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Arab Israelis caught in between

For the 1.3 million Arabs in Israel, fear and anger are mixed with ambivalence as an Israeli backlash turns them into second-class citizens. NBC’s Jim Maceda reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Khiery Mawasi is a 60-year-old Palestinian poet whose nationalist images of glorious struggle by his Palestinian brothers against Israeli occupation have a big following, especially among the Arabs who live in the town where we are seated, sipping coffee and watching passers-by. But this is not Ramallah, or Nablus or Bethlehem —Mawasi is an Israeli Arab, and this is Israel, in a town called Umm el Fahm, near the border with the West Bank.

THE GEOGRAPHY, and the fact that storefront signs are both in Arabic and Hebrew, are really the only reminders that this is not the West Bank. As the Palestinian uprising escalates in the territories, tensions between Jews and Arabs inside Israel are so high that few, if any, Jewish citizens even dare come to Umm el Fahm, once a draw because of its cheap goods and services.

“Look at this place,” suggests Mawasi, as he takes a long drag on an Israeli cigarette and adjusts his head scarf, or kefiyeh, to block out the noon sun, “and you see a ghost town. Before, it was full of Jews. They came here as friends. We were all Israelis. Commerce was good. Now, the intifada has destroyed that.”

But when asked to explain the apparent contradiction — inciting the uprising with his poems on the one hand, and bemoaning the bad state of relations between Arabs and Jews on the other, he only smiles. Then, after another long drag on the cigarette, he replies, “‘it’s a dilemma.”

A dilemma, for sure, for the 1.3 million Arabs who live in Israel, mostly descendants of Palestinians who, back in 1948, chose either not to flee the War of Independence, or were lucky enough to escape “transfer” by the nascent Israeli government. In the best of times, these Arabs were conflicted: Trying to live — and prosper — as a Muslim or Christian minority within a constitutionally-mandated Jewish state. They often feel like second-class citizens, or worse, and have few educational or job opportunities. Their Arab towns and villages muster a fraction of the budgets that comparable Jewish towns get.


They are all Israeli according to their passports, but they often seen by their Jewish neighbors as a collective threat. “I feel very bad, “says Kifeh Massarwi, a professional woman in her forties who has many reasons to feel good. Massarwi is the first Israeli Arab and woman to be elected to the board of an Israeli corporation. “I can’t go anywhere and feel at home. It’s the only home I have, but it’s not complete. I’m made to feel like I don’t belong. And that is me, Kifeh Massarwi — how do you think these young boys feel who see no hope at all?”

As difficult as it has been for the younger generation of Israeli Arabs, torn between their loyalty to the state of Israel and to the emerging nation of Palestine, they remained relatively quiet, at least until two years ago, at the beginning of the intifada, when the boil finally burst.

InsertArt(1632282)A mass demonstration in Umm el Fahm began as a peaceful protest against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit with armed bodyguards to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — a site sacred to Muslims and a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the protest turned into a riot after Israeli police fired rubber bullets into a crowd of Israeli Arabs at close range, killing 13. An angry mob went on a rampage, burning every Israeli symbol in sight — the Post Office, the banks; almost nothing that said “Israel” was spared.


“Israeli Arabs being killed by Israeli police — it was too much to take,” recalls Massarwi. “This made it clear that we were not equal under the law. And it really broke the trust between Arabs and Jews here. It has been very difficult to change what was broken.”

Since then, Umm el Fahm has become famous, no longer as the commercial mecca between Israel proper and the West Bank, but as a staging ground for terror attacks inside Israel. A growing number of suicide bombings and drive-by shootings has either occurred in the town, or nearby. The Umm el Fahm Junction, just outside the town, is now a favorite transit point for potential suicide bombers, who look for rides at the taxi stands or gas stations — usually full of Israeli-Arab cars — and then lure the drivers, often with money, to take them deep inside Israel, and to their next target.

Indeed, sources quoted by the Israeli Ministry of Interior claim that every terror attack inside Israel over the past 22 months has had, directly or indirectly, an Israeli Arab connection. But the numbers of those incidents remain relatively small, fewer than a dozen, and many moderate voices on both sides warn against inciting violence against all Arabs for the crimes of a few. “Yes, there is a rise in Israeli Arab militancy,” says Professor Eli Rekhes, head of the Center for Arab Politics at Tel Aviv’s Dayan Center, “but I don’t think it indicates that a fifth column is actually being established here.”


But life is now so tense in Umm el Fahm that many Arabs don’t leave their houses — not due to any curfew, but because they fear being beaten by Israeli police or vigilantes. “We’re afraid for our lives,” says Nasser al-Saed, a businessman who returned to Umm el Fahm six years ago, in the heady days of peace, after 15 years in the United States. “The Arabs are angry and the Jews are angry. There’s suicide bombings on the one side, targeted assassinations on the other. There is more and more killing on both sides, and I feel like I’m caught in the middle.”

The fear and mistrust felt by Israeli Jews toward Israeli Arabs intensified two weeks ago, when a bizarre twist in a suicide bus bombing shocked the nation. Nine people were killed and more than 40, including many Israeli soldiers, were injured when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a commercial bus in northern Israel. Twenty minutes before the explosion, however, the bomber warned 27-year-old Yassri Bakrit, an Israeli Arab seated on the bus, to get off, saying something horrible was going to happen. Bakrit and her Arab girlfriend exited the bus and then followed it in a taxi until the fateful explosion. InsertArt(1632281)Neither said a word to anyone before the blast and carnage, nor after, until they were traced by Israeli police, two days later. Bakrit has been charged with not preventing a terror attack. If found guilty, faces two years in jail. Her parents say she simply panicked, and never believed the man on the bus was a suicide bomber. But many Israelis see this as a graphic example of the threat now posed by Arabs within Israel,

“For those who want to see it as a sign of the distrust and disloyalty of Israeli Arabs,” says Ekhes, “this incident serves as a footnote.”


Even Israeli Arabs like Kifeh Massarwi find the story, especially the involvement of two women, to be almost unbelievable. “As Israeli Arabs,” she explains, “we are not like the Muslims in Gaza. We are more moderate, more secular. Suicide bombs and ‘martyrdom’ are not in our culture.”

Perhaps. But even she admits that an increasing number of Israeli Arabs is being recruited by Hamas and other Islamic militant groups that have had difficulty operating inside Israel. “The situation is bad, “she says. “And it is getting worse and worse.”

So bad, that some Israeli security officials are now predicting that Sharon’s war on terror will soon move into Israel, and that the next battles could be fought, not with Palestinians on the West Bank or Gaza, but between Israelis — Jews and Arabs.

Jim Maceda an NBC News correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in the Middle East.