Protest by Far-Right Group Stirs Unease in Israeli Arab Community

Residents of Umm el-Fahm confront riot police in response to a march by far-right Jewish activists.
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

UMM AL-FAHM, Israel -- As a group of far-right Jewish activists prepared to march on this Arab Israeli town Tuesday, the demonstrators said they just wanted to wave the Israeli flag and exercise their freedom of speech.

But Arab residents drew a different message from the protest, one that called into doubt their status as full citizens of the Jewish state.

"Don't they believe this is part of Israel?" asked Mohammed Abu Saleh, who works with one of the country's handful of small Arab political parties. "This has been part of Israel for 60 years. It seems like they are putting a question mark over it."

It's a question Israeli Arabs worry will grow even more pointed in the days ahead. Incoming Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is deeply skeptical of the U.S.- and European-sponsored peace process, and of the idea of granting Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip a state of their own. Long pulled between their citizenship and their kinship, Israeli Arabs are concerned that the collapse of peace negotiations could deepen their sense of alienation from the Jewish majority.

Netanyahu's likely foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is regarded here with deep distrust, and his expected presence in the incoming government is taken as a sign that the Israeli Arab community will be under scrutiny.

Lieberman has advocated the idea of a loyalty oath, for example, and although he says it is for all Israelis, he has made clear that he wants to test the allegiances of the 20 percent of the country that is of Arab descent. He has also talked of establishing a Palestinian state not on the basis of borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war but on the basis of land swaps intended to substantially reduce Israel's Arab population: Jewish settlements in the West Bank would be exchanged for places, such as Umm al-Fahm, with large concentrations of Israeli Arabs.

It may be mere campaign rhetoric -- there is little sense that Lieberman's will be the guiding voice on key policy issues -- but it has touched a nerve.

The Umm al-Fahm municipal hall is decorated with planning maps that illustrate the city's hopes of becoming a gateway between two states, Israel and Palestine, that are at peace. Local leaders envision Umm al-Fahm, located near the West Bank, as a border town where the two peoples could meet.

Residents speak of the ease with which they travel to the Israeli coast and to the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, privileges of Israeli citizenship that they would not want to surrender. These descendants of families that stayed through the conflict that led to Israel's creation in 1948, bristle at the suggestion that they do not belong here.

"It is going to be more difficult. The right wing -- the reactionary right wing -- will be in this government, so we're preparing ourselves," said Raja Agbaria, a member of the Umm el-Fahm town council.

The Tuesday protest was conducted under heavy police protection and with the sanction of the Supreme Court, on free-speech grounds. Israeli police had opposed the gathering because of the potential for violence. The protest was organized by followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who championed removing Arabs from Israel by force if necessary.

Kahane, killed in 1990 in New York, was a polarizing figure, and his Kach party was outlawed by Israel a few years after his death. He tried to visit Umm el-Fahm in 1984 with hundreds of supporters in an avowed attempt to intimidate residents to move, but was thwarted by police and a large counter-demonstration.

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