In Nazareth, Arab Israelis Now at Risk

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

NAZARETH, Israel, July 17 -- The rockets landed in darkness on either side of this sacred city, long considered out of range and off-limits for the radical armed groups that have bombarded Israel's Galilee region from south Lebanon.

Out of range because Nazareth lies across a hilltop more than 20 miles south of the Lebanese border, where Hezbollah gunmen set off a new war last week by capturing two Israeli soldiers and killing eight others. Off-limits because, like the people firing the rockets, most of the residents here are Arabs.

Amin Abu Taha, a dentist with two teenage children, worried as he took a midday break outside a coffeehouse along Paulus VI Avenue. "Israel is the most powerful state in the Middle East," he said, sweating in the summer heat. "But rockets do not discriminate. This is an old story that must be resolved."

The barrage around midnight Sunday caused no casualties and it remained unclear whether Hezbollah intended to hit Nazareth or the nearby Jewish town of Nazaret Ilit. But the explosions prompted feelings of fear, despair and a touch of pride here in Israel's largest Arab city.

Conversations along Paulus VI Avenue, empty of the Christian tourists who come to the place known as the home town of Jesus, also highlighted the peculiar place that Arab citizens hold within the Jewish state, especially in times of war. "From a political perspective, we have no impact," Abu Taha said. "And we know it."

The roughly 1.2 million Arab citizens of Israel -- one-fifth of the population -- do not serve in the army, now engaged on the northern and southern borders. They have slim representation in parliament, and receive scant government support for the kind of bunkers and warning systems that have been well used in other northern Israeli cities since the fighting began.

The people here also have far fewer places to flee than the Jewish residents of northern Israel, thousands of whom are heading south to family and friends to wait out the war. For many of the 75,000 Arabs of this city, their only family is in Lebanon -- where, since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, they have lived in refugee camps and cities that now may be under Israeli attack.

Along streets and in market stalls abuzz with radio news broadcasts, opinions ranged Monday from fear that Hezbollah would target the city center to rage at other Arab nations for not joining the fight against Israel. Despite the rocket attacks, Nazareth remains a restive exception in a country that has largely rallied around the attacks inside Lebanon.

"We heard explosions in the night, but we had nowhere to go," said Yihiya Sotari, 44, who for three decades has sold taped Islamic sermons, tracts and prayer beads from a market stall. "In Jewish towns you have shelters and sirens, but here you have nothing," he said. "When it comes to security matters, it is an issue where the Arabs have no say. It is a Jewish-only issue."

Sotari is a native of Nazareth, now raising six children. But his extended family has lived in Lebanon since they fled the village of al-Mujaydil during the fighting in 1948. The town has since been given a Hebrew name, Migdal HaEmek.

Sotari's relatives settled in Baalbek near Lebanon's eastern border, where Israel carried out recent airstrikes targeting transmitters of al-Manar, Hezbollah's satellite television channel. He has not spoken to his family there since Israel's 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon, an operation that was also launched in response to rocket fire into the Galilee area.

With Koranic verses ringing out from the tape player behind his display, Sotari said he expected an Israeli attack on southern Lebanon following last Wednesday's cross-border capture of the two soldiers, whom Hezbollah leaders want to trade for Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. But he said he thought international mediation would follow.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company