- I spent a month in Israel talking to Arab-Israeli leaders during one of the tensest summers in years – and they described dire poverty and increasing tensions.
- At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ruling coalition were passing the Nation-State Law, which codifies the state’s Jewish character, but which minorities in Israel have called “outright racism.”
- Chief among the Arab leaders I met with was Ayman Odeh. He has been likened to Martin Luther King Jr. by those sympathetic to his cause and a terrorist by Israel’s ultranationalist defence minister.
- Arabs, who make up 21% of Israel’s population, suffer a litany of issues, from rampant crime and poverty to health, which Arab leaders say comes from decades of neglect from the Israeli government.
The soldier stepped forward and looked down the hill. Fingering his assault rifle, he called to me, first in Hebrew, then, upon seeing my confusion, in English.
I was walking up a narrow path at the edge of Sacher Park, the largest public park in Jerusalem and one that borders both the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, and the Supreme Court. Tall willowy cypresses stood sentinel on one side of the path, a cascading metal fence on the other.
When I reached the point where the path met the Knesset service road, the soldier, athletic and younger than me, pointed at my camera. “What were you talking a photo of?”
“The fence,” I said. He seemed confused.
“Do you know what you were taking a photo of?” he said.
In Israel, a fence is never just a fence.
“It looked pretty in the morning light,” I said, trailing off, aware of my frivolousness in a country conditioned by violence and tension. I held out the camera and offered to delete the photo.
He took my passport and questioned my intentions. I had a meeting at the Knesset, I told him. With Ayman Odeh, I added.
Odeh is the Arab leader of the parliament’s third-largest bloc, four Arab parties known collectively as the Joint List. He is likened to Martin Luther King Jr. by those sympathetic to his cause and a terrorist by Israel’s ultranationalist defence minister.
He is, in many ways, the first Arab leader of his kind in Israel. Whereas previous Arab or Palestinian leaders gained prominence through force of personality or association with the Palestinian struggle, Odeh has become one of the country’s most high-profile politicians because he was elected to such a prominent position.
“The fact that the third-largest party in the Israeli Parliament is a Palestinian front is extremely significant,” Orly Noy, a leftist Iranian-Jewish political activist and journalist, had told me. “Just by existing it has had an impact on Israeli politics.”
I tried to see if Odeh’s name registered any response, but the soldier’s eyes looked askance at the service road. He asked a few more questions. I deleted the photo. The soldier flicked his head, his eyes fixed on the road. “Go.”
As I shuffled the quarter-mile to the Knesset, I kept asking myself a question that, as an American, has become almost reflexive after an interaction with authority: “What would that’ve been like if I wasn’t white?” In Israel, the question is similar but tailored to the region: “What would that have been like if I was Arab?” “If I was Palestinian?”
Arab-Israeli society is rife with issues, from crime to poverty to health
It’s not a flippant question.
Many of the issues that plague Israel’s Arab community parallel those faced by minorities in the US. Arabs, who make up 21% of Israel, have a lower life expectancy than Jews, a higher infant-mortality rate, worse infrastructure services, and lower incomes, particularly among those with higher education. Nearly 50% of Arab-Israelis fall below the poverty line, compared to 13% of Jews, according to the most recent report, though that number is an improvement over recent years.
The problem of crime and violence is particularly entrenched. A recent study conducted by the Knesset Research and Information Center found that 64% of murder victims over the past three years were Arabs, and 95% of all shooting incidents were related to the Arab population.
In the months leading up to my visit to Israel, in July, the country had been rife with tension, as it always seems to be.
Bloody protests in Gaza commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe” – what Palestinians call the Israeli War of Independence and subsequent exodus of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs – and the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had, in turn, sparked protests in Arab-Israeli communities over the Israeli army’s conduct during the protests. In Haifa, protests turned into clashes with police and left protesters bloodied or arrested.
In June, the Jewish residents of the northern town of Afula protested the sale of a home to an Arab family, with the former mayor saying they “don’t want a mixed but rather a Jewish city, and it’s their right. This is not racism.”
But it goes beyond that. As the Israeli novelist Iris Leal wrote in May, “Israel’s Arabs know they’re second-class citizens and the most hated group in Israel.”
These things weighed on my mind as I passed through the successive security checks in an outer gatehouse that manages who goes into the Knesset: metal detector, passport check, X-ray machine.
After I put my backpack through the X-ray machine, an officer took it aside and slowly dismantled every item inside, swabbing it methodically for bomb residue and passing each piece back through the X-ray.
Matan Cohen, a goateed Israeli doctoral student at Columbia University, in New York, who serves intermittently as Odeh’s foreign-policy adviser, smiled sheepishly as he waited for me, as if to say, This is what it is.
We hurried down the path toward the Knesset, a squat rectangular building that looks more like a university library than a hall of power.
Odeh invited me to the parliament to attend a special event on the problem of crime and violence plaguing Arab-Israeli society. Arab-rights activists, professors, police bigwigs, and Arab families of victims, among others, attended. Most of the Knesset members present were from the Joint List and the Zionist Union, the center-left opposition bloc.
The atmosphere reminded me of a family reunion. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and this contrasted with the grave issues being discussed.
With Odeh busy running from committee room to committee room, Cohen, the foreign-policy adviser, played the part of tour guide and translator, stopping every so often to say hello to a leftist or Arab activist or staffer he knew.
We sat in Odeh’s office, where posters of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress hung on the walls. Cohen expounded on the state of Israeli politics, the economic effects of what he sees as de-facto segregation between Arabs and Jews, the shifting tilt of the Supreme Court – a “fig leaf” on Israeli democracy, he said – and the way Israel’s “balancing act” between being a Jewish and democratic state creates problems.
His views are not Odeh’s – Odeh complains Cohen is too pessimistic – but he is one of Odeh’s chief advisers. When Cohen was an undergraduate at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, he spearheaded a successful campaign to get the school to divest from Israel. He said that, at 17, Israeli forces shot him in the eye during a demonstration against the 285-mile separation barrier built in the early 2000s to separate the West Bank from Israel.
“Whoever is more blatant, more discriminatory, more racist gets the votes,” Cohen said of the state of Israeli politics today. “It’s an uphill battle.”
The political drift in Israel is moving further and further right
It’s impossible to talk about the Joint List, Odeh, or Arab society without outlining the state of Israel’s politics.
Perhaps no politician has proved more adept at navigating Israel’s parliamentary system, its tenuous alliances, and nonstop wheeling and dealing than Benjamin Netanyahu. “King Bibi” has held power for nine years and counting, longer than any prime minister since David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father.
He and his conservative Likud Party have won with a simple formula: a vice-like grip on its base, fear-based appeals about national security, and, with each successive government, a growing reliance on nationalist, right-wing, and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Netanyahu and his allies have frequently played up anti-Arab sentiment to curry electoral favour with the far right. On Election Day 2015, with Likud failing in the polls, Netanyahu said Arab voters were showing up at polling stations “in droves” to drive turnout of his base. It worked.
The collapse of Syria, the rise of ISIS, and the threat of a nuclear Iran have pushed Israel’s politics to become dominated by national security – even more so than in the past. That tilt favours Likud since many Israelis see the left as weak.
Labour, the main center-left party, was in power during the first and second intifadas, the Palestinian uprisings against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which coincided with a wave of terror attacks.
At this point, the left has dwindled to 8% of the public, according to those surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research poll. In that poll, the right had swelled to 35% and 55% were in the center. But ideas that were once fringe have become mainstream. The same poll found that nearly half of the Jewish Israelis surveyed said they supported the expulsion of Arabs from Israel.
The effect is that left and center-left parties now try to appeal to right-wing voters, Noy, the leftist activist and journalist, told me.
In 2015, Isaac Herzog, then the leader of Labour, ran a campaign with ads advertising that he understood “the Arab mentality,” that he saw Arabs through “the crosshairs” of a gun, and at one point referred to Palestinians as a demographic threat, saying: “I don’t want 61 Palestinian MKs in Israel’s Knesset. I don’t want a Palestinian prime minister.”
Throughout the years, Netanyahu has accused the left of having “forgotten what it means to be Jews.” Last year, Avi Gabbay, Labour’s current leader, unironically repeated the sentiment.
The feeling among many left-wing Israelis, according to Tel Aviv University professor Aviad Kleinberg, is that if Gabbay represents the left, they might as well vote for the right.
Israel’s Arab Parliament members face an uphill battle to be heard
On the day I visited the Knesset – while Odeh and his cohort were holding an event to talk about how to improve the lives of impoverished and violence-weary Arab-Israeli citizens – the ruling coalition was holding a joint-committee session debating the so-called Nation-State bill.
Introduced in 2011 and debated sporadically in the years since, the bill was written as one of Israel’s “Basic Laws,” which collectively act as the de-facto constitution. The bill’s apparent purpose is to set in stone the state’s Jewish character, but critics decried the bill as “discriminatory,” extreme nationalism, and “racist.”
The most contentious clause declared that “the State may allow a community, including followers of a single religion or members of a single nationality, to establish a separate communal settlement.” Many suggested the bill as written could legalise segregation. One far-right Knesset member argued that the clause was necessary to push more Jews into areas dominated by Arabs.
The bill was far from the only piece of controversial legislation the ruling coalition was attempting to push through before the summer recess in 10 days. Perhaps then it was understandable why Aida Touma-Sliman, a quick-witted Arab-Israeli lawmaker, feminist activist, and member of the Joint List, seemed exhausted when I met her in the Knesset cafeteria, a room ostensibly for members’ only but rarely enforced. As we ate vegetarian sandwiches after a long day of meetings, she told me she’d been up nearly until dawn that day sitting through committee votes.
When I asked her how she saw the Joint List in the political climate, her once jovial demeanour disappeared. “If anybody thinks that now is the time to lead huge initiatives related to the rights of any citizen or human being in this country, I think we have an illusion,” she told me. “We are in a situation where we are trying to defend our community. We are in a defensive strategy more than anything else, because we are really that threatened.”
One of the most prominent feminist activists in Israel, a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and a former journalist, Touma-Sliman does not suffer fools lightly. When I asked her what Odeh was like in his younger years – the two have known each other since he was in his 20s, and she refers to him as her “comrade” – she cut off the line of questioning. The political predicament doesn’t have time for nostalgic reminisces.
I asked whether Arab-Israeli MKs have raised the issue of violence in Arab society before.
“One of the big lies in the Israeli media and the government is that we do not deal with the everyday rights and lives of our constituency,” she said, and instead are too focused on solving the Palestinian question – the peace process, a two-state solution, conditions in the West Bank and Gaza.
“We’ve been talking about the crime [in Arab society] for years now. The government didn’t want to do anything and they didn’t do anything. Then, when they wanted to deal with it, they blame us for it.”
Later in the day, Odeh gave a speech in front of the Knesset saying, “There is an unacceptable gap … between the declarations and the head nods on the importance of dealing with this phenomenon and the activity on the ground.”
Indeed, Arab-Israeli lawmakers have been sounding the alarm for close to a decade. In 2012 – three years before Touma-Sliman was elected – long-serving Arab-Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi held a special Knesset meeting to discuss the issue, which many felt had reached crisis levels. At the session, Netanyahu called the lives of Arab-Israelis “insufferable” and vowed to help solve the issue by integrating the communities into the economy and education system and increasing law-enforcement by earmarking $US46 million for improvement plans.
The issue came up again, in 2015, after a 100-page report detailed underfunding in nearly every facet of Arab public life, from policing to infrastructure. The report found that the per capita budget for residents of Arab towns was 10% less than residents of the poorest Jewish towns and as much as 45% less than wealthier ones.
Shortly after, the government approved a $US4.3 billion five-year plan, Resolution 922, to improve education, housing, and policing in Arab communities. About one-third of the money has been spent so far. Rather than specify the amounts of money used for programs, it directs government agencies to allocate 20% of their budget to minority populations. While Odeh and the Joint List were instrumental in negotiating the plan, other Joint List MKs and those in Arab civil society suggested the plan was a fraction of the funding needed to bring about real change.
The government says it has seen improvements in the number of Arab students in higher education, and the rate of employment among Arab-Israelis. And some Arab mayors say they are feeling the positive effects on the ground. But many in Arab society say the situation with crime and violence has not improved and that much more needs to be done to bridge the massive gap that has built up over decades.
Israel is riddled with impoverished, crime-ridden Arab villages and towns – and Jisr az-Zarqa is one of the hardest hit
In Jisr az-Zarqa, violence, poverty, and neglect have long been the norm. On a sunny Thursday morning, I drove with the Israeli human-rights activist Jafar Farah to the coastal Arab village, one of the poorest towns in Israel. It’s prone to gang warfare, shootings, stabbings, and arson, and 80% of the 14,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line.
Residents have complained of decades of police neglect – a police station for the village was opened for the first time in November – and said that when police are around, they treat residents as “a security threat or potential criminal.” The distrust is bone-deep.
Farah, who’s 52 and has a head of curly grey-black hair, has devoted his life to improving the situation of Arabs in Israel. In 1997, he founded the Mossawa Center, in Haifa, a city long heralded as Israel’s “model” city of Arab-Jewish coexistence.
Farah winced as he shifted to get comfortable in his car seat. His leg had been in pain for months. In May, Farah was detained by police while he was looking for his son at a Gaza-solidarity protest. After seeing his son covered in blood at the police station, Farah demanded to know why. Farah said the officer’s response was to kick him and break his knee. The Police Investigation Unit has opened a probe looking into the incident. The officer in question has been placed on administrative leave.
We drove down Highway 2, the primary artery connecting Tel Aviv and Haifa. Farah pointed at a crowded expanse of grey cinderblock structures overlooking the highway. Though Jisr az-Zarqa abuts the highway, there’s no exit. There were exits for the towns before and after. We drove farther south, doubled back on an interior road, and exited to a small two-lane access road that is the only way into the impoverished village. Farah told me to pull over. A police car was idling at the mouth of the road, stopping any car heading toward the highway.
“I want to see how the police … ” he said, trailing off. His eyes were fixed on the officer talking to a man in a newish white sedan. “Policing is a big issue in the village.”
Farah has an acerbic sense of humour, honed after years of fighting what he sees as thinly veiled racist attacks on Arab communities. We drove through the one-lane tunnel that passes under Highway 2 and forms the entrance to Jisr. Farah pointed in each direction.
To the east,he said, Jisr is bounded by the highway. To the south, Jisr is bounded by Caesarea, Netanyahu’s hometown and a wealthy enclave of villas and private pools. An earthen embankment, nearly a mile long, 30-feet high, and 15-feet wide, was built more than a decade ago to separate the communities. Caesarea residents said they wanted to block the sound of the call to prayer from Jisr’s mosques and to prevent thieves. Jisr residents see it as another example of official discrimination: a separation wall built so that wealthy Caesareans don’t have to look at the dilapidated town.
To the west there is the sea and the Nahal Taninim Nature Reserve, created in 2000 amid much consternation from Jisr’s fishermen who used the lands and waters. To the north there’s Ma’agan Michael, considered Israel’s richest kibbutz, or collective community. The 1,400-person kibbutz covers a landmass five times that of Jisr, whose population density is more akin to Cairo than a fishing village. The town’s mayor has estimated Jisr would need to double in size to properly accommodate its fast-growing population. Plans to add land to Jisr by moving the highway or from unused land near Caesarea or nearby Beit Hanania have been blocked by those communities.
“The kibbutzim can’t give back its agricultural lands, of course. Their fathers promised them those lands 3,000 years ago,” Farah said with an acidic laugh as he looked out to Ma’agan Michael. “But, remember, they vote for Meretz,” the social-democratic left-wing party.
The problems that plague Jisr are extensive and interconnected: a weak education system, high crime rates, a lack of public services, insufficient housing, and high rates of unemployment, particularly among men. The men in the town used to make a living fishing off the coast, but scarcity and increased restrictions from the state have pushed most out. Many families now rely on income from the town’s women, who pile into shuttles at dawn every morning to take on menial jobs all over the country.
The majority of Farah’s advocacy in Jisr and other Arab communities is about basic services: In 2013, Mossawa successfully lobbied to have Jisr connected by public buses. Other recent successes include the building of an early childhood center and a building for the social welfare department. But the center and department will be housed in the same location. “Not good,” Farah said, shaking his head.
Sewage systems, water, and electricity are other major issues. Near the southern edge of the town, Farah showed me how squat houses alternated with unfinished multistory concrete structures and ramshackle houses were built on top of one another. The government won’t approve permits for new buildings because of the proximity to Caesarea, Farah said, so residents build upward illegally. The houses are linked by looping green cables that carry electricity from one legal structure to half a dozen illegal ones, like a perverse game of telephone.
“At a certain point, we need to be advocating for higher education and not for sewage systems, you know?” he said.
We parked at the city-council building, which is a series of trailers. The new police station, opened in November, is next door. Residents weary of violence applauded the development, but there was frustration, Farah said, that the city council had asked unsuccessfully for years for a permanent structure. It still isn’t built. At the government’s direction, the police station was built on land that the town council had hoped to use for development.
That day, Farah and the town council were due to show Emanuele Giaufret, the EU’s ambassador to Israel, the progress made by an EU-funded, Mossawa-coordinated project to empower the town to “maximise the economic potential.” One of the main plans, in the works for years, is to turn the village into a tourist destination. Its coastline is spectacular, and the thought is that it could become a beach town.
After a short presentation, residents led Giaufret and the other attendees on a guided tour. We drove down a sand road to the coast, flanked by scrub plants and the Taninim Stream. The tour guide, a young Arab woman, pointed out the ruins of a stone bridge and explained that the town derives its name, which means “bridge over the blue,” from the bridge built to commemorate Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Palestine, in 1898.
As we walked along Tel Taninim, an ancient hill overlooking a wild and untouched Mediterranean beach, one of the women on the tour fainted. Her son splashed water on her face. She woke up and fainted again. It was ascertained that she was diabetic and didn’t have insulin with her. Others tried to shield her from the sun with a scarf. Marwa Zoubi, Mossawa’s social and economic program coordinator, turned to me.
“This is the problem: The closest ambulance has to come from Caesarea,” she said. “Because the highway doesn’t connect to Jisr, it is 20 minutes away. The closest hospital is in Hadera, 30 minutes away.” Jisr has no hospital, no post office, no social-security office, no bank, and no ATM, she added. There’s little land to add any of those things.
Ten minutes passed before a lifeguard came from a nearby beach and administered first aid. Later, a paramedic showed up to take the woman away. The tour continued.
When it ended, the ambassador met the town council in a community center. Farah gave a speech and pulled no punches.
“I know it’s not an easy time to be an ambassador to this country,” Farah said as he leaned between the lectern and a crutch. “Your position is either you support us here or we become refugees in Europe. I hope to not become a refugee in Europe.”
A law passed that Arab-Israelis believe is the state saying ‘Don’t even dream that you will be equal’
What Farah was referring to was unmistakable. At 3 a.m. that morning, the Knesset passed the Nation-State Law after a contentious and dramatic eight-hour debate.
The decorum in the Knesset often strays from civil – fistfights, cursing, and shouting are all par for the course – and the debate over a bill one Joint List member called “the death of democracy” did not disappoint.
Odeh waved a black flag from the podium, Joint List MKs Tibi and MK Touma-Sliman shouted at Netanyahu, “You passed an apartheid law, a racist law” – to which, Netanyahu shouted “How dare you talk this way about the only democracy in the Middle East?” Jamal Zahalka, also of the Joint List, ripped up a printed copy of the bill. In the end, the law was softened in response to the criticism. The “exclusive communities” clause was replaced with one stating that the state sees “developing Jewish settlement as a national interest.” Another dropped clause would have instructed courts to use Jewish ritual law when no legal precedents existed.
But the criticism was swift, strong, and widespread. The American Jewish Committee said the law puts at risk “the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic.” Major Israel-backers Jewish Federations of North America and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews expressed concerns over discrimination.
Eventually the EU joined the chorus. Mordechai Kremnitzer, a professor emeritus of the Faculty of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote in the left-leaning daily Haaretz that the law “raises the overt, blunt discrimination to the constitutional level.”
Hassan Jabaereen, the founder and general director of Adalah, a Palestinian-run legal center and human rights organisation, told Business Insider that, even in its revised form, the law indicates that Arab-Israelis are not equal. By including a clause promoting “Jewish settlement” as a “national interest,” Jabareen said, it shows that land and housing rights are not equal for Jews and Arabs.
There are some indications that Netanyahu’s coalition many have miscalculated with the law. Tens of thousands of Druze, the Arab group that serves in the military and is frequently held up as something like a model minority, have come out to protest the law as promoting inequality. In response, Netanyahu convened a committee to handle the uproar from Druze and other minority groups. A number of petitions, including one by the Joint List, have been filed against the law in the courts.
Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s paper of record, told me the law was a “provocation” and “stupid” but not racist. “It’s an unnecessary law, but not a racist law. We don’t need this kind of law because it won’t change anything,” Yemini said.
On that last point Farah agreed. But whereas Yemini believes that discrimination in Israel is no worse or better than other Western nations, Farah told me that discrimination against Arabs is already widespread. The Nation-State Law only codified it.
In the case of the Arabic language, Farah said, it has never been treated as an official language. The Knesset does not offer translation in Arabic and laws aren’t translated. Most public services offer little Arabic in their literature, websites, and signs. And as far as “exclusive communities,” lots of Israeli towns and kibbutzes already have admission committees, which critics say allow towns to prevent Arabs from moving in.
“If we would use ‘I have a dream,'” Farah told me, “the law is saying, ‘Don’t even dream that you will be equal.'”
The leader of the Arab-Israelis remains an unshakable optimist
Ayman Odeh is an optimist, almost unfailingly so. I met him a few days before the vote, at a popular Lebanese café in Haifa, where over a salad he tried to convince me that recent measures that Netanyahu’s coalition put forth were a response to the growing strength of the Arab population.
He rattled off stats: Arabs are now 18% of university students, 23% of students at the Technion (Israel’s MIT), 16% of medical students, and Arabs in the medical field roughly equaled their proportion in society. And, besides, he said, this is the first Knesset in which Arabs hold 13 seats, the third-largest bloc.
It’s an encouraging notion, but one that belies some of the reality. Odeh’s Joint List formed out of extreme circumstances. In 2014, the Knesset passed an election law that raised the vote threshold a party needed to be seated from 2% to 3.25%. It was no secret that some of the law’s sponsors pushed the bill as a means to exclude Arab parties.
The Arab parties, which have vastly divergent viewpoints ranging from an Islamist party to one with a Communist history, were forced to band together. An unprecedented 63.5% of Arabs came out to vote, up from 56% in 2013. But it’s been difficult to keep the coalition together, as Odeh acknowledged, saying, “It’s not easy to hug together a Communist and an Islamist with a liberal and a nationalist.”
And with the bloc’s inability to pass laws in the face of Netanyahu’s rightist coalition and the general rightward drift of the center-left opposition, it’s anyone’s guess if the upcoming election next year will generate the enthusiasm of 2015.
Odeh seems unconcerned. Perhaps it is because his vision, by necessity, is wider than just the goings-on of the Knesset. Reading Malcolm X jump-started his political education. “There were times I had to stop reading to take a breath because I couldn’t breathe,” he told me. But lately, he has taken Martin Luther King Jr. as his north star.
Odeh has become the de-facto leader of Arab society in Israel, a role he has taken to with gusto. When I met with Odeh, he had to stop the interview several times to speak with the family of an Arab child who had been kidnapped the previous day. He can be found frequently leading rallies and protests against Netanyahu and the ruling coalition in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and elsewhere.
When Farah, the rights activist, was injured at the Gaza-solidarity protest in May, Odeh was on the news criticising officers for what he saw as police brutality and suppression. He was eventually suspended from the Knesset for a week after lashing out at police officers at the hospital where Farah was being treated. His outspokenness has drawn vicious criticism from Netanyahu’s most right-wing allies, like Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the founder of far-right Yisrael Beiteinu Party.
“Every day that Ayman Odeh and his associates are free to walk around cursing at police officers is a failure of law enforcement authorities,” Lieberman posted on Twitter at the time. “The place for these terrorists is not in the Knesset – it’s in prison. It’s time they pay a price for their actions.”
Odeh appears to be a new kind of Arab leader in Israel
One of the most contentious issues in Israel since the 1990s has been the eviction of Bedouin Arabs from the Negev Desert in the south and the West Bank. Nomadic Bedouins lived in the area long before the state formed, but after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, in 1967, the state expropriated it as state land with the intention of establishing Jewish towns there. Bedouins established villages in the lands, built illegally since the government rarely approves permits for Arabs.
Since 1948, Israel has established 700 towns and communities for Jews and fewer than 10 for Arabs, despite similar population growth, a statistic Arab-Israelis and leftists often cite as evidence of “apartheid.”
Recently, the Israeli army has issued dozens of orders to demolish Bedouin villages to make way for Jewish settlements. The Bedouins, the government has said, will be moved to new more modern homes; current Bedouin villages often lack electricity or running water. But Bedouins argue that the sites are inadequate. One site is next to a garbage dump, and there is little room for their animals to graze.
Odeh has led the fight against the demolitions. Two weeks after the election of 2015, he led a 75-mile march from the Negev Desert to Jerusalem to call attention to the Bedouin issue. In January 2017, Odeh was at the forefront again. After a Supreme Court order, the government moved to demolish and evacuate the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran to make way for a Jewish town to be named, unironically, Hiran. Hundreds of armed police launched a predawn raid on the village while residents and activists – Odeh among them – attempted to stop the demolition.
The day erupted in clashes, and a Bedouin-Israeli was shot by police while driving his car. The man lost control of his car and plowed into a policeman, killing him. The driver was fatally shot by police, who said they suspected a terrorist attack.
Odeh was in the thick of it, attempting to get past police to the man’s body. It ended with Odeh covered in pepper spray and, he alleges, shot in the head with a sponge-tipped bullet. Police said he was hit by an errant rock thrown by protesters. When I asked Odeh, given the current climate in the Knesset, whether he felt his activism was more important than his parliamentary work, Odeh pointed to the demolitions.
“After that protest, we had a year with no demolitions of houses. I will happily be shot again if it will lead to another year of no demolitions,” he said. “With respect to the parliamentary work, the public work is the one that, all across history, has made the changes in the world.”
After a 13-year battle in the courts led by Adalah, the Arab legal center, the residents Umm-Al-Hiran reached an agreement in April to voluntarily leave the village and move to a new development in Hura, a Bedouin town in the Negev Desert.
Odeh told me that he wants to present a “moral alternative” to Israeli society based around equality. His goal is not just to energize Arab-Israelis, but to win over Jews, to pull the center of gravity away from the right wing.
Almost to his detriment, Odeh has espoused a politics that is “soothing” to Jewish-Israelis and focused on coexistence, Noy, the leftist journalist, told me. In the current climate, she said, Jews are not that interested in hearing about “possibilities of coexistence,” and Odeh’s insistence risks alienating those Arab-Israelis who desire a more combative leader. And Odeh’s notion that Arab-Israeli society is doing better rings hollow to Jabereen, the Arab-Israel rights lawyer, who said that Odeh’s positivity is more about convincing consituents the Joint List is successful than conveying reality.
Even now, with the Nation-State Law galvanizing Arab society, there is no guarantee that Odeh will be able to hold together the Joint List for elections next year. There is still a lot of “bad blood” between the four parties that form it, she said.
Odeh is thinking beyond his immediate bloc. He talked about forming a “democratic coalition” for those who want to resist not just Netanyahu’s government, but right-wing and antidemocratic governments all over the world, and told me that the most important question in Israel right now is who can exclude who first.
Will the right wing win over a big-enough majority of Jews to exclude Arab-Israelis, or will Arab-Israelis form a coalition that excludes the right wing? Such a thing has happened before, he reminded me. In the 1990s, Arab-Israeli Knesset members helped Labour leader Yitzak Rabin form the government that negotiated the Oslo Accords, one of the most significant movements in the Israel-Palestine peace process.
But times are different. In the age of US President Donald Trump, he said, Netanyahu appears reasonable, and that could open the door for moves that could shake the status quo to its foundations.
Cohen, Odeh’s adviser, told me that many Israelis believe the government is laying the groundwork for annexing Area C, which comprises 60% of the West Bank and is where 500,000 Jewish settlers live. As part of the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three areas. While A and B are managed by the Palestinian Authority, and Area C is under complete Israeli-military control. Estimates for the Palestinian population there range from 150,000 to 300,000, according to The Washington Post.
Taking Area C, something proposed openly by right-wing education minister Naftali Bennet, would all but end the two-state solution.
There is ‘no future for the Israeli economy’ without Arabs
For all the apparent provocations against Arab-Israelis – the Nation-State Law, the demolitions, the tirades of right-wing politicians – there’s a growing awareness that they are increasingly integral to Israel’s future.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said in its 2018 report that Israel needs to better integrate its Arab-Israelis or risk economic stagnation and declining living standards for all of Israel.
While Knesset members may have little interest in helping Arab society, Odeh said, the ministries and the bureaucracy have acknowledged that economic development and equality is “in the interests of everyone.”
As Robert Cherry, a Brooklyn College professor of economics who has written extensively on discrimination and race, wrote last year, there is a wide gap between the inflammatory anti-Arab rhetoric of Netanyahu, Bennett, and others in the ruling coalition and the positive actions they have taken to aid Arab-Israeli society.
“Netanyahu knows and understands that there is no future for the Israeli economy without the Arabs and [ultra-Orthodox Jews],” Abed Kanaaneh of the left-wing coexistence organisation Sikkuy, told The Jerusalem Post in November. “You can say a lot about him, but on economics, he knows what to do.”
As part of Resolution 922, the $US4.3 billion five-year plan for the Arab sector passed in 2015, funding was increased for Arab business centres and accelerators and the government plans to invest $US25.6 million in small and medium-size Arab businesses.
The government has also pledged to fund 30 months of salaries for Arab employees if a company hires five or more people from that population. The Innovation Authority, the office charged with developing the science and tech industries, said it was expanding grant and support programs for Arab entrepreneurs. The hope is to increase the percentage of Arabs working in the tech industry. Currently, they make up only 3% of the workforce.
“This is what beats the racism: economics,” Dror Sadot, Odeh’s spokeswoman, said with a laugh as we walked with Odeh through the winding alleyways of Wadi Nisnas, a colourful Arab neighbourhood in Haifa.
Odeh stopped in every shop, every restaurant, and every market stall, and greeted each proprietor the same way he greeted me – with a million-dollar smile, a bear hug, and a pat on the back. Having started his career in the city council, he knows everyone, and everyone knows him.
People called out to him, “Ayman, Ayman.” Haifa is a city, but, as residents told me, it acts like a village. Odeh is the village kid who made it big.
We stand in front of the vegetable market, and a Jewish professor at the local university put down his bags and said something to Odeh. He then shook his hand vigorously. I asked Sadot what the man had said.
“You bring pride to Haifa.”
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