The Condition of the Palestinian Minority Exposed By New Book
by Reilly Vinall
The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish-Arab Divide
by Susan Nathan
Doubleday, New York, 2005, $25
Although much of the outside world's attention to the Israel/Palestine conflict is focused on the occupation of the Palestinian territories, which causes great suffering in and of itself, there is another great injustice that is often overlooked: the situation of the population of over one million Palestinians who live inside the borders of Israel and hold Israeli citizenship. Although they represent almost 20% of the country's population, the "Israeli Arabs" have long been among the poorest and most marginalized of Israel's people. The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across The Jewish/Arab Divide is an autobiographical account by Susan Nathan, a British Jewish woman who immigrated to Israel in 1999 in accordance with the Law of Return. However, in 2002, she left her home in Tel Aviv to live in Tamra, an ethnically Arab town in northern Israel, in order to experience for herself the conditions of Israel's Arab minority. Her experience is a remarkable story that poignantly exposes the inequality that continues to exist within Israel.
During her youth, Susan Nathan spent much time with her family and friends in apartheid-era South Africa. The terrible injustices of that county's society at the time left a great impression on her, and helped her towards her eventual decision to cross the Jewish/Arab divide in Israel. Although she arrived in Israel in 1999 as an ardent Zionist, over several years she became more and more interested in discovering the true situation of the Arabs inside Israel, who despite their sizable proportion of the population, seemed all but invisible to her. This led to her decision to move to Tamra, a single Jew in a town of over 25,000 Arabs. This was an unprecedented action in Israeli society.
Ms. Nathan befriended many people in the town of Tamra, and was accepted by an Arab family as one of their own. The deep friendships she developed reflect her view that despite the unofficial policy of separation that is actively promoted by the Israeli government, there is true hope of reconciliation and cooperation. The situation in Tamra itself is a prime example of the poor living conditions many Arabs face, largely as a result of government policies.
Tamra grew very quickly over more than a half a century, due to an influx of internally displaced refugees whose villages were destroyed during the 1948 war. Large amounts of land that were previously farmed by the area's Arab population had been confiscated by the government and given to Jewish farming cooperatives and hilltop settlements, whose inhabitants live in luxury in comparison to Tamra's population. For example, in one of these settlements, Mitzpe Aviv, the Jewish population is given free access to the farmland that was confiscated from Tamra. On average, each resident of Mitzpe Aviv has access to over ten times the amount of land available to each resident of Tamra.
Despite having a rapidly growing population, the government strictly defines Tamra's city limits, and expansion outside of those limits is forbidden. Any buildings erected outside the delineated area will invariably be demolished or repossessed by the state. As a result, Tamra has a terribly high population density, with homes pressing upon each other. Moreover, the Israeli state does not provide the city with anywhere close to sufficient funding to provide such a dense population with a modern standard of living. Nathan describes haphazard electric and telephone lines and a poorly maintained and confusing network of roads, which are lined with uncollected garbage. Since Tamra's people are forbidden to expand outwards, they are forced to continually increase their density and expand upwards in crowded tenements. Despite the warmth and friendliness she received from the population, Nathan admitted that the town sometimes felt like "ghetto living," and described a "sense of suffocation."
The warmth with which Nathan was greeted in Tamra contrasts sharply with the hostility that Arabs often encounter in Jewish areas. According to Nathan's Arab friends, to visit a city like Tel Aviv is to be a target, identifiable by language and appearance. They feel a profound sense of being unwelcome, and fear encountering overt hostility, or even violence. The Arabs that Nathan spoke to cited polls that have been published which indicate that a majority of Israeli Jews want all Arabs expelled from the country. They also mentioned hearing of attacks on Arabs by Israeli youths and racist police officers.
The housing crisis and "ghettoization" of Tamra is a familiar facet of life for Arabs in Israel. Across the country, Arabs are refused building permits, so as to strictly define the land area of Arab communities, and preserve land for Jewish farms and settlements. As such, thousands of families build their homes without official permits. Judged to be "illegal" by the government, these homes are subject to demolition. Many families recall police with bulldozers rolling into town at the crack of dawn and tearing down houses, rendering them homeless in an instant. Often these "illegal" homes rest on land that has been inhabited for many generations by the Arab families.
An example of the discrimination and suspicion that Arab citizens of Israel encounter, described by Nathan, are the security procedures at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport. The personnel at the airport use a main criterion of whether a passenger is a Jew or a non-Jew, rather than an Israeli or a non-Israeli, to determine threat. Jewish passengers are nearly always given free passage without questioning. Foreigners are asked questions, such as whether they have had dealings with Arabs. Arab citizens themselves are inherently assumed to be a danger. They are subject to long periods of questioning on their activities, their acquaintances, and reasons for travel. Body searches are common. The treatment described is not only applied to Arab youths, or those known for involvement in "subversive" activities; even prestigious Arab journalists and university professors have been given the same humiliating treatment.
The author also notes that many businesses, such as airlines and hotels, do not have Arab towns, even fairly sizable ones such as Tamra, registered on their computer databases. She was only able to persuade Bezeq, the national telecommunications company, to install a new line in her apartment in Tamra after several weeks of requests, finally threatening to go to the media with complaints of discrimination. It is Ms. Nathan's view that such entrenched discrimination is intended to keep the Arab population perpetually segregated, afraid to venture out of their confined towns and villages. The only way to avoid getting into trouble with the authorities, which is seemingly inevitable for Arabs in predominantly Jewish areas, is to remain in their delineated communities. As a result, "citizenship" of Israel takes on a wholly different meaning, dependent on ethnicity.
Nathan describes at length the inequities of the country's education system. Israel has developed two systems, separating children along ethnic lines, with the ostensible justification of allowing Arabs to preserve culture and heritage. However, it is her view that this only permits the state to maintain a weak and under-funded Arab educational system, with greatly lower academic standards. Teachers for the Arab schools are approved by the state security service, the Shin Bet, and the curriculum is designed to remove references to Palestinian history and culture. For example, there are no references to the Nakba, the forced depopulation of Arab Palestine in 1948. One teacher lost his job for giving his students a brief history of the PLO. The Shin Bet prohibits even great Arab and Palestinian literature from inclusion in the curriculum. Nathan tells another story by citing figures for school funding in 2001, published the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2004, indicating that the average Arab student received resources of approximately 105 British pounds yearly, compared to 485 pounds spent on Jewish students.
Nathan describes the inherent discrimination against Arabs in Israel's economy. Even highly educated Arabs are often forced to work in sectors such as construction or factories because many areas of the economy are strictly off-limits to Arabs, under the pretext of the work being "security-related." According to Ms. Nathan, the prohibited sectors include Israel's large establishment of military industries, prisons, the aerospace industry, airlines and airports, telecommunications firms, water and electricity companies, the state textile industry, and even the Bank of Israel. Unemployment figures for the Arab population are approximately double the national aggregate.
Another topic touched upon in the book is the plight of thousands of internally displaced refugees in Israel. Many have been forced into a semi-nomadic lifestyle, particularly the Bedouin people of the Negev region in southern Israel. Approximately 70,000 Bedouins live in terrible conditions in the Negev. Because the state is unwilling to apportion them land and building permits to establish proper towns, they must resort to living in tents and tin shacks. Anything more permanent that is built is quickly deemed "illegal" by the authorities and demolished. The same situation is true of Arabs living across the country in temporary housing, grouped together in what are officially termed "unrecognized villages." The residents of these villages cannot hope to receive basic services, such as electricity, running water, sewage services, or well-built roads. At any moment, the bulldozers may roll in if the residents attempt to erect permanent housing.
Ms. Nathan grew disenchanted with the supposedly "dovish" left- wing parties in Israeli politics. Despite the Left's ostensible position of supporting some level of Arab rights and statehood, it is in fact the Labour Party that has overseen the most aggressive periods of expansion of the illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Labour contributed as much as Likud to producing "facts on the ground." Even the most left-leaning parties that are accepted into the political mainstream do not support "conceding" any more to the Palestinians than the end of the occupation and the establishment of a state in the West Bank and Gaza less than one quarter of historic Palestine. They reject any notion of a right of return for the Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes since 1948. Additionally, even these supposedly left-wing parties rarely, if ever, raise the issue of the injustices and discrimination facing Palestinian citizens of Israel. Indeed, just like the "hawkish" right-wing parties, the Israeli left is fully determined to maintain demographic superiority over Arabs, no matter how marginalized the Arab minority is to become. The number of Israelis in the mainstream that truly support equality and rights for Palestinians is appallingly low, Nathan believes.
Nathan visited the West Bank and observed the desperate situation of its residents. She noted the complete dominance of the Israeli Defense Forces in the territory, and how quickly homes and infrastructure can be destroyed. One prominent issue is that of the lack of access to water. The West Bank rests atop the largest aquifers in Israel-Palestine, which is one reason cited for the reluctance to end the military occupation. Despite the plentiful source of water, most of it is taken by an Israeli company for sale in their country and to settlers in the West Bank. Indeed, Palestinians have access to water only at certain intervals, while the illegal settlements throughout the territory have swimming pools and sprinkler systems. On one occasion, Ms. Nathan spoke to a former Israeli soldier who served in a tank unit in the West Bank. The young man told her of incidences during which he received direct orders to fire on children throwing stones, civilian targets that could not possibly be interpreted as posing a real threat to a tank.
Susan Nathan's eye-opening account of "The Other Side of Israel" is rarely reported to the outside world. Although the war crimes committed by the occupation forces have been documented, outsiders rarely hear of the equally important issue of rights and equality for Palestinians, both those under occupation and those in Israel proper. Ms. Nathan's choice in moving to an Arab town represented an action that is currently taboo in Israel crossing the ethnic divide. Having already been deeply influenced by her experiences in apartheid South Africa, Nathan was equipped to recognize the core issue that blocks understanding between Israelis and Palestinians the institutionalized segregation and state- induced fear of Palestinians that undermines future peace and understanding. Until the Israeli government is prepared to conduct a massive reform in its treatment of Arabs, it is likely that peace and reconciliation will remain nothing more than a dream.
Reilly Vinall is at the Eliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and spent the fall 2005 as an intern for the Council for the National Interest.
Council for the National Interest Foundation
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