David Miller, Arieh O'Sullivan
The Media Line
February 2, 2011 - 1:00am

The narrow streets of Umm Al-Fahm, one of the largest Arab towns in Israel, are steep as they wind up the hillside of the town that sits in a topographical bowl overlooking the biblical Plain of Jezreel.

The 50,000 residents of this town of cinderblock houses and large golden-domed mosques are on the literal edge of the Western democratic state of Israel an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, rubbing shoulders with what may be the future Palestinian state in the West Bank on the other side of the nearby fence.

“We love our Palestinian brothers, but we are citizens of this state,” Badee Husari, a retired contractor tells The Media Line as he sits outside a cafe overlooking the main street. “We’re not livestock that can be traded. We are human beings, worthy of rights.”

Like most of the 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel, Husari is torn between identities. They hold Israeli citizenship, but regard themselves Palestinian in nationality. They are comfortable living in the “Jewish state,” where their roots are deep and they enjoy social benefits, even if they regard themselves as second-class citizens.

But for some of the 5.7 million Jewish Israelis, they represent a threat to the vision of a true Jewish state and need to be excised out.

A growing number of Israeli leaders have been espousing redrawing the boundaries of the state that would cut out towns like Umm Al-Fahm from Israel and make them part of a future Palestine. The proposal, pushed mainly by Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman, is mainly motivated by a desire to ensure a large Jewish majority, but it would require stripping the Arabs of their Israeli citizenship.

Liberal Israelis have decried the plan as racist, but the leak of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation details have shown that even centrist leaders like Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister and today head of the largest political party in Israel, also discussed the idea with Palestinian leaders.

National aspirations notwithstanding, most people in Umm Al-Fahm and others lying intimately close to the West Bank, reject the idea. Not because they don’t identify themselves as Palestinians, but because they wouldn’t want to forfeit the economic benefits like pensions, child allowances and healthcare they are entitled to living in Israel.

Umm Al-Fahm is the economic, social and religious center of the area known as the “triangle” of Arab towns around the Wadi Ara valley. Ironically, it was part of the West Bank until the Jordanians traded it to Israel in the 1949 armistice agreement and the village elders signed an oath of allegiance to the State of Israel. Its recent history has been characterized more by angry protests in solidarity with the Palestinians. When the second intifada broke out in 2000, confrontations between protestors and police at the town’s entrance left three dead and over 100 injured. It is the hotbed of the Israel’s Islamic Movement, led by radical firebrand Sheikh Raed Salah.

“We are under attack from the Israeli establishment,” says Hamed Aghbariyah, editor in chief of Swat Al-Haq Wal-Hurriyah, or "voice of truth and freedom," the mouthpiece of the Islamic Movement. “There’s great fear all over the world from the return of Islam into people's lives.”

Aghbariyah, his beard trimmed and his clothes tailored, speaks fluent Hebrew, but prefers to be interviewed in Arabic. Adorning the wall is a faded photo of wheelchair-bound Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the Palestinian Hamas leader assassinated by Israel in 2004. Aghbariyah says he isn’t at all concerned about being cut out of Israel and annexed to a Palestinian state.

“A Palestinian state …will never be,” Aghbariyah tells The Media Line. “This country is not wide enough to accommodate two states for two peoples, so annexation will never happen.”

And yet, Umm Al-Fahm is an Arab town in Israel. The people identify with being Palestinian and the idea of losing their citizenship makes some of them a little nervous

“Israel cannot give up Umm Al-Fahm. Umm Al-Fahm’s people built the state and all the buildings in Tel Aviv. We enjoy a great life in the State of Israel. What could we ever do in the Palestinian Authority?” asks Muhammad Mahmeed, as he paused during a card game at a small kiosk.

Qasem Aarda, 62, is adamant that he definitely doesn’t want to be subject to the Palestinian Authority (PA), the entity formed by the Oslo accords to govern Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza Strip.

“I'm four years away from retirement, but I receive social security. Over there [in the PA] there's no social security and no anything,” Aarda says. “Life here is better, since the state came into existence…It will take decades before the Palestinian Authority becomes a state. Who knows if we'll live that long.”

Khalil Aghbaria is a member of the younger, more defiant and nationalistic generation of Israeli Arabs. An owner of a local hummus restaurant, he defines himself “a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation.” For him, the main issue for Umm Al-Fahm residents is not political alliance but land ownership.

"If they give us all of our land, they can annex us not only to the West Bank but to Jordan, as far as I'm concerned."

Jewish residents of the area, too, are not strong supporters of the idea. Hanan Erez, head of the neighboring Megiddo regional council, says it would be a mistake to sever the Wadi Ara region from Israel since it has served as the main highway from the coast to the Galilee since ancient times.

“I think it’s just talk by some people aimed at trying to show that they can solve demographic problems,” Erez told The Media Line. “I’m not surprised that people of Umm Al-Fahm want to remain Israeli citizens. This is their identity and they understand the benefits of being part of a pluralistic democratic state over being inside a Palestinian one.”

High up on the hillside, occupying the three top floors of a nondescript building, is the Umm Al-Fahm Art Gallery. Run by artist Said Abu Shakra, the gallery opened 15 years ago to bring more culture to the town of mostly farmers and construction workers.

“It’s been a revolution here,” Abu Shakra says, adding it is the only art museum in any Arab town in Israel. “We have turned Umm Al-Fahm into the cultural center for all Israeli Arabs, and Palestinian artists too.”

The gallery has drawn international acclaim and over 40,000 visitors last year, about half of them Israeli Jews. But Abu Shakra’s main goal is to boost art in the Arab sector, a difficult challenge when most people are mainly concerned with feeding and clothing their families. Asked about national aspirations, Abu Shakra sighs, collects his thoughts and says:

“The folks in Umm Al-Fahm have nationalist aspirations to see the Palestinian nation within the boundaries of an independent and free state. Those are our national aspirations, but ask us if we want to remain in Israel or not, 95% will prefer to remain.”

“Israelis here need to see me as a bridge. I’m not a danger to anyone. My existence here is to live with dignity. If there is democracy here, then I use it to express myself without endangering anyone,” Abu Shakra says.


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