Palestinians with Israeli citizenships have condemned as racist Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal to exchange Arab towns in Israel for Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank.
"Politically these ideas are not serious. The man (Sharon) is just talking… to bring what would be seen as peace ideas in the West because he's going to declare the death of the road map," said Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset or parliament.
He was referring to the stalled US-backed blueprint aimed at ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya has already dismissed the plan. But some Palestinians with Israeli citizenships fear the exchange could be hammered out in a final peace deal.
About 20% of Israel's population is Arab. The plan would affect Palestinians living in the Green Line - which separates the West Bank from Israel proper - and place them under Palestinian control.
Bishara dismissed Israeli fears that a Muslim, Arab population will explode and overtake the current Jewish majority, saying such concerns are over-exaggerated and racist.
"Sharon is drawing a question mark on 20% of the state," he said. "This is the only state in the world to question its population's citizenship."
"I did not immigrate to Israel - it came to me as a Palestinian. I did not ask to be a citizen of Israel"
Resident of Umm al-Fahm
It also leaves the Palestinian population, who are already treated as second class citizens in Israel, uncertain about their future.
Bishara warned if Sharon tried to transfer the Palestinians from Israel without a land exchange, it would lead to a "massacre" since they refuse to become refugees again.
He slammed Sharon's announcement on Monday to remove 17 Jewish settlements from the occupied Gaza Strip as a manoeuvre to divert the international community's attention while he "dictates borders unilaterally".
Sharon's plan is not new. The Labour party raised the idea 15 years ago. Sharon is pushing forward the process by trying to force the original inhabitants of Israel to give up their citizenships, depriving them of their political rights, said Bishara.
"This means getting rid of the Arabs as a demographic problem," he said, adding anywhere else in the world this would be perceived as racism.
Umm al-Fahm residents oppose
being treated like ''chess''
"All the process is consolidating a discriminating and racist culture," warned Bishara.
The proposal is a "continuous process of blackmailing the Arab population," he said.
While ties between Israel and the Palestinian population are a cold marriage at best, the latter do enjoy social security guarantees and a higher standard of living than Palastinians in the occupied areas. For this reason, they may balk at coming under Palestinian control, said Bishara.
"Sharon can then say to the West, 'see, they want to stay here'," he said.
But Hashim Muhaymid, who hails from Umm al-Fahm, which would be included in the plan, opposed this.
"Either we are citizens of the state of Israel or we are not," he said. "I did not immigrate to Israel, it came to me as a Palestinian. I did not ask to be a citizen of Israel."
"We are not a box of tomatoes or cucumbers to be exchanged,"
Resident of Umm al-Fahm
Muhaymid was born in Umm al-Fahm before Israel was created in 1948, in what was Palestine. He never left his hometown. His family, along with other residents, ploughed the nearby fields until Israel confiscated all 145 square kilometres of it. Israel's notorious Majido prison stands there now.
He served as the town's mayor from 1983 until 1989. One year later, he joined Israel's Knesset. And he has no intention of taking Sharon's plan lying down.
"We are not a demographic problem to solve," stressed the father of three. "We are not a box of tomatoes or cucumbers to be exchanged," he said. The town's population is today nearly 40,000.
Muhaymid noted while Washington preached democracy in the region, it remained silent after Sharon dropped his bombshell.
"We are not settlers. We cannot agree to be dealt with as if we are to be exchanged with Jewish settlers. We are the most legitimate owners of this land. We will oppose this plan by all means."
Does this mean they will take up arms?
"It won't come to that," he said determinedly. "But my children are considered a cancer in Israel… Is Israel a democratic state or an apartheid state?"