Rebuilding relations between Israel’s Arabs and Jews

BY SIMON GRIVER, IPS

The joyful shouts of over 1,500 Jewish and Arab children splashing about in a water park near Bet She’an in the late August sunshine would not have been heard several weeks before. Not only was the region within range of Hezbollah missiles, but organized activities bringing together Jews and Arabs were put on hold as the missiles threatened to rip apart the two communities, which had been cautiously learning to live together in recent years.

As the Israeli government sets about rehabilitating the North, the physical damage to the region as a result of the recent war is clear for all to see. But the damage to the delicate relations between Jews and Arabs is less evident to the eye.

Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives in Israel, which works to advance coexistence, equality and cooperation among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, explains that war always has a negative impact on the relationship between Israel’s Jewish majority and the Arab minority.

“Israel’s Arab community is seen by some as a fifth column,” observes Be’eri-Sulitzeanu. In fact, a survey conducted immediately after the war by Mina Tzemach, Israel’s leading pollster, exposed Jewish misperceptions about Arab views. Tzemach found that only 18 percent of Israel’s Arabs supported Hezbollah, while 55 percent of Israeli Jews thought that all or most Israeli Arabs supported Hezbollah. An additional 21 percent thought half of Israeli Arabs sympathized with the Lebanese Shiites.

“This war, in which both Jews and Arabs paid a heavy price in human lives and property, offered a unique opportunity for the creation of Jewish-Arab solidarity based on a common threat from outside,” says Be’eri-Sulitzeanu. “Yet Israel’s Arabs didn’t support the war publicly and thus antagonized many from the Jewish majority.”

“Many Jews felt that Israel’s Arabs were either with them or against them,” remarks Mohammad Darawshe, director of development at the Abraham Fund. “But the situation was not so black and white, for Israel’s Arabs felt that the war was not in anybody’s interest and was causing unnecessary suffering for both Israelis and the Lebanese.”

At the same time, the fact that many Arabs openly demonstrated against the war while the fighting raged is seen by both Darawshe and Be’eri-Sulitzeanu as a mark of the maturity and strength of Israeli democracy. This type of dissent, they say, did not exist in the past and indicates a greater self-confidence among Israel’s Arabs and a desire to play a more active role in the country’s political culture.

During the early days of the war, the Abraham Fund conducted a survey and was encouraged to discover that despite common perceptions, Jewish-Arab interaction continued, as Jewish and Arab municipalities and coexistence activists joined efforts to cope with the crisis. Additionally, protests, which were voiced by Jews and Arabs alike, were directed at the government, while objections against the Jewish-Arab partnership were rarely raised.

The Abraham Fund can take much credit for creating a more tolerant atmosphere that helped the Jewish and Arab communities survive the war. The Fund’s Mirkam (Tapestry) initiative in the Galilee, for example, has enhanced understanding and interdependence between Jews and Arabs by fostering cooperative educational, social, business, inter-municipal and community activities. The Police Community initiative has enabled Israel’s police to better understand the sensitivities of Israel’s Arab citizenry; as a result, the police acted with greater restraint and, says Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, provided more egalitarian policing services during the war.

“The Israeli establishment often has good intentions,” says Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, “but the Arab minority is so marginalized that its needs are often simply not taken into account. The war with Hezbollah demonstrated clearly that the Israeli government has not yet created significant policy that communicates to Arab Israelis that they are a valued and welcome part of society, deserving full equality in every sense.”

With this in mind, as the war broke out, the Abraham Fund Initiatives began monitoring and examining emergency services to ensure that equal assistance was provided to Israel’s Arab citizens.

“We soon discovered,” recalls Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, “that the IDF Home Front had an excellent and friendly website in Hebrew, Russian and English but not in Arabic. We offered to translate the material into Arabic, and they were only too happy for us to make the contribution. Additionally, due to our intervention, the Jewish Agency brought thousands of Arab children from the north to the safety of summer camps in the center of the country.” Given the tensions within Israeli society, this partnership was commendable in that it demonstrated the Jewish Agency’s concern for all of Israel’s citizens.

Be’eri-Sulitzeanu stresses that TAFI also made major efforts to encourage coexistence organizations to continue their programs throughout the fighting. “We were afraid of a paralysis in the area of coexistence because Jews and Arabs were angry with each other,” he recalled. “But we also felt that in addition to the need to carry on a dialogue, it was critically important to continue advocating for a shared society.”

In the immediate aftermath of the war the series of three “fun days” sponsored by TAFI’s Mirkam project, in partnership with the New Israel Fund, was the start of a new and intensified effort to re-establish trust between the Jewish and Arab communities.

“Activities like these have more impact than meets the eye,” explains Basem Kanane, Mirkam’s manager. “The kids had a good time playing in the water and each community realized that the ‘other’ is very much the same.”

Splashing in the water was Tamir Akran, a 13 year-old Jewish boy from Hatzor Hagalil who spent most of the war with relatives in the south after severe anxiety from falling missiles gave him acute stomach problems. “I still get cramps when I hear a sudden loud noise.”

Nearby was 11 year-old Fathiya Atamni, an Arab girl from near Nazareth. “To be honest I’m looking forward to the routine of going back to school,” she said. “We had no shelters in our town and had nowhere to go when the sirens sounded. It was very scary.”

The Abraham Fund Initiatives believes that every crisis offers new opportunities. “We have no choice but to intensify our efforts for coexistence,” said Be’eri-Sulitzeanu. “Israel is home for all of us.”

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