Leaders of Israel’s Arab community, which accounts for a fifth of the country’s total population, have strongly rejected an informal but highly controversial proposal for swapping some Arab communities in Israel proper for Jewish settlements in the West Bank in the context of a prospective final peace deal with the Palestinians.
The proposal was made by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who argued that the arrangement was by no means taboo and that it would serve and expedite the nationalistic aspirations of both sides.
The Israeli government has yet to officially elaborate on the contentious proposal. A spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to comment on the subject, which observers in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories interpret as indicating that Netanyahu and Lieberman don’t see eye to eye on the issue.
Israel continues to demand that, in the context of a final peace agreement, Palestinians must recognise Israel as a “Jewish state”.
Look, the very idea of swapping Arab communities in Israel for Jewish settlements in the West Bank brings dishonour to the Arabs of Israel.
However, Israeli officials have often failed to sufficiently explain the eventual implications of such recognition, especially with regard to the status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, particularly Palestinians.
Lieberman’s proposal drew mostly negative reactions, both from the media and the political left in Israel.
President Shimon Peres, whose post is largely ceremonial and apolitical, called the proposal “unpractical”, adding that “Israel cannot deny citizenship to its citizens because they are Arabs”.
(Since its creation, Israel has referred to the non-Jewish, Arab population within its borders as “Israeli Arabs”. Many members of this community, however, prefer to be called Palestinian citizens of Israel, arguing that “Israeli Arabs” is a political term meant to divide them from the rest of the Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip and diaspora.)
Peres’ remarks came during a visit to the Technion polytechnic institute in Haifa on Tuesday.
Allegations of ethnic cleansing
Some of the strongest words uttered against the proposal came from former Israeli Arab lawmaker Mohammed Baraka who accused Lieberman of harbouring “insidious racist designs against Israeli Arabs”.
“The man has said ad nauseam that he doesn’t want to see Arabs in Israel. This means that anything this man says and any proposal he makes must be viewed with suspicion.”
Baraka said he was worried that Lieberman’s proposal was a prelude towards the ultimate ethnic cleansing of the Arab community in Israel.
“What they really have in mind is ethnic cleansing. This is the language they understand best. But ethnic cleansing is an ugly word; hence they would want to do it under the rubric of a land swap.”
The former member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, said Lieberman had a “monomania” called “Jewish state” with no or as few non-Jews as possible.
“So he is trying to affect this sick concept by dismembering and mutilating the Arab community in Israel. And this we won’t accept.”
Baraka’s words were echoed by almost every Israeli Arab political and community leader Al Jazeera talked to.
Israeli Arab leader Ahmad Tibi, who is particularly close to the PA leadership, has described the swap concept as “infinitely silly, inherently deformed, utterly racist and absolutely undemocratic”.
“Look, the very idea of swapping Arab communities in Israel for Jewish settlements in the West Bank brings dishonour to the Arabs of Israel. We have been living in these communities since time immemorial. Whoever dares compare us with these land thieves who live on a land that belongs to another people?”
Tibi also said that the proposal to swap the Wadi Ara area, which is adjacent to the northern West Bank, was an act of ethnic cleansing.
“Israel has confiscated the bulk of these people’s land. So, Lieberman would like to get rid of the people and keep their land.”
Determined to nip the proposal in the bud, Tibi met with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who reportedly assured him that the proposal was not on the negotiating table and that the Palestinians wouldn’t accept it if it were.
Tibi also met with US Ambassador Daniel B Shapiro, who also told Tibi that the subject was not being discussed.
Tibi heads a small parliamentary bloc named the “United Arab List”, which has been successfully lobbying Arab community leaders in Israel, urging them to voice their firm opposition to the proposal.
The Islamic Movement in Israel has also come out strongly against the proposal. “We are worried about the unseen ramifications and repercussions of the proposal,” spokesman Tawfik I’reir told Al Jazeera. “We reject the proposal not because we are infatuated with Israel or because we prefer Israel over a future Palestinian state, but rather because Israel could and most probably would utilise the proposal to carry out more ominous and hostile designs against our community.”
Reacting to Israeli-Arab reactions to his gambit, Lieberman lashed out at “Arab hypocrisy”.
“The Arabs of Wadi Ara have suddenly become ‘lovers of Zion’. In television interviews with Um al Fahm residents, we have seen those who mark Nakba Day, raise pictures of [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah – as well as Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s flags. The same people are now rebelling against the idea that as part of a peace agreement they would become citizens of a Palestinian state.”
In separate statements, Lieberman said he would vehemently oppose the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
The issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, who fled or were forced to flee their homes when Israel was established in 1948, is considered one of the thorniest and most insurmountable problems of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Israeli rejection of the repatriation of significant numbers of Palestinian refugees into Israel is met with an equally adamant Palestinian insistence that the refugee problem must be resolved, pursuant to UN resolution 194 which allows for the repatriation and indemnification of refugees.
Many Palestinians consider the refugees’ cause as the essence of the Palestinian problem, even exceeding in importance the issue of statehood.