Raja Kamal
The Daily Star (Opinion)
July 15, 2010 - 12:00am

In a recent column in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman reflected on the strong Israeli economy, quoting a recent survey that put the number of Israeli millionaires at 8,419.

Such a figure is testimony to the successes of entrepreneurs who transformed Israel’s economy into one worthy of membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. However, what Friedman didn’t mention is that Arab Israelis, who represent over one-fifth of the Israeli population, are virtually absent from this enviable list. Indeed, the growth of the economy has widened the gap economically and socially between Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis.

This is alarming. If unchecked, it has the potential to create social unrest reminiscent of the 1960s American civil rights era. As Israelis get richer, the average Arab Israeli is feeling left behind. This gap is the byproduct of Israeli policies that under-allocate resources to Arab towns and municipalities. Per capita expenditure on Israeli Arabs and their neighborhoods – schools, roads, water, vocational training – is far less than those allocated to Jewish citizens, for example.

Marwan Muasher, the Jordanian politician and Jordan’s first ambassador to Israel, spent good quality time reaching out to Arab Israelis. In his book, “The Arab Center", Muasher empathized with their ordeal. “Unfortunately, both the Arab world and Israel treated them with suspicion, with Arabs looking at them as traitors and Israel viewing them as a fifth column inside the Jewish state,” Muasher wrote. Though ethnically Arabs, with what we can call a “Hebrew” identity, Arab Israelis feel in limbo – rejected by the Arab world and marginalized by the Israeli majority, knowing that, according to a poll conducted by Haifa University’s Sami Smooha, 45 percent of Israeli Arabs feel closer to Israelis than to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Arabs have been an integral part of Israel since its creation in 1948. Though a majority of them speak Hebrew well, they sense resentment from the Jewish majority. In Haifa University’s recent annual “Index of Arab-Jewish Relations,” the data reflects a continuation of some hostility among the Jewish majority: For example, only 66.9 percent of Jewish Israelis support preserving the right of Arab citizens to vote.

Growing up as an Arab Israeli is becoming increasingly challenging and Israeli government policies have slowed the integration of Arabs into Israeli society. The Israeli armed forces act as a social equalizer where all Israelis from different socio-economic groups blend together for a period of two years. Many networks and friendships are forged then. Yet, Arab Israelis, once completely exempt and now discouraged from military service, are absent from key civil service jobs, despite the fact that 75 percent of them between the ages of 16 and 22 support voluntary national service; and 68 percent would be willing to live in a Jewish neighborhood. Could this be the source of a third intifada from within?

Bernard Avishai, the Israeli author and blogger, has argued that there are similarities between the current situation in Israel and the situation that existed in Bosnia in the 1980s. Avishai states that when foreigners visited Sarajevo in 1984, it was so serene that very few sensed the conflicts brewing beneath the surface and could foresee the potential for outbreak of the civil war and the subsequent tragedies that engulfed Bosnia. Avishai suggested that as in Sarajevo, there is tension brewing from within the Arab Israeli community. He contended that the next intifada would not likely come from the West Bank and Gaza, but rather from within the Arab Israeli community, where citizens are frustrated with their second-class status. There is a time bomb waiting to explode. The Israeli government must work to diffuse before it too late.

The controversial separation wall in the West Bank erected by the Israeli government is viewed as a means of separating Palestinians from Israel. The ultimate goal is to inject tranquility into the country. But how will Israel quell Arab Israeli dissatisfaction from brewing over into unrest at a time when the community’s numbers are swelling and conditions are festering? There is no wall that can separate Jewish and Arab Israelis.

For decades, Israel has fought external wars and persevered. However, internal social unrest is something that the country may not be ready to manage in a way that respects its own image and definition as a democratic nation. The long-term stability of Israel will rest on its future integration, both socially and economically. There is an urgent need to address the conditions of the Arab Israelis. Time is running out.


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