Israel’s Arabs




This week’s long-awaited report on the deaths of 13 Arab Israelis came amid rising tensions between the nation’s largest minority and its Jewish majority.

The report, commissioned by Israel’s government and led by an Israeli Supreme Court judge, investigated the deaths of Arab Israelis killed in northern Israel in October 2000, at the outbreak of the current intifada. As the Palestinian uprising spread from East Jerusalem to the West Bank and Gaza, Israel’s 1 million Christian and Muslim Arabs found themselves in the firing line, as when Israeli police killed 13 Arab Israeli men protesting Ariel Sharon’s visit to the sacred Haram Al-Sharif.

The report condemns Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens, calling relations with them the nation’s most “important and sensitive” domestic issue.

“The establishment did not show sufficient sensitivity to the needs of the Arab population, and did not take enough action in order to allocate state resources in an equal manner…The state did not do enough or try hard enough to create equality for its Arab citizens or to uproot discriminatory or unjust phenomena. Meanwhile, not enough was done to enforce the law in the Arab sector, and the illegal and undesirable phenomena that took root there. As a result of this and other processes, serious distress prevailed in the Arab sector in various areas.”

This hasn’t done much to calm the frustrations of many Arab Israelis. In fact, the report’s release coincides with a number of government measures that look, well, discriminatory and unjust. The Christian Science Monitor reports that Israel has stepped up demolition of Palestinian homes built without permits, reduced child allowances for Israel’s Arabs, and passed a new law barring Palestinian spouses from living in Israel. All of which leaves Arab Israelis under no illusions about their second-class status. Issam Makhoul, an Arab Israeli legislator, told the Monitor that life for Arab Israelis is only getting worse:

“The policemen were ready to shoot from zero distance and ask questions later, because the targets were Arabs…It’s part of the mentality that the Arabs are a security question. The official policy is not to deal with the problems of the Arab minority, but to deal with the Arab minority as a problem…Arabs are being pushed into a corner.”

Hassan Asleh, whose 17-year-old son was killed three years ago by Israeli police, didn’t find much solace in the report. “The commission has displayed callousness to our wounds and our grief,” he told the Monitor. “This is a tunnel without light.” Witnesses to his son Asil’s death say the teenager was chased and shot at close range. Asil’s death made international news when journalists discovered he was an active member of the US-based international peace group, Seeds of Peace.

The report found fault with then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak but stopped short of recommending action against him. Yossi Verter writes in Ha’aretz that the commission’s findings don’t tell us anything bad we didn’t already know about Barak. Which is lucky for the former leader since he’s said to be pondering a return to politics.

The commission warned, not unreasonably, that using live ammunition and treating Arab Israelis “as an enemy” is no way to disperse a crowd. Some shootings were referred for futher investigations, and several lower-ranking officials have been barred from holding future public office.

This doesn’t go far enough, according to the Ha’aretz editorial board, which sees a mismatch between the commission’s findings and it’s disciplinary measures that bodes ill for the future.

“The gap between the Or Commission’s grave factual findings and its practical conclusions stems, among other things, from the gap between its ambition to present a complete picture of the events that led up to the October 2000 riots and the judicial criteria with which it examined the responsibility of the people involved. In accordance with this approach, the political echelon is accused of a shameful failure for not foreseeing and forestalling an ill that stemmed from many years of simmering resentment in the Arab sector, but no sanctions are imposed on these politicians on the grounds that this is a matter for the public to decide.

The result is a report that does as little damage as possible to the responsible parties:

This does not mean the commission’s work has no value. Its findings are extremely important, and its effectiveness as a means of defusing pressure and anger has been proven anew. Nevertheless, the report’s practical impact will be measured by the translation of its recommendations into practice. If the government ignores them, relations between Israel’s majority and its minority are liable to reach a boiling point from which there will be no return.”