Between 2 Cultures : For Arabs of Israel, Life Is Schizoid

Times Staff Writer

It was a sizzling day, and Hashem Mahameed, the mayor of this hilltop Arab village in Israel, was dealing with a stream of visitors to his office in the rundown municipal building. He said he felt “like a physician sitting in his clinic.”

There was a new medical report, linking sewage in village streets to six cases of polio in the past five years, and mentioning an unusual number of cases of acute gastroenteritis in children.

The fall school term would be opening in a few days and the village lacked about a third of the 240 classrooms it needed. The other 80 would have to be rented. Of those available, some have no windows; one has no roof.

Umm el Fahm gets only a fraction of the financial support that Jewish towns of comparable size get from the Israeli government, and it is $1 million in debt. Village workers, including Mayor Mahameed, have not been paid in four months.

Upgrading Promised

Early this year, the government promised to upgrade Umm el Fahm from village to town, a change in status that would mean considerably more government money for the community, but the change has not been made.


Meanwhile, people here who are already at the bottom of the Israeli wage scale fear that they will lose their jobs in the country’s worsening economic crunch. And they are even more frightened by the increasing hostility they face from Israel’s Jewish majority as a consequence of recent terrorist attacks in which at least a dozen Jews have been killed.

The people of Umm el Fahm, Mahameed said, want “to feel they are part of the state of Israel” but find it increasingly difficult to do so.

2 Hostile Cultures

For 37 years, since they found themselves living in a Jewish state after the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, the Arabs of Israel proper have led a kind of schizophrenic existence at the confluence of two hostile cultures.

In 1948, the Arab population of Israel was about 150,000. Today, it is about 725,000, more than 17% of the total population. But the Arabs remain a group apart--apart from both the Jews with whom they share Israeli citizenship and the Arabs who either fled or were evicted from Israel in 1948.

A year ago, international attention was focused on the problems faced by Israel’s Arabs and on the village of Umm el Fahm when right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocates the removal of all Arabs from Israel, announced that he would pay a visit to this place, touching off violent clashes between Arabs and the Israeli police.

What follows is an account of a day in the life of the village.

It was early Saturday afternoon, and the narrow streets and alleys were teeming with auto and pedestrian traffic. Most of the village’s 25,000 people belong to one of four clans, so drivers know that if they are not careful they run the risk of hitting a relative.

There are a few new buildings--a modern mosque and a handful of houses--but for the most part the village looks dirty and run down--from the outside. Inside, the houses may be overcrowded but they are virtually all clean and well cared for, with wallpaper, paneling and modern furniture.

Only two of the 105 Arab settlements in Israel have sewage systems; Umm el Fahm is not one of them. Less than one family in five here has a telephone; the national average is nearly three out of four.

Before 1948, this was said to be the largest village in Palestine, with 4,000 Arab farmers occupying an area about 25% larger than San Francisco. Nearly 90% of that land has been confiscated and has become part of two Jewish kibbutzim (collective farms).

A Bedroom Community

Today, this is a bedroom community. More than 75% of the wage-earners commute to jobs, mostly menial, in Jewish cities. Mahmud Albaia, 24, who works as a clerk in a Tel Aviv clothing store, described Umm el Fahm as “a big hotel.”

Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, is the busiest day in this Muslim village. “It’s the only day (the workers) can see their children,” Mahameed said. “I mean really see them and talk to them.”

Also, a major Muslim holiday was coming up so there was extra shopping to do. “It’s a very bad economic situation--but they must eat, so they must pay,” said storekeeper Fawzi Said with a shrug.

There are no modern supermarkets here. The people buy much of what they need in bulk from stores that look like warehouses. At Said’s store, 50-pound bags of rice were piled high, along with 20-pound bags of sugar and salt, and 125-pound bags of flour. Milk, bread, fruit and vegetables are sold mostly door-to-door by vendors with pickup trucks.

Watch TV, Play Cards

A dozen cafes were crowded with boys and young men watching television or playing cards. Every so often, a fight breaks out, according to Zaher Gabarine, a waiter at the Cafe Center.

At the Peace Cafe, on an unpaved, garbage-strewn street in the Agbariya quarter, posters on the wall advertised “The Beastmaker,” “The Exterminator” and other adventure films that have been shown at the village’s only operating movie theater. A dozen pinball machines and electronic games lined the cafe’s walls; a battered pool table, half its cover ripped away, stood in the middle of one room.

The village has three soccer teams, but its playing field was recently declared unfit for league competition because of its condition and the lack of adequate facilities for fans.

Officials acknowledge that Israel’s Arab minority lives in much poorer conditions than the Jewish majority. However, according to Yossi Ginat, a government adviser on Arab affairs, “the starting point was different; their situation in 1948 was backward.” He said the present government is committed to improving the lot of the Israeli Arab.

At 8 o’clock on Saturday nights, virtually everything stops in Umm el Fahm while the people watch the weekly wrestling matches from Texas, brought in by Middle East television.

“This is the most popular program on television here,” the mayor said, raising his voice to make himself heard over the grunts and groans of “One Man Gang” and “The Ice Man” coming from his television set. He said he had scheduled a village council meeting for 9 p.m., “because I knew if I made it 8 no one would come.”

At about the time Mahameed called his meeting to order, Mohammed Kiwan and two friends were lounging on pads spread out on the ground near the front steps of the Kiwan house on the village outskirts.

Kiwan is a founder of the “Sons of the Villages,” an anti-Zionist Arab movement that advocates creation of a democratic Palestinian state in what is today Israel and the occupied territories.

“My program is not so realistic now,” Kiwan, a lawyer, acknowledged.

Second-Class Status

He will not say how many people are in the movement, but it attracts significant support, if only as a protest against what Arabs and Jews agree is the second-class status of the Arab minority.

It was not by accident that the movement was born in Umm el Fahm, probably the most politicized of all the Israeli Arab towns and villages. A Haifa University survey earlier this year found that of all Israeli Arabs, the young people of Umm el Fahm were the least willing to coexist with Jews.

Another anti-Zionist group, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, is also a factor in village politics, and the Communist Party is traditionally the No. 1 vote-getter here.

Not far from Kiwan’s house, there was a going-away party for Hussein Mustafa, who was to leave the next day for Moscow, where he would study to become a dentist. There are about 20 Umm el Fahm students studying in the Soviet Union; most of their expenses are paid by the Communist Party.

As midnight approached, there were still many people on the streets. At several stores, preparations were being made to close. Barber Hafez Abed had several customers waiting for a 1,000-shekel haircut (about 65 cents).

Anna Maria Mahameed, the mayor’s Danish-born wife of 16 years, reminisced about the difficulties she had in adjusting to life in a Muslim village and about the role of women here. “It was, for me, life 100 years back,” she said of her first months here, in 1969.

There was no electricity and no high school. Military rule had been lifted only three years earlier, finally allowing Arabs to travel from place to place without a special pass.

Life for a woman in the male-oriented Muslim society was a far cry from what it had been in liberated Denmark. At first, she said, she could not wear slacks in public without attracting disapproving stares. It is better now, she said, though most Umm el Fahm women still wear traditional clothing.

Cultural Differences

She said that cultural differences also play a part in the bringing up of children.

“I want my children to be independent, not just to listen to what people say,” she said. “I want them to ask their teachers why it’s like this and why it’s not like that. Other children are not so independent.”

She said she withdrew her daughter from an all-girl school because it was becoming increasingly dominated by Muslim fundamentalists and enrolled her in what had been a boys’ school.

Mothers play an important role here if only because their husbands are away from home so much of the time, she said, adding, “But still it’s the father who has the last word.”

A lone rooster crowed in the Ain Jarar quarter as the sky turned steely-gray before dawn Sunday. Lights were already burning in several homes in the center of town.

The first of three private buses leaves Umm el Fahm at 4 a.m. every day for Tel Aviv, nearly two hours away. The first public bus leaves at 5 a.m. Some people make the trip by private car or taxi. In all, 6,000 men leave the village for the coastal cities every morning; there is no work for them here.

The government plans to build regional industrial centers near the larger Arab centers, among them Umm el Fahm, according to Ginat, the Arab affairs adviser. But so far, this is only a plan.

Wafik Farid, 33, a plasterer, the father of seven, said that because this was a holiday “you’re not supposed to work, but I’m going anyway; I haven’t paid my last electricity bill.”

‘What’s Good About It?’

Ahmed Mahameed, 36, a member of the same clan as the mayor, said he makes the equivalent of about $16 a day as a day laborer. When a reporter remarked that that was pretty good money by Israeli standards, he replied: “What’s good about it? You leave here at 5 a.m. and come back at 8 p.m.”

Ahmed Mahameed said that conditions have become much worse for Arabs in the Jewish cities. He said he does not carry a lunch any more because “if you’ve got a bag like that (the police) will search you--it can be 50 times a day.”

Arabs are immediately suspect in any incident. A few months ago, when a grenade was thrown from the Tel Aviv market, 97 men were picked up in a police sweep. All were Arab.

In late July, after two Jewish schoolteachers were found slain, allegedly by Arabs, Jews attacked Arabs indiscriminately on the streets of Afula, about 10 miles northeast of here. The Israeli press has reported racial disturbances this month at a factory south of Tel Aviv and at a swimming pool at En Harod, 20 miles east of here.

“They see us as Arabs, and it doesn’t matter if we’re from the (Israeli-occupied) West Bank or Israel proper,” said a young man who would identify himself only as Mustafa. “We’re all lumped together by the Jewish thugs.”

Ahmed Mahameed said that when he is in Tel Aviv he is afraid. “I walk like a cat in the streets,” he said. “You walk carefully and you walk quietly.”

Are Israel’s Arabs becoming more Israeli or more Arab? By such measures as language and education, they are certainly becoming more integrated into Israeli society. Hebrew is taught as a second language in village schools, starting at the third grade, and virtually everyone under the age of 40 speaks it fluently.

In at least some cases, Jews are indirectly favored over Arabs for admission to universities, but there has been a sharp increase in Arab enrollment. At least three members of the Umm el Fahm village council have degrees from Israeli universities.

At the same time, Arabs almost invariably identify themselves as Palestinian rather than Israeli.

Palestinian at Heart

“I have an Israeli identification card in my pocket, but I don’t believe in it,” Mustafa said. “In my heart I’m Palestinian.”

Some Israeli analysts see this sort of attitude as evidence of a dangerous upsurge in Palestinian nationalism, and they think it could lead to the establishment of a subversive “fifth column.”

Yet for all his estrangement from the Israeli system, Mustafa voted for a Zionist party in the 1984 elections--the Labor Alignment of Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Mayor Mahameed said he sympathizes with the struggle of his kinsmen in the occupied areas, the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip--most people here agree that the Palestine Liberation Organization is their legitimate representative, he said--but he added:

“Their problems are different from our problems. We support their struggle, but it’s their struggle.”

Not Seen as Terrorists

The Israeli government is at least as equivocal about the country’s minority Arabs. Most officials are quick to point out that unlike so many of their better-known Palestinian brethren abroad, the Arabs of Israel are not terrorists. Ginat said the security threat they represent “is very minor.”

Yet Israeli Arabs are barred from plants where defense work is carried out, and they have difficulty finding work in most areas of high technology.

Another indication of government sensitivity: This year it banned all Israeli Arabs under age 35 from making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

“The PLO takes advantage, and they have many people in Saudi Arabia who try to recruit young people,” Ginat said. “So we just don’t want them (young Israeli Arabs) to be tempted.”

Suffering Inevitable

As long as the Arab threat to Israel exists from outside its borders, Ginat said, it is inevitable that Israeli Arabs will suffer.

Or, as the Jerusalem Post has editorialized: “Israel’s Arab minority admittedly has some way to go before it reaches the state of full equality pledged in the Declaration of Independence. It is, in fact, unlikely to reach it before there is complete peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”

From the perspective of Umm el Fahm, that is not good enough, Mayor Mahameed said, and added:

“I’m sure that the solution to the whole (Arab-Israeli) problem can push forward the solution to our problem, too. But I don’t think we can agree to being . . . hostages until the solution comes.”