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Israel's Aliens

To Be an Arab in Israel by Fouzi el-Asmar Frances Pinter, 1975. Paper, $5.00

By Marilyn L. Booth

WHEN ISRAEL'S new Prime Minister attended the dedication of a new synagogue on the West Bank last week, he was expressing tacit approval of a controversial settlement which the defeated Labor Party had always regarded as illegal. The ascendancy of Menahem Begin to Israeli leadership signals a dangerous setback in that country's peace negotiations with the Palestinians--and demonstrates the continued existence of two schools of thought in Israel: eventual pullback from certain territories occupied in 1967 versus stepped-up efforts to further colonize and permanently annex those territories. The latter direction would also entail the continued observance of stringent controls over Israel's Arab population, especially if Israel makes further attempts to colonize the West Bank.

The existence of a large Arab population in Israel has plagued the nation's authorities since the state's foundation in 1948. Lacking any positive or even consistent policy regarding the Arabs, Israel's contact with them was limited, in the first decade especially, to the determined strengthening of Zionist control and the extension of Jewish landownership. The Israelis retained British Mandatory Emergency Regulations, the repressive laws of wartime, to deal with the Arab population--despite the Zionists' adamant opposition to those regulations imposed before statehood. These measures, however, made it possible to evict Arab farmers from their fields, to place unreasonable curfews on villages, to banish certain individuals, to place others under house arrest, and to jail still others without trial and often without any apparent reason at all.

The history of the Israeli Arabs is one of political, social and economic oppression: lack of civil rights, denial of membership in numerous groups and parties, job discrimination and the humiliation of being de facto "second-class citizens" in an ostensibly democratic state. The Arabs have also suffered from the lack of communications channels open to them. General press censorship has managed to keep the Arabs' predicament out of international discussions on human rights.

However, two books which have just recently become available for a wide readership finally are making it possible for non-Israelis to learn of the Arabs' situation. The Arabs in Israel by Sabri Jiryis, an Israeli Arab lawyer, is a thoroughly documented, updated version of a study published in Hebrew in 1966. Drawing on official records, documents and the Israeli press, Jiryis traces the status of Arabs in Israel since the country's inception.

Complementing Jiryis' scholarly study is the eloquent personal testimony of another Israeli Arab, Fouzi el-Asmar. In To Be an Arab in Israel, this young Palestinian poet, journalist and publisher describes his own experiences, and those of his family and friends, within the state of Israel. El-Asmar's reflections are especially valuable because, as a member of what would be considered the Israeli Arab elite if such an entity were allowed to exist, he has more contact--at least more positive contact--with Israeli Jews than most other Arabs in Israel. But el-Asmar's outspokenness on the condition of the Arabs in Israel has landed him months in jail without a trial, has resulted in his being accused of al-Fatah membership, and has lost him several journalistic jobs as well as a position in a private company. El-Asmar has also had private papers confiscated, has been subjected to unreasonable censorship practices, and has had to endure the knowledge that his actions have led to harassments and even house arrests of some of his family members. His book, a collection of narratives, reflections and excerpts from Israeli literature and the press, "illustrates" the authoritative and straightforward account which Jiryis has composed.

SEVERAL MAJOR THEMES--some surprising, some not--emerge from both accounts. One recurrent note is the widespread opposition in Israel, by Jews and Arabs alike, to government policy vis a vis the Arab minority. The military apparatus organized in 1950 to deal with every aspect of Arab life, a system which lasted formally until 1966 and continued to exert a major influence over administrative practices thereafter, was criticized repeatedly by established Jewish groups, notably the Mapam Party.

El-Asmar, who wrote for Mapam's Arabic-language newspaper early in his career, describes warmly the many Jewish acquaintances and personal friends who helped him deflect political persecution, participated in common protests against official actions, and were eager to open channels of communication with Arabs in order to begin integrating them into Israeli life. But even Mapam was willing to go only so far, and that far principally in search of the Arab vote: eventually el-Asmar found himself barred from effective free expression and finally he was removed from his job. But el-Asmar's narrative in itself offers evidence of a small but increasingly vocal corps of Jewish citizens in Israel strongly opposed to the government's repressive and discriminatory treatment of the Arabs.

Another motif which runs throughout both books is the shocking and unnecessary heavy-handedness with which Israelis have dealt with the Arabs. The fates of two villages, as reported in both books, Deir Yasin and Kfar Kassim, demonstrate the extremes to which this policy could be carried. Deir Yasin has become the well-known rallying cry of the Palestinian resistance; on April 9, 1948, the terrorist bands Lehi and Irgun Zvai Leumi--the latter under Menahim Begin's leadership--massacred some 250 Arabs. But Deir Yasin is merely the most remembered of several massacres that summer which were intended to drive the Arab population from Israel, and that not so surprisingly often succeeded.

Less publicized was the Kfar Kassen massacre in 1956, which was carried out by regular army troops. The commander of a battalion along the Israeli-Jordanian border ordered the commander of a Frontier Guard unit to impose a strict curfew from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. on several villages. Anyone leaving his home or trying to enter the village during that time was to be shot. The curfew was announced at 4:30, leaving little time to warn the populace. In particular, many villagers worked outside the village, and there was no way to inform them of the new security measures. During the first hour of the curfew, 47 Arab residents of Kfar Kassem were shot as they returned to the village on bicycles and in lorries after work. The number included seven children and nine women. The killing continued until after a group of fourteen women, one boy and four men, was shot, when the unit commander finally ordered "more moderate procedures."

GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS tried to keep the Kfar Kassem incident from public knowledge, but they were unsuccessful and a military trial was held. Eleven officers and soldiers were convicted of "carrying out illegal orders"--and given extraordinarily light sentences, which were subsequently shortened still more. After continued public recrimination, the commander responsible for the original orders was put on trial--and fined one piastre for a "technical error." Yet, the press was largely silent about Israel's "My Lai." Neither Deir Yassin nor Kfar Kassim was an isolated incident; Juryis documents numerous similar, if less dramatic incidents.

Both authors chronicle the gradual, and still very partial, relaxation of government policy towards the Arabs. However, it is very clear that even a positive official position--if such were to be initiated--could not alleviate the problem completely. The Jewish population's attitudes remain hostile and suspicious, and social interaction between Jews and Arabs is infrequent. Clearly, normalization of relations is linked to a wider Middle East solution--but even if that is not forthcoming, there is much that the Israeli government and populace can do within Israel to defuse the threat of a hostile, unified Arab minority. As time passes, the romantic aura surrounding Israel has given way to the normal headaches of statehood: economic breakdowns, government corruption, social unrest, international disapprobation. With a dwindling immigration rate and increasing unrest among the Sephardic Jewish population, the last thing Israel needs is an antagonistic Arab minority. The official approach of suspicion and suppression, as well as the failure of officials to construct a positive, integrative policy towards the Arabs, has been a major mistake of Israel's first quarter-century. Unless the first faltering steps which have been made toward a more constructive policy are followed by firmer equalizing measures--which Begin seems unlikely to institute--Israel faces a growing menace of internal disintegration as an increasing percentage of her Jewish population comes to recognize the necessity of a fairer policy towards the Arabs. Authors such as Jiryis and el-Asmar, in carefully and eloquently bringing the sad history of those Arabs to wider public attention, perhaps do the Israeli government a service by hastening the recognition of the inevitable necessity of cooperation.

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