"At school I studied [Hebrew poet Haim Nahman] Bialik and not [medieval Arabic poet] Al-Mutanabbi; I learned about [the Jewish commander] Bar Kochba and not [the Muslim commander] Salah a-Din ibn Ayyub; I studied the Bible and not the Koran. But from the Jewish sages' admonition to 'respect but suspect,' only suspicion remains. When people say they are going to 'develop' the Galilee, I hear 'disinherit.' Develop the Galilee? [You mean] encircle Arab villages and turn them into ghettos," said writer Muhammed Ali Taha at Sikkuy's annual conference, which took place last week in the Misgav Regional Council under the title, "What lies behind the green hilltops project (Judaizing the Galilee ), and the influence of Jews and Arabs in the Galilee."

This was one of countless conferences on Jewish-Arab cooperation and coexistence that I have attended in recent years. Despite the subject's vital importance, it was not a stormy meeting. Perhaps both sides have given up. Nonetheless, much food for thought remains.

The issue of building on the hilltops in Misgav is in effect one of spatial discrimination and inequality in the way the government apportions land to Israeli Arab communities - one of the subjects at the heart of the dispute between Israel's government and its Arab citizens. The timing of the conference could not have been more fraught: The evening before, the cabinet had approved an amendment to the Citizenship Law requiring naturalized non-Jewish citizens to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state.

It also took place under the shadow of a change in the rules governing admission to certain small communities that permits conditioning it on a similar test of loyalty to the "Jewish and democratic" state, including a commitment to celebrate Israeli holidays.

Finally, the conference was held on the tenth anniversary of the events of October 2000, when police killed 13 Israeli Arabs during large-scale riots, and at a time when there has been a surge of extreme nationalism in the country.

The conference's organizing committee is an Israeli anomaly in its own right: residents of Jewish hilltop communities easing their consciences, hand in hand with representatives of Arab communities upon whose appropriated lands their communities were built. Taha described the asymmetry between the sides as "a horse and a flea."

Taha was born in the village of Mi'ar, which was destroyed in 1948; its inhabitants were scattered to other Arab villages in the Galilee as internal refugees. Moshav Ya'ad was built on the ruins of Mi'ar. Taha currently lives in Kabul

Does he intend to rebuild Mi'ar on the ruins of Ya'ad? "I don't dream of destroying Ya'ad; I dream of living in Ya'ad, or nearby," he said. "There is a lot of land on the hills. I want us to live together, but not like a horse and a flea."

Ironically, Ya'ad has been home for the last 20 years to Sikkuy's group coordinator in Misgav, Hasia Chomsky Porat, a leading activist for equality between Jews and Arabs in the area.

"It's true that our communities were created in sin," Chomsky Porat said. "But we are a group that decided after the events of October 2000 that we were no longer willing to accept discrimination against the Arab population. I live in Misgav, but we are working against the head of the regional council, and against changing the Citizenship Law and the admission committee [regulations]. In Misgav people say, 'why don't the Arabs build high-rises, and crowd together?' But we spread ourselves out over the land."

A strong population?

The hilltop residents' excuses repeat themselves: We arrived a long time ago, seeking a better quality of life and to live among "people like us"; we "didn't have any idea about the implications." After discovering that they had come to an area that contained another people, they were caught in a moral quandary. Behind the greenery - and this is an open secret about which countless words have been written - lurk ethnocentric policies and an idea of the Arab population as a foreign and threatening element.

The goals of the hilltop Jewish communities could be learned first-hand from the speech given by geographer Edna Zemonsky, a member of the Jewish Agency hilltop planning team: to prevent Arabs from "taking over" government lands, keep Arab villages from attaining territorial continuity and attract a "strong" population to the Galilee.

"A 'strong' population is a euphemism for a Jewish population," said Muhamad Amara, co-chairman of Sikkuy's board of directors. "After all, a strong population already lives in the Galilee - thousands of educated and unemployed Arabs."

Twenty-nine Jewish communities, most of them cooperative, were built in Misgav from 1978-1988,. The regional council also includes six existing Bedouin communities, whose conditions are light years removed from the Jewish ones. The Arab towns in the area do not belong to the council.

Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ghanaim, a veteran participant in coexistence meetings, sketched the differences between Jewish communities in the Misgav area and their Arab neighbors. "There is high-tech in Misgav's industrial park, and concrete, cement and sand in mine," he said for the umpteenth time.

Sakhnin does not see a nickel of the real estate taxes from Misgav's successful industrial area, which was built on expropriated land. It desperately needs to expand its urban jurisdiction to build housing, but out of 1,700 "available" dunams, 1,200 have been declared a nature reserve.

Sikkuy activists in Misgav are a minority in their community, of about 10 percent. They are fighting against their friends and elected leaders and are considered a fifth column.

Another group, "Misgav's Future," was recently organized to fight the proposed change in membership regulations, a change that is supported by a majority of residents as well as the head of the regional council. Some communities have succeeded in blocking the change. Its passage would institutionalize the exclusion of Arabs from cooperative communities - and no doubt also of another "nonstandard" population, which has suffered in the past even under the existing regulations.

Uri Sabah, a Sikkuy activist and a new resident of the Misgav community of Yuvalim, argued that "Yuvalim is a relatively large and well-off community - so what's so terrible if a more 'diverse' population arrived? Instead of the leaders telling residents 'Well done, you've built a great Zionist enterprise, and now's the time to develop further, to lower the gates, to build a new Arab community,' in Misgav, they say the communities are aging and need a young, strong population, and they raise the barriers even higher. What's sad is that the people here are 'good leftists.'"

Not everyone benefits

Regional council head Ran Shani was one of the first settlers in Misgav, moving to Mitzpeh Aviv 30 years ago as part of the hilltop project.

"We found an undeveloped area there, without infrastructure, without roads, water, electricity," he said, offering his own version of a land without a people. "Today, the Galilee is developed at a level that suits Israel in the 21st century. There's already heavy traffic and traffic jams. We all benefit from this development."

Anyone who came to the conference indeed found himself in 21st-century traffic jams amid the hills and boulders. A boon indeed.

"The Judaization of the Galilee is a terrible project built on land confiscated on the pretext of making the desert bloom," said attorney Ali Haider, co-executive director of Sikkuy and a resident of Iblin. "But in contrast to what Ran Shani says, there was no desert here. I was seven years old when the hilltop project began. My village wasn't barren. There were olive trees and grapevines where Mitzpeh Aviv was built.

"Not all of us benefit from the development. The roads are not meant for all the residents: They were built to lead to Jewish communities, and they encircle and choke the Arab villages and limit their development. On one side, people live in crowded conditions, and on the other, in villas."

Sikkuy, founded in 1991, is an Arab-Jewish organization for the advancement of civil equality. Most of its activities, according to co-executive director Ran Gerlitz, are aimed at government decision-makers and other public figures. It recently published a report measuring inequality between Jews and Arabs in Israel, as well as its first policy paper, "Barriers to Opportunity," in which it mapped out barriers and policy recommendations.

The group in Misgav is a local one founded by area residents, which then joined Sikkuy after the October 2000 events in order to advance justice and equality among Jews and Arabs in the Galilee. The question is whether participants in injustice can advance justice.

"The great majority of Misgav residents are satisfied with the situation here," Gerlitz said. "Sikkuy supports people whose opinion differs from that of the majority. They themselves admit that the hilltop communities were born in sin, but they are there. They are concerned with core issues and discuss the justification for establishing these hilltop communities in depth, and they pay a high social price.

"One conference can't change reality, but this way we can start to form an opposition, and that's important. We want to be a bridge between the communities - not a bridge made of hummus, but a political one."

Ali Haider, would you like the hilltop communities to be removed?

"Honestly, I wouldn't. I think there has to be a rectification in a way that doesn't harm them. The issue is complex, but there is a large bloc within the group that is conducting a dialogue with the original inhabitants and creating a new reality.

"I think the internal refugees have the right, if they wish, to live in the communities erected on their land, and I don't want Jews to have exclusive rights to these communities. The conditions that existed in October 2000 still exist. Reality is even harder. This is not the time to be quiet."