Israel’s Jews, Palestinians See Little Common Ground

Times Staff Writer

Yacov Amouyal and Hafez Nagib are neighbors. Each manages a thriving business in the marketplace on Herzl Road, where Arabs and Jews have worked side by side for decades. Both yarmulkes and Islamic veils are common sights among the butchers, fishmongers and vegetable dealers.

Last month, as Arab demonstrators marched down Herzl Road to protest the treatment of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, subtle but important changes were taking place in the delicate relationship between the two men and, indeed, between the communities they represent.

Amouyal, a Jew who runs a cosmetics store, blamed the disturbances that erupted Dec. 21 on a “small group of Arab agitators.” He acknowledged that “feelings here are still not good. All my neighbors are Arab, and they are still friends. But it’s not a comfortable situation.”

Nagib, an Israeli Arab who owns the bakery next door, said he was afraid to speak his mind about the demonstrations, although he closed his shop in support of a nationwide strike by Arab businesses.


“Yacov can speak freely,” he said. “Israel is his country. I don’t consider it my country.”

The aftershocks are still being measured after the nationwide Arab strike and the violent demonstrations that erupted in its wake, the worst violence involving Israel’s 600,000 Arab citizens since six people were killed in protests over the confiscation of Arab land in June, 1976.

An estimated 70 Israeli Arabs were arrested in connection with the demonstrations, which were described as a show of solidarity with Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, where 22 people were killed in the two weeks of unrest. About 1,100 Palestinians in the occupied territories were also arrested.

Unlike residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel’s Arabs are citizens of Israel, guaranteed equality with Jews by the country’s declaration of independence. Although most Arabs, other than those of the Druze sect, do not serve in the army, they carry Israeli passports, attend Israeli universities and are entitled to all welfare benefits. Most of them speak Hebrew and, for many, Arabic is their second language.


Israelis were shocked at the demonstrations, particularly at the closure of a major north-south highway by Arab demonstrators who set fire to piles of vehicle tires. Their shock was soon translated into anger at what many Israelis regarded as a betrayal of trust and dismay that the Arabs would identify more closely with the 1.5 million Palestinians in the occupied territories than with Israel’s 3.5 million Jews.

“It was the first time in 20 years that it became crystal clear to Israelis that there is not a border between Israel’s Arabs and the Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza,” said Yehuda Litani, an Arab affairs expert who writes for the Jerusalem Post. “What shocked Israelis was that they were not safe in their own territory anymore. They had always thought they could divide Israel off from the occupied territories.”

Ratio Grows Uncomfortable

In Litani’s view, Israeli Jews, who were comfortable outnumbering Israeli Arabs by 3.5 million to 600,000, suddenly became much less comfortable when the ratio became 3.5 million to 2.1 million, counting the Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip as well as in Israel itself.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, reflecting a concern expressed by many other Israelis, said that after the strike “many eyes were opened. . . . Many eyes suddenly saw that these attacks . . . were not attacks against Israel’s policy but against the state of Israel.”

Israeli sensitivity in the matter was demonstrated when Al Quds, the mainstream Arabic daily in East Jerusalem, was banned for a month. This step was taken after a column in the newspaper suggested that the strike by Israeli Arabs demonstrated their “Palestinian affiliation” and their dissatisfaction with their status in Israel.

Ronni Milo, a deputy Cabinet minister responsible for Arab affairs, announced that government offices would break off contact with the Arab committee of local authorities, which had organized the strike. But other Israeli leaders, among them Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, sought to minimize the growing friction between Jewish and Arab community leaders.

23% Back West Bank Arabs


An opinion poll conducted by Hebrew University after the disturbances showed that 23% of Israeli Arabs agreed with the majority of Arabs on the West Bank, who when surveyed said they found “acceptable” the creation of a Palestinian state in Israel from which Jewish residents would be expelled.

In the heat of the moment, the militant sentiments tended to overshadow more moderate Arab views, such as those expressed by Mayor Suleiman Jabarah of Kafr Kari. Jabarah noted that the violence “didn’t and doesn’t express the views of the majority, who are loyal to the state of Israel and will continue to be loyal.”

While the disturbances on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip were clearly the catalyst for the protests by Israeli Arabs, the conditions in which Arabs live played a significant role in generating support, according to Israeli and Arab experts alike.

Theory, Reality Differ

Although in theory Arabs have equal rights, the reality is often very different, particularly in terms of housing, job opportunities and social services.

“While there are discrepancies between many groups in Israeli society, the Arabs feel they are being discriminated against specifically because they are Arabs,” said Eli Rekhes, an expert on Israeli Arabs at Tel Aviv University. “Because of these discrepancies between Jews and Arabs, the Arabs have growing feelings of bitterness and frustration.”

Rekhes said that often the frustration felt by Arabs on the civil level is translated into nationalist sentiment in support of Palestinian causes.

He noted, for example, that the militancy displayed by Arabs in the city of Jaffa on the day of the strike “stemmed not only from solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank but from disaffection with Arab affairs in Jaffa.”


Many Well Assimilated

Here in Lod, a community of 50,000 near Ben Gurion International Airport, Israeli Arabs have achieved a high degree of assimilation into Israel, at least on the surface. Even in the Arab Quarter, the only writing in Arabic is the occasional slogan daubed on a wall. Everything else, including road signs, is in Hebrew or English.

There are about 5,000 Arab residents in the town, along with 5,000 Bedouins who were transplanted to the outskirts of town from the Negev desert.

Sammy Asawi, a bearded Israeli Arab in his 20s, works for an automobile agency in Tel Aviv, a half hour’s drive from here. Among his complaints: Young Arabs have only one club, compared to many for Jewish young people. The Arab club closes on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, although it is the only day when the Muslims in Lod can relax.

After the violent clashes with the police on Dec. 21, Asawi said, he felt he was being denied the rights of all Israelis to demonstrate and air his views.

‘Big Difference Now’

“We used to feel like Israelis, but no longer,” Asawi said. “There is a big difference now.”

Speer Monyar, a retired electrician, has been a resident of Lod since 1948, when the Israeli state was created and Lod was an entirely Arab village.

Monyar said that the Arab schools in town are inferior to the Jewish schools and that despite the sizable Arab population--a fifth of the total population--they have no representative on the town council.

“They don’t let you forget for a minute that you are an Arab, that you are not a Jew,” Monyar said. “I can’t understand the attitude of the government. When something happens to the Palestinians, they expect us not to say a word.”

After the violent demonstrations, government officials announced plans to increase spending on Arab municipalities in Israel, and the Histadrut labor federation said it was planning to make greater benefits available to the Arab community.

“After 40 years,” Monyar said, “they are now saying they want to make improvements and pay us the same as the others. We’ve been paying the same taxes and union dues. Where have they been all these years?”