Israeli Arabs Caught in Web of Conflicting Emotions

Times Staff Writer

The nearness of the rocket’s thunderous blast frightened Nura Sabbareen. Once the jitters faded, she was left to sort out a tangle of competing emotions shared by other Israeli Arabs suddenly within range of Hezbollah fire.

“I feel torn between both sides,” said the 23-year-old Sabbareen, minding a gift shop in this famed biblical town a day after the rocket struck a nearby town. “They hit Nazareth Illit. There are many Arabs who live there. They are not all Jews.”

The days-long barrage on northern Israel from Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon has reached deeper and wider than previous salvos, landing in or near communities with large Arab populations, such as Nazareth and Haifa, both just over 20 miles from the border.

The conflict has put these Arab citizens of Israel, long tugged in opposing directions by identity, in an especially awkward spot. They sympathize with fellow Arabs on the receiving end of Israel’s military assault in Lebanon but are threatened alongside Jewish Israelis with each new launch of Hezbollah rockets.

Times of conflict, such as the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, tend to exacerbate the tensions for Israel’s 1.4 million Arab citizens, who make up about one-fifth of the population and have long complained of second-class status.


“We’re worried about our families and our children. But I don’t think this brings us to the same conclusions and opinions as it brings the majority of Jewish citizens in Israel,” said Ramzi Suleiman, a psychology professor at the University of Haifa.

Arab citizens tend to view Israel’s twin conflicts in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip as part of a broad, hard-handed approach toward Arabs in the region, Suleiman said, adding, “Israel dictates only what it wants.”

Yet Sabbareen and her neighbors said they had little sympathy for Hezbollah’s campaign of rocket fire.

“This is the state I live in,” said Hasan Abed, a 33-year-old grocer in Nazareth. “If they can hit here, they can hit me also. We don’t separate between Jew, Muslim, Christian. We’re all the same here. The war is destruction for both people.”

Arab leftist parties have held two demonstrations in Nazareth in recent days calling for an end to Israel’s military actions, though they have not sided with Hezbollah.

Comments that appear to endorse the tactics of the militants fighting Israel are often quick to draw denunciations from Israelis who question the loyalty of Arab citizens.

Last week, before Hezbollah triggered the current crisis by seizing two Israeli soldiers, an Arab member of Israel’s parliament set off a tempest by defending as a legitimate act of resistance the June capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip. The lawmaker, Wasil Taha, and former parliamentarian Abdulmalik Dehamshe, who also is Arab, said Shalit should be considered a prisoner of war rather than a kidnapping victim.

Right-wing legislator Avigdor Lieberman and others decried the comments as treasonous.

Abas Zkoor, another Arab legislator, later complained that he was shouted down when he tried to address Shalit’s captors in Arabic from the floor of parliament.

In Nazareth, a mainly Arab city of 60,000, residents will tell you, mostly in private, that despite the rocket fire they sympathize with Hezbollah’s decision to kidnap Israeli soldiers as a way to win the release of Lebanese and Palestinians jailed in Israel.

Most Arab residents who agree to discuss the subject say they favor a negotiated settlement with Hezbollah and Hamas, the militant group now running the Palestinian government, that would produce a large-scale swap of Arab prisoners for the two soldiers held by Hezbollah and for Shalit, who was captured June 25.

“There must be an exchange of prisoners to make peace,” said Adham Kananbi, a 29-year-old parking lot attendant. He said Hezbollah needs Israeli soldiers in hand to force a swap. But he stopped short of endorsing the kidnapping raids.

Nabil Saleh, a social science researcher, decried what he called “Israeli aggression” against civilians in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, where troops moved in after Shalit’s capture. He said Hezbollah’s fight was a legitimate effort to free prisoners and wrest from Israel a disputed piece of land along the Lebanese border known as Shabaa Farms.

“I was born into this new state and I accepted that,” said Saleh, 47. “But this doesn’t mean I will remain silent in the face of aggression by Israel against my people and against the Lebanese.”

Many Arab citizens of Israel have relatives in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza -- families who fled or were forced from their homes in present-day Israel during the nation’s war for independence in 1948.

Arabs who remained in Israel and became its citizens have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the state. The rates of poverty and most diseases are higher for Arabs than for the nation as a whole, and education spending and achievement are lower.

Israeli Arabs were hit hard in various ways during the intifada. Rioting and confrontations with Israeli police in October 2000, soon after the start of the uprising, left 13 Arabs dead. An inquiry commission later found that police used excessive force, and it criticized Israel for widespread discrimination against Arab citizens.

During the first years of the intifada, Israeli Jews stayed away from Arab villages and cities such as Nazareth, dealing a blow to local economies and highlighting the sense of parallel but disconnected existences in this nation of nearly 7 million.

Even Arabs who have succeeded alongside Jews say they are reluctant to reveal much to Jewish co-workers about their views on the latest strife. A 26-year-old civil engineer said he feared he would be fired if he revealed his view that capturing Israeli soldiers is Hezbollah’s only means of getting Arab prisoners released. Israel, he maintains, has used excessive force against Lebanese civilians.

“They get killed and destroyed and we must be quiet,” said the engineer, who gave only his first name, Alaa. “What you must show is different from what you feel.”

Around Nazareth, merchants flipped back and forth between Arabic-language news coverage on the satellite channel Al Jazeera and Israeli news reports in Hebrew. Some Arab residents worry that the fighting may create new frictions with Jews after several years of improvement in relations. “This is going to make it worse,” said Sabbareen, at the gift shop.

Down the street, Kananbi pointed at his nearly empty parking lot. Normally, it would be filled with buses carrying foreign tourists to the domed Basilica of the Annunciation, built on the site where the Bible says that Mary learned she was to give birth to Jesus.

Jewish Israeli visitors were suddenly missing again, he said.

“We want peace together, the Arab people and the Jewish people. When there’s peace, you have a good economy,” he said. “It’s a small land. We want to live together.”