Thu, 09 Nov 2000

Recent uprising exposes racist trends in Israel

By Ramit Plushnick-Masti

TEL AVIV (Reuters): Karin Arad spent most of her life weaving lies to keep the Arab half of herself hidden from the Israeli world she lived in.

With an Israeli-Jewish father from Haifa and an Israeli-Arab mother from Nazareth, Arad grew up caught between two worlds in a society overshadowed by an Arab-Jewish conflict.

"I just lived scared to death that someone would discover the truth," said the 28-year-old gossip columnist for a popular Tel Aviv weekly.

Arad's inner conflict erupted again with an outbreak of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Sept. 28 following a visit by the controversial Israeli politician Ariel Sharon to a site in Jerusalem holy to both Muslims and Jews.

Israeli Arabs, who make up about 18 percent of Israel's population, participated for several days in their Palestinian brethren's Intifada or uprising, clashing with Israeli police in protests involving stone-throwing and petrol bombs.

At least 13 Israeli Arabs were killed in demonstrations most of which broke out in Arab towns in northern Israel. More than 170 people, nearly all Palestinian, have been killed in six weeks of fighting with Israeli security forces.

Israel has set up an inquiry into the use of force by police in clashes with Israeli Arabs who have identified increasingly with Palestinian aspirations for a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"It was very sad and it was difficult for me, but that's not different either because it's been difficult for me since childhood," Arad said.

"It was clear that it had to erupt at some point...when you put too much into the pot, eventually it overflows." "Because I am so sensitive to this issue I knew it would erupt."

Bloody fighting between Israeli Arabs and Jews has risen in the past, most memorably in the village of Kfar Kassem in 1956, when more than 40 Arabs were killed, and in 1976, when police clashed with Arabs over the expropriation of land.

But Sammy Smooha, a sociology professor at Haifa University who has been studying Arab-Jewish relations for more than two decades, said the force of the most recent Arab demonstrations in Israel shocked him, as it did many Jews.

He said most Israelis don't recognize racism or discrimination, even though the government -- including Prime Minister Ehud Barak -- admits it exists.

Arad said there was no one incident that made her deny her Arab heritage at the of 10.

It was the atmosphere -- especially during the first Palestinian Intifada that began in 1987 -- that convinced her she would have no friends if people knew she was half Arab.

Later, she feared she would be denied jobs. But the older she got, the more difficult it became to keep track of the lies.

Arad was forced to move from city to city in case she forgot her own stories about her background or out of fear her high- profile job as a radio and print journalist would uncover the truth.

"I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was denying 50 percent of myself," she recalled.

Six years ago, at the age of 22, Arad decided she no longer wanted to live the lie.

The blue-eyed, olive-skinned beauty, who had integrated so well into Israeli society, told her best friend and her boyfriend that her mother was an Arab.

"They were like, 'This is the big secret?...Big deal'," Arad said, aware that once she had decided to reveal her true identity she had to be prepared to deal with less open views.

Arad said she learned during the four years she lived with her mother in Germany, where she was called die Juedin, the Jewess, that racism is a part of human nature. Israel's biggest problem is a denial of that, she said.

Like an alcoholic who has to get up and admit the problem, Arad said the first step to recovery would be for Israelis to admit they are racist and discriminate against Arabs.

"In a place where there is a lot of racism, there is a lot of denial of racism," she said.

Arabs and Jews have lived together in the Middle East for centuries, but when Israel was established the conflict between the two nations changed.

Israel granted citizenship to Arabs who did not flee or were not forced out of Israel proper in the war that followed its 1948 declaration of independence. It vowed as a democracy to treat Israeli Arabs equally despite the state's Jewish nature.

Yet discrimination began with Israel's creation, wrote Conor Cruise O'Brien in his book "The Siege". The state treated the Israeli-Arab minority largely as "presumed enemies within its walls," he said.

Most of the Arabs were placed in three regional areas and were ruled from 1948 to 1966 by a military decree that restricted their movement.

"Every kind of discrimination you can think of against Israeli Arabs exists in Israel," Smooha said, noting the phenomenon pervades the country's job and housing markets.

"But these feelings of discrimination have existed for so many years, so these feelings can't be the reason for the eruption," he said. "I am looking for a reason."

Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli-Arab member of parliament, said systematic discrimination led by the government keeps Arabs at the lowest levels of society. He said there is a 20-year gap in living standards between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

"Israeli society should look in the mirror. What kind of democratic repute does Israel have?" he said.

Institutionalized discrimination decreased when Yitzhak Rabin was in power, Smooha said, but after the prime minister's assassination five years ago, Arabs in Israel were marginalised.

He said that may be why Israeli Arabs participated in the current "Al-Aqsa Intifada", named after the mosque in Jerusalem that sparked the unrest.

"The real test could be before us," Smooha said. "If there is an increase of violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis in the occupied territories we will have to see how Israeli Arabs react."

Tibi, formerly Arafat's adviser, said racism crosses class boundaries and penetrates the political right and left.

"We are talking about a twister, a vicious cycle. I am positive the prejudices on both sides will remain...I don't want to say forever, but for hundreds of years."