Israel's Palestinians – quite informative

August 21, 2006

In News

By Meron Rapoport

The road to Haifa last Tuesday was a kind of highway to normalcy: huge traffic jams, stretching the one-hour drive from Tel Aviv to Haifa into two and a half hours. Perhaps the traffic was caused by refugees returning north after more than a month of war, although the passengers in the cars alongside me did not look like refugees with mattresses on the roof, like those streaming back to their villages in southern Lebanon at the same time. They looked normal, just like Haifa looked normal, not like a city after a war.

The meeting with four young Arabs at the Fattoush coffee shop on Zionism Boulevard also seemed normal. Also apparently normal was the crowded street itself, which has become the main street of the new Arabness – walking tall, as they used to say once. But after talking with the four – Abeer Kopty (30), Hisham Nafaa (36), Yasmin Daher (24) and Raja Zaatry (28) – it appears that the sense of the return to normal life is deceptive. There was always a gulf between us and the Jews, they say, but now, after the second Lebanese war, that gulf is so much deeper and wider that we cannot cross it. The Jews (most Jews, to be precise) want us to keep quiet, and we no longer have a reason to talk with them. They wouldn’t understand us, anyway.

It is easy to say the Arabs in Israel were torn in this war: They like Hezbollah but got hit by its rockets, identify with the Lebanese but took instructions from the Israeli Home Front Command. There was nothing ambivalent about the position expressed by the foursome, however. We opposed the war from the very first moment, they say. Not just because we are Arabs, but because we thought this war was bad for Israel and for its citizens.

“To me, a true patriot is one who opposes war,” says Hisham Nafaa, a writer and journalist. But all of them report that the moment they voiced their opinion, people related to them as if they were the enemy.

“They told us that if you’re against the war, you’re against the state,” says Nafaa.

No automatic condemnation

The four do not hide their admiration for Nasrallah. The fact that he did not lose the war, and perhaps even won it (“broke Israel’s nose”), is a good thing. They believe the rockets Nasrallah shot at Israel were a reaction to Israeli attacks, even if some of the rockets hurt Arabs – and even though one hit the offices of Al-Ittihad, the communist daily where Zaatry works as the magazine editor.

“Hezbollah shot the rocket that hit Al-Ittihad, and Iran gave them the rocket, but it’s clear to me who was responsible for that attack, and it wasn?t Hezbollah,” says Zaatry. But for all that, it is a mistake to see them as supporting the enemy. If Israel solves the Palestinian problem and stops resorting to force alone, three of them said quite clearly, they would be prepared to join the Israeli army to resist an Iranian attack. As we said, they’re patriots.

According to them, almost no Israeli was able – or tried – to understand this complexity. That is why they decided to keep quiet.

“My friend works for a high-tech company. He’s the only Arab there,” says Yasmin Daher, who herself works in the Al-Ahali Association for community empowerment. “As soon as the war began, people in his office began asking him constantly if he was for the war and if he condemned Nasrallah. He has an amazing job and an amazing salary, but he decided not to go to work that month. He couldn’t take it. The media want us to denounce Nasrallah automatically, to say he is a terrorist. They want us to deceive the Israelis, to lie. Even the European Union doesn’t call Hezbollah a terror organization, so why should we?”

On one occasion when he went outside between alerts, Hisham Nafaa relates, he met an old man with a cane sitting on a bench.

“We began talking about the war,” Nafaa relates. “‘We’re all human beings,’ he said, ‘but those people, Hezbollah, are devils. We have to wipe them out.’ I couldn’t get into an argument with him. I only told him to be careful, to sit close to a protected area so that he could go inside if there was an alert. Same with my neighbor. Every morning when I saw him, he would say, ‘We need to crush Lebanon. We need to drop a tactical atom bomb on it.’ He became my strategic expert. I can say I understand him, but it’s arrogant. The war has erased people’s civic vigilance. It scares me to think how quickly they were able to call up the Israelis. As if all they needed to do was press a button. They told them this was a war for their homes, that Nasrallah is Hitler, and they believed it. What, all this began with the abduction of the soldiers? Israelis have a short memory. This is a society that doesn’t think, and when it does think, it thinks in the slogans of [army spokeswoman] Miri Regev.”

Abeer Kopty, who is the spokeswoman of Mossawa, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel, has become one of the most sought-after commentators in the Arab community. To a great extent, this is because she participated in the TV reality show “Darush: Manhig” (Wanted: A Leader). She says she knows Arabs who decided not to enter bomb shelters so they wouldn’t have to hear their Jewish neighbors talking about how Lebanese villages should be crushed and wiped off the face of the earth. She herself was very active in demonstrations against the war, and was surprised by the intensity of the reactions to the demonstrators.

“In the end, what were we saying?” Kopty muses. “‘Stop the war!’ and ‘In Beirut as well as the [Haifa suburbs of] Krayot, young girls want to live!’ We looked for a statement that could become part of the Israeli consensus, but all we got was eggs and curses.”

Not partners

One of the images that left its mark on all four was that of young Israeli girls visiting an IDF artillery battery, where they drew and wrote militant slogans on shells that were then fired into Lebanon. They all watch the Arab networks – Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and Al-Manar – and none has seen Lebanese children sign Hezbollah rockets before they were launched at Haifa.

“Most reactions in Israel are of the type: ‘Why don’t they wipe out all of Lebanon,’ or ‘Bring us Nasrallah’s head,’ as if we’re talking about some Renaissance painting,” says Daher. “I never heard Lebanese saying on television that all Israelis should be killed. Nobody on Al-Manar said they had to destroy Haifa. Today I heard the Lebanese who returned to their villages in southern Lebanon. They said, ‘We want peace.’ When Zawahiri [an al-Qaeda leader – M.R.] spoke about the destruction of Israel, people turned off their TVs.”

Everybody opposes targeting civilians. Nafaa even says that when he sees pictures of young soldiers who have been killed, it hurts him “that they were sent like cannon fodder” to Lebanon. But make no mistake: The sympathy is there for Lebanon and Hezbollah.

“People respect Nasrallah because he hurt Israel, because he broke the nose of its aggressive policy,” says Zaatry. “People haven?t forgotten the blood spilled in Gaza. Nasrallah proved that the Arabs are not a lesser breed, that they are not people who are incapable of doing anything. I feel that Lebanon is in the right, and I don’t feel I need to apologize for it. In any event, it doesn’t matter what I say – nobody will listen. Only if I say ‘Halutz, king of Israel’ will they be prepared to listen,” says Zaatry, referring to Dan Halutz, the IDF chief of staff.

Zaatry is aware that Arabs killed by Hezbollah rockets were honored at their funerals as “shuhada” – martyrs [the plural of “shaheed”]. Does this mean that the Israeli Arabs see themselves as part of Hezbollah?s campaign?

“In my eyes they’re not martyrs, they are victims,” says Zaatry. “What’s happening is that the Arabs in Israel are not used to paying a price.”

“We are not used to being part of the victory, and we are not used to being part of the defeat,” adds Nafaa.

Daher says there is considerable hypocrisy in the way Israel uses the Arab dead to prove Hezbollah does not distinguish between Jewish and Arab targets.

“We are not stupid. We know rockets are blind and cannot tell Jews and Arabs apart,” says Daher. “But we know the rockets were not aimed at us. Why did [Haifa mayor] Yona Yahav suddenly call for the Arabs to remain in Haifa, in the poor Arab neighborhoods that nobody has paid any attention to and that don’t even have bomb shelters? What, has Yahav become a Palestinian patriot? He sees us as a human shield so that Hezbollah won?t shoot at Haifa. Like putting a Palestinian on a tank so they won?t shoot at it. Or maybe he wants to show that the rockets hurt Jews and Arabs equally.”

Kopty says the war “stole her hope” of coexisting with the Jews.

“How can I live in a society that sanctifies the killing of civilians?” she asks. “Hatred poisons people, and I am afraid it will poison me.” Kopty says she “thanks God” that she is not Jewish and does not need to grapple with the issues plaguing her Jewish peers at anti-war demonstrations. “I am not embarrassed that I don’t feel part of the state, but they are. Their sense of alienation is greater, they feel that the state has been stolen from them.”

The height of pessimism

All four admit that Nasrallah’s call to Arabs to leave Haifa has complicated their lives, because it has given a certain legitimization to the idea that they should be regarded as a fifth column.

“I understand Jews who say that,” says Nafaa, “but perhaps the fellow sitting next to me at my university class is a pilot who pulls the trigger. What am I supposed to feel toward him?”

They are convinced that right-wingers like Avigdor Lieberman will exploit the situation and try “to take care of” the Arab community. They hear such statements on television and read them in Internet talkbacks. Kopty says there have been more attacks on Arabs in Jewish cities, but they say this does not stress them. “What can Lieberman do to us?” asks Kopty. “He can’t kill us all, he can’t deport us all.”

“The Jews and the Arabs are in the same boat,” says Nafaa. “If someone tries to expel the Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population, he will splinter the boat, challenge the legitimacy of the State of Israel and cause its destruction.”

Nevertheless, they see a silver lining in the defeat – or at least the non-victory – of Israel in the war. “There will be no progress if Israel doesn’t feel pain,” says Zaatry. “Israel got out of Lebanon because Hezbollah hurt it. Israel got out of Gaza because its soldiers were getting killed there.”

Perhaps now, after the failure in Lebanon, Israel will be prepared to budge in the West Bank. But they are not pinning any hopes on that, both because they fear Israel will take out its defeat in Lebanon on the Palestinians and because it is not the path Bush wants to take.

“I look for an independent Israel in this American story and I cannot find it. It has vanished, and that frightens me,” says Nafaa.

I say to them that perhaps the difference between us is that the concept of the “destruction of Israel” frightens me, while they are less disturbed by it. Their reply was a little surprising.

“I don’t want to see Israel remain in its present form,” Zaatry concedes, “but if the Palestinian question is resolved, and Iran still attacks Israel, I would volunteer for the army in order to defend Israel against Iran.”

Nafaa says that even if he is not a great lover of Israel, he does not want to be on the side of the destroyers, “not of Israel nor of anyone else. I would physically resist it.”

“Israel has not yet tried the peace option,” says Kopty, “but if it did, and then someone tried to destroy it, we would fight on its behalf.”

This is far off, however, and meanwhile the rift is so deep that Nafaa, the oldest and the intellectual of the group, is nostalgic for “a sane general” like Sharon, who was able to say that restraint is strength. Right now, he says, it is hard even to speak openly about the situation.

“The lips are still and don?t know what to do. You know that even if you speak, no one will understand. So you take a vow of silence. That is the height of pessimism. And the worst thing is that we will be stuck in this situation for another hundred years.”