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Gaza War, Crackdown on Dissent in Israel Alienate Arab Citizens of Jewish State

The Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), arrives in Israel as renewed clashes threaten a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after a 22-day conflict in the Gaza Strip.

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By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

UMM AL-FAHM, Israel -- Three weeks of bloody conflict in the Gaza Strip and a crackdown on dissent inside Israel have fueled slow-burning anger among members of Israel's Arab minority and will continue to sow division despite the tenuous cease-fire that went into effect Sunday, Arab citizens and their leaders say.

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During the fighting in Gaza, Israeli police arrested 763 antiwar demonstrators inside Israel, the vast majority of them Arabs accused of causing "violent disturbances," according to Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld. Dozens more were brought in to be "warned ahead of time not to cause trouble" and then released, he said.

Perhaps the most divisive blow came last week when a parliamentary elections committee banned two Arab-led political parties from competing in next month's national vote, charging them with disloyalty under a 2002 law that permits the exclusion of factions supporting "armed struggle" by a terrorist organization or foreign country. Both were highly critical of Israel's Gaza operation.

Arab Israeli political leaders say distrust of the Jewish state runs deeper now than at any time since the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, triggered a wave of violence across the country more than eight years ago. While no one here expects that level of unrest to recur, local residents point to a steady stream of protests and avoidance by Jews of places that once brought the two groups together as signs of deteriorating relations.

"It is the worst we have seen since 2000," said Mahmoud Aghbariyh, secretary of the Arab party Balad here in Umm al-Fahm, Israel's second-largest Arab city. As he spoke Saturday, a dozen volunteers adorned yellow placards with messages of protest for an evening rally. "There is a tension between the two communities as a result of this war that killed so many innocents, and a cease-fire won't stop it," he said. "Their massacres have moved our people as never before."

Residents of Umm al-Fahm, where 13 Arabs died in clashes with Israeli forces in October 2000, said that during the current conflict, Jews stopped visiting local cultural sites and eating in restaurants that line the country's main north-south highway. A modern art gallery on a steep hillside was nearly empty this weekend, its usual crowd of a few hundred Jewish patrons reduced to a lone visitor.

"Either they are afraid or they are punishing us," said Kamle Aghbaniyh, a curator at the gallery, which is currently displaying historic photographs of the region dating to 1903. Several shots depict rock-throwing youths clashing with Israeli police and soldiers during earlier periods of tension.

Just up the street, the normally packed El-Babor restaurant, which serves stuffed lamb neck and other Arab delicacies to a mostly Jewish clientele, had a roomful of open tables. The owner, Nashaat Abbas, said that business was down 70 percent and that he had temporarily laid off all but 10 of his 50-person staff.

Asked to explain the lull in business, he responded: "Fear, fear. Maybe 20 percent are boycotting, but the majority are afraid." Unsure when business will recover, he said, he recently opened another restaurant in a nearby Jewish neighborhood.

Meanwhile, at a busy highway junction, a group of Arab lawyers and white-coated physicians protested Israel's 22-day "war-criminal assault" on Gaza and the heavy toll it took on their "Palestinian brothers."

"We regard the attack on the Palestinian people as an attack on us personally. Before we became Israelis, we were Palestinian Arabs," said Muahammad Lufti, a lawyer and one of the demonstration's organizers, who held a sign bearing a photograph of dead Gazan children wrapped in white cloth. "Never before, even in the previous wars, have we seen such pictures on our television screens."

Protests by Israeli Arabs have been larger and more frequent than any in recent years, they said. Recent rallies in the West Bank, which is policed by the Palestinian Authority, a rival of Hamas, have been quickly, and sometimes harshly, broken up.

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