Special: Israel's Silent Arab Minority Erupts – The Economic Equation

Published October 8th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

It is unlikely that the anger that boiled over the Palestinian territories at the end of last week caught many Israelis by surprise. For months already, the Israeli press has been inundated with reports that Palestinian frustration over the slow progress of peace process was likely to degenerate into an outburst of violence. The signs were there, and so was the political motive.  


But what shocked and frightened many Israelis was the fact that Intifadat El-Aksa, as it has come to be known, spread so rapidly across the Green Line into towns and villages populated by Israeli Arabs, and in several cases into predominantly Jewish cities with large Arab minorities.  


On Sunday, October 1, thousands of Jewish families, who had chosen to spend the Jewish New Year holiday-weekend vacationing in the north of the country, found themselves unable to return home because the roads were blocked by the residents of Arab villages in the Upper and Lower Galilee. And in Jaffa, the once predominantly Arab city that today is a largely Jewish neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Arab residents threw rocks at police and reportedly several shots were fired. 


Ever since Israel’s creation in 1948, the country’s Arab citizens have led a disjointed existence. Having been afforded Israeli citizenship by virtue of the fact that they had neither fled nor been expelled from their ancestral homes before the 1949 armistice, they maintained emotional and often familial bonds with those Palestinians who landed up in the refugee camps of Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.  


And while they nominally were afforded full democratic rights by the Jewish state, for years their villages were administrated by the Israeli army, their press was kept under strict surveillance, and they were prevented from assuming a variety of sensitive positions because the state security services regarded them as suspect.  


To this very day, despite representing some 20 percent of the population, no Israeli Arab has served as a full government minister, and it was only recently that the Knesset reluctantly allowed several of its Arab members to join the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. And even then, this was only after the Arab parliamentarians tacitly agreed to not demand membership of the subcommittee that oversees the activities of Israel’s secret service organizations.  


But, on a daily basis, it is the economic chasm between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens that fires the flames of Arab Israeli discontent. For, while in the 52 years since its founding Israel was transformed from an agrarian into an industrialized country, with a GDP per capita on par with many Western European countries, the sector of its population that has least benefited from this process is comprised of its Arab citizens — 95 percent of whom were born after 1948.  


According to a report prepared by Gideon Abbas, an advisor to the Israeli minister of labor and social affairs, while 16.6 percent of the general population are considered poor according to the official criteria, among Israeli Arabs the figure is about 38 percent.  


Each month the Israeli ministry of labor and social affairs publishes a list of cities, towns and villages where the unemployment rate exceeds 10 percent. In August, of the 25 town included, 17 were populated by Arabs. At the head of the list was Kafr Manda, with 19.3 percent of its adult population unemployed.  


And even then, as commentators point out, the official unemployment figures only tell part of the story. They do not take into consideration that the majority of the women in the towns and villages concerned to not go out looking for work, and neither do they register for unemployment benefits. In actual fact, the commentators say, in some cases the jobless rate in Arab towns exceeds 50 percent. 


Israel’s newfound sense of prosperity is largely a result of its economy’s growth over the past 10 years, and in particular it is a consequence of the rising prominence of its high-tech industries. But only few Arabs have managed to find entry onto that exclusive turf. For the most part they are involved in agriculture and construction, which also happen to be the two sectors with the lowest average salaries.  


Only 5 percent of the Israeli university graduates are Arab, and when they go into the job market they discover that most of the larger companies prefer hiring Jews rather than Arabs. And it is not only in the private sector. Less than 1 percent of the workers in the public sector are Arab—including the civil service itself, and state owned companies such as a the Israel Electric Corporation, the Mekorot water carrier and El Al. 


The difference in living conditions between Jewish and Arab settlements is striking. While economic prosperity has brought about a “greening” of Israel’s Jewish cities, with a proliferation of public parks and manicured private gardens having become a norm, in the Arab sector roads are frequently unpaved, sewage systems are inadequate or non-existent, and recreational facilities are few and unkempt.  


For every one U.S. dollar that the Israeli government gives to a Jewish municipality, only 65 cents is provided to an Arab town of the same size. Furthermore, regional planning authorities are painfully slow in issuing the Arab municipalities permission to expand, and the Jewish National Fund, which controls 12 percent of the country’s land, will not lease any of its territory to Arabs. 


The situation among the 110,000 Bedouin living in the south of the country is particularly acute. While 65 percent of them live in permanent towns that were created between 1968 and 1980, some 40,000 Bedouin live in ramshackle settlements that have not been recognized. As such, they receive no government funding, and lack almost all basic infrastructure and services. Some 60 percent of the Bedouin in the south are classified as poor. 


To a degree, the Arab Israelis’ economic plight is entrenched in the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. For while on paper the Arab population has tremendous electoral strength, it has never been able to translate this into political power—as did the ultra-orthodox Jews, for example—in part because of a reluctance on the part of Jewish establishment to make them equal participants in the process of government.  


An Arab minister, for example, especially in a strongly economic department, would control budgets that could be distributed to pet projects, and jobs that could be given out to associates. These are facts that are part and parcel of the Israeli political system.  


But an Arab minister participating in cabinet meetings also would have unfettered access to many of Israel’s most carefully kept military secrets, and to date no Israeli prime minister has been prepared to risk the wrath of his or her voters to make that happen. 


But the recent outburst of anger woke many of the Jewish politicians up to a fact that they essentially already knew—they are sitting on a powder keg, which if it is not handled correctly could explode, and cause tremendous collateral damage. The means of the neutralizing the device are both political and economic. And as events proved this past week, time is running out. – (Albawaba-MEBG)

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