Arabs inside Israel isolated by suspicions on 2 fronts

November 11, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Mohammed Darawshe was born in Israel, is an Israeli citizen and is an Arab, factors that lead him to conclude that political conditions for him and people like him are bad and likely to get worse.

"Israeli Arabs are becoming the black sheep of Israel and a target of blame," said Mr. Darawshe, director of an organization that promotes contacts between Arabs and Jews. "The Israeli Jewish community misunderstands the relationship between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world."

More than ever, Israel's 840,000 Arab citizens are people caught between mutually suspicious forces.

On one side are the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, people who are literally the cousins of Israeli Arabs but also the instigators of the 3-year-old uprising against Israeli rule. Since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, they also have sided with President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who has threatened to launch chemical weapons against Israel.

On the other side are Israel's Jews, accounting for about 80 percent of the population of the Jewish state. They have been alarmed by seeing Israeli Arabs develop their own politics, as expressed by strikes and other protests showing sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

"It leaves a person like me in a funny place," said Mr. Darawshe. "My interest is in the idea of Jewish-Arab coexistence. I believe it's really the best choice for the Arab community, just from the standpoint of hard-core politics. We've seen what happens to refugees, and we're not interested in that."

Coexistence rarely has seemed a more distant fantasy. These are the days of Palestinians attacking Jews within Israel, of Jews shouting "Death to the Arabs" and promising revenge, and of public opinion associating Israeli Arabs with Palestinians and considering them almost equal threats.

Members of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing Likud bloc are among those insisting that Israeli Arabs are a danger to the state. Uzi Landau, a Likud member of parliament, said in a recent television debate that Israeli Arabs and Palestinians were indistinguishable because both wanted to destroy Israel.

"Israelis are handcuffed by their own suspicions," said Ibrahim Abdallal Sassur, the Arab mayor of Kfar Qasim. "Anyone who dares to speak about the Palestinians, the Israeli government accuses them of being radical and an enemy of the Jewish people."

Israeli Arabs have causes for complaint about the way the government treats them. By almost every material measure, they are second-class citizens. Israel's government spends less on each Arab in public school than on each Jewish child. It pays Arabs lower unemployment benefits, charges them higher interest rates on mortgages for their homes and awards them smaller family payments for each child.

Many of the economic differences are due to Israel's exempting most non-Jews from military duty but then offering many services only to veterans. As a result, Arab citizens cannot even apply for what virtually all Jews are guaranteed.

"Everybody admits there is a great gap, but nothing is done," said Mr. Sassur.

As in most Arab communities, Kfar Qasim has a network of unpaved streets. Many neighborhoods have no sewerage. Public schools have to count on volunteer labor for repairs. The municipality is heavily in debt.

Israeli Arabs are further aggrieved by the attention lavished on the tens of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union. Whatever government money might have been available for improvements in Arab communities now will go for housing and retraining the new Jewish arrivals.

"Before immigration, we lacked any budget for development," Mr. Sassur said. "Now we have even less hope of getting the minimum that we need. The immigration is happening at the expense of the Arabs."

But the largest single cause of friction between the government and its Arab citizens now is the favorable response of parts of the Arab world to Mr. Hussein.

When the Palestine Liberation Organization sided with Iraq, it seemed to confirm the fears of many Israelis that Palestinians had never abandoned the goal of claiming Israel as well as the occupied territories.

When Palestinians in the territories spoke out in favor of Iraq, those Israeli fears became larger. And when an Israeli Arab member of the Knesset gave qualified praise for Mr. Hussein, the loyalty of all Israeli Arabs became suspect.

Abdul Rahim Issa, a former mayor of Kfar Qasim, suggests that those tensions have added to Israeli Arabs' insecurity. "We live in the state of Israel and we will continue to live there, but we're interested in getting the Palestinian problem solved.

"People say they support Saddam because he's supposedly the one supporting establishment of a Palestinian state," Mr. Issa said. "We could support anyone -- we could support even Bush -- if we could get this problem solved."

In the meantime, Israeli Arabs probably will be stuck in the uncomfortable middle. "Why should I really believe the government is going to care about me?" Mr. Darawshe said. "I'm one of the people who learned in school that Israel is a democracy, and believed it, maybe out of naivete, but also because of wishful thinking. I want to hold Israel to it. I'm not ready to compromise my rights."

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