confronted teachers and asked why students didn’t know that Arabs were a majority in 1947, the teachers become “evasive and say it’s not part of the material.”
In part, students reflect the culture that surrounds them.
“Israeli society is speaking in two voices,” says Education Minister Yuli Tamir. “We see ourselves as a democratic society, yet we often neglect things that are very basic to democracy…If the students see the Knesset disqualifying Arab parties, a move that I’ve adamantly opposed, how can we expect them to absorb democratic values?”
All the major Israeli parties voted to remove two Arab parties, United Arab List-Ta’al and Balad, from the ballot because they opposed the Gaza war. Balad also calls for equal rights for all Israelis. Kadima spokesperson Maya Jacobs said, “Balad aims to exterminate Israel as a Jewish state and turn it into a state for all its citizens.” Labor joined in banning Balad, but not Ta’al.
The Israeli Supreme Court overturned the move and both parties ended up electing seven Knesset members in the recent election.
“The ultimate aim here,” says Dominic Moran, INS Security Watch’s senior correspondent in the Middle East, “is to sever the limited ties that bind Jews and Arabs, to the point that the idea of the transfer of the Arab-Israeli population beyond the borders of the state, championed by Yisrael Beiteinu, gains increasing legitimacy.”
This turn toward the Right also reflects an economic crisis, where poverty is on the rise and the cost of maintaining the settlements in the Occupied Territories and Israel’s military is a crushing burden. Peace Now estimates that the occupation costs $1.4 billion a year, not counting the separation wall. Israel’s military budget is just under $10 billion a year. According to Haartez, the Gaza war cost $374 million.
Some 16 percent of the Jewish population fall below the poverty line, a designation that includes 50 percent of Israeli Arabs.
“The Israeli reality can no longer hide what it has kept hidden up to now—that today no sentient mother can honestly say to her child: ‘ Next year things will be better here,’” says philosophy of education professor, Ilan Gur-Ze’ev. “The young people are replacing hope for a better future with a myth of a heroic end. For a heroic end, Lieberman fits the bill.”
Intercommunity tension manifests itself mainly in the Occupied Territories, where the relentless expansion of settlements and constant humiliation of hundreds of Israeli Army roadblocks fuels Palestinian anger.
This past December, settlers in Hebron attacked Palestinians after the Israeli government removed a group of Jewish families occuping an Arab-owned building. In response, the settlers launched “Operation Price Tag” to inflict punishment on Palestinians in the event the Tel Aviv government moves against settlers. Rioters torched cars, desecrated a Muslim cemetery, and gunned down two Arabs.
Settler rampages on the West Bank are nothing new, even though they receive virtually no coverage in the U.S. media. But a disturbing trend is the appearance of extremist settlers in Israel. Late last year Baruch Marzel, a West bank settler and follower of Kahane, threatened to lead a march through Umm al-Fahm, a largely Arab-Israeli town near Haifa.
“We have a cancer in our body capable of destroying the state of Israel,” Marzel told The Forward, “and these people are in the heart of Israel, a force capable of destroying Israel from the inside. I am going to tell these people that the land of Israel is ours.”
Arab-Israelis charge that settlers—some of them extremists re-settled from Gaza three years ago— played a role in last year’s Yom Kippur riots in the mixed city of Acre and forced Arab families our of their houses in the east part of the city. Arabs make up about 14 percent of Acre and 20 percent of Israel.
Rabbi Dov Lior, chair of the West Bank Rabbinical Council, has decreed, “It is completely forbidden to employ [Arabs] and rent houses to them in Israel.”
The Adallah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights is urging Israeli Attorney General Mernachem Mazuz to investigate “Wild incitement to racism against Arabs in general and the [Arab] residents of Acre in particular.”
On Oct. 15, three days after the Acre riots, two Arab apartments in Tel Aviv were attacked with Molotov cocktails. Seven Jewish men were arrested. The Arab residents of Lod and Haifa charge that they too are being pressured to move.
In the case of Lod, municipal authorities are open about their intentions. Municipal spokesman Yoram Ben-Aroch denied that the city discriminates against Arabs, but told The Forward that municipal authorities want Lod, to become “a more Jewish town. We need to strengthen the Jewish character of Lod and religious people and Zionists have a big part to play in this strengthening.”
However, the growing lawlessness of West bank settlers and Jewish nationalists has begun to unsettle the authorities in Tel Aviv. After rightwing extremists tried to assassinate Peace Now activist Professor Zeev Sternhell, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin said the intelligence organization was “very concerned” about the “extremist right” and its willingness to resort to violence.
Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said “We are not willing to live with a significant group of people that has cast off all authority,” and called Operation Price Tag a “pogrom.”
So far, however, the government and Shin Bet have done little to rein in the rising tide of rightwing terror, which is aimed at Jews as well as Arabs.
Ahmad Tibi of the Arab Ta’al Party says that while Arab Israelis feel threatened by what Ben Gurion University political scientist Neve Gordan calls a “move toward xenophobic politics,” Tibi warns that, “It is the Jewish majority that should be afraid of this phenomenon.”
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Conn Hallinan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org