Israeli Arabs worry about PLO's statehood bid

Politicians support the plan, but members of Israel's Arab community wonder how it will affect their future.

    Zahalka said he supports the bid but has 'many questions' about the PLO's diplomatic strategy [EPA]

    Umm al-Fahm, Israel - The Palestine Liberation Organisation's bid for full membership at the United Nations has strong support from Arab political parties in Israel, but many in Israel's Arab community worry about how the PLO's plan will affect their future.

    Members of the United Arab List met earlier this month with representatives of African countries and urged them to support the bid. Ahmad Tibi, a member of Knesset from Ta'al, is in New York this week to deliver a speech endorsing the plan.

    Jamal Zahalka, a Knesset member and a leader of the Balad party, cautioned that the bid must be part of a "new diplomatic strategy." But he described the upcoming vote as a "positive step" for Palestinians.

    "I think it's important because it will stop the charade of negotiations," Zahalka said in an interview. "Israel has used the excuse of negotiations to build settlements, to build the wall."

    But in this town of 45,000 people - an hour's drive from Tel Aviv, and one of the largest Arab communities in Israel - it is hard to find much popular support for the PLO's bid.

    "Abu Mazen … he thinks this is a big initiative," said Abdullah Yahya, the owner of a sweetshop. "The people, they don't. In reality, the people here, they do not support the sulta [the (Palestinian) Authority]".

    'Israel won't allow it'

    No official polls of Israel's Arab community about the PLO's statehood bid have been made public, so it is difficult to make any broad conclusions about public opinion. And of course not everyone has an opinion: Quite a few people waved off questions about the bid, describing themselves as apolitical, or saying the UN vote would not matter.

    But in roughly two dozen interviews - in predominantly Arab towns and villages in northern Israel, and in Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem - most people were ambivalent about the PLO's plan, if not outright opposed.

    "It's not going to create a Palestinian state. Israel won't allow it," said Mohammed Muhajja, a cashier in Umm al-Fahm. "My family has been here since before 1948. We don't want a Palestinian state that is only a tiny bit of this land."

    Arabs make up roughly 20 per cent of Israel's population, and the PLO's bid highlights the conflicted reality in which many of them live.

    In theory, they are equal citizens who enjoy the same rights as other Israelis. In reality, they face widespread discrimination when applying for jobs; they receive harsher prison sentences than Israeli Jews; and their villages and towns generally receive lower levels of government funding than Jewish areas.

    Yet few would trade the Israeli government, however prejudiced, for the Palestinian Authority.

    "Here, there is discrimination, but at least we can complain," said Mansour Abbas, a taxi driver from Jerusalem's Shuafat neighborhood. "Here, there is corruption, but at least you can take the prime minister to court! In Ramallah you could not even speak about it."

    'We don't want two states'

    So most Israeli Arabs seem to reject a "two-state solution," which they fear would either leave them facing discrimination in Israel or unwillingly "transferred" to Palestine. Polls consistently show a strong majority supports a one-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Even some Arab members of the Knesset, like Hanan Zoabi, have described a two-state solution as "impossible".

    And many in Israel's Arab community worry that the PLO's bid for recognition makes that outcome less likely.

    "The Americans, the British, the Israelis, they've been working for 50 years to create two states," said Riad Arda, drawing a line on a napkin for emphasis. "But we, the Arabs here, we don't want two states, we want one state called Palestine."

    Arda would understand the implications better than most: He lives in Baqa al-Gharbiyya, an Arab village near the Green Line which is split in two by Israel's separation barrier. The western half is in Israel, while the eastern side, called Baqa al-Sharqiyya, is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

    For residents of this and other divided villages, the creation of a Palestinian state would mean one of two outcomes.

    Israel has proposed annexing some of these villages to a potential "Palestine", perhaps "in return" for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The idea has long been popular with right-wing Israeli politicians; The Palestine Papers revealed that former foreign minister Tzipi Livni has also endorsed the idea.

    The other option is to remain part of Israel, in which case an international border would permanently separate what were once cohesive communities.

    "This is bad, it's a bad situation," Arda said. "And it will only get worse after the United Nations."

    Not everyone in Israel's Arab population opposes the bid, of course. Most of those who support it said that UN recognition of a Palestinian state would make it harder for Israel to commit human rights abuses in the occupied territories.

    "Maybe it will help. We want a country of Palestine that is free of killing, Israeli tanks, Israeli rockets," said Mutassim Mohammed, the owner of a small restaurant in Umm al-Fahm.

    And Zahalka, the Balad party leader, said there was little reason to worry about how the PLO's bid would affect the chances of a one-state outcome.

    "What we think might not matter. What's going on now is that Israel is killing the two-state solution," Zahalka said. "It's only a matter of time, maybe a year or two, before that question will be irrelevant."

    Follow Gregg Carlstrom on Twitter: @glcarlstrom

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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