Arab Wall of Silence Surrounds the Fence

Are there Israeli Arabs who support separation?

Last Monday afternoon, the third day of protests, the sun beat mercilessly down on the tent in the A-Ram neighborhood of north Jerusalem. Under the burning yellow oilcloth, adjacent to the A-Razi Cultural Center, sat dozens of activists and their visitors. Some of them wore armbands that read "hunger strike" in Arabic. The high-pitched strains of Palestinian nationalist songs filled the heavy air.

Without much effort, the hunger strike and anti-separation fence protest tent organized by MK Azmi Bishara, leader of Balad (National Democratic Alliance), took off and attracted a great deal of attention. Fatah members, representatives of the Palestinian parliament, members of the A-Ram local council and Israeli leftists joined the protesters.

Hundreds came to meet them, among them Arabs from the central Israeli Arab towns of the Triangle, Baka al-Garbiyeh, Taibeh, and Tira. To the chagrin of the organizers, a delegation of students from the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta Yeshiva also showed up, and sat in the tent with a large sign that read "stop the Nazi ghetto wall."

The Palestinian and world media covered the protest extensively - the Israeli Knesset member nourished only with mineral water and salt, was perceived as a hero. "Give them a hand," he beamed, referring to a group of children from a summer camp in the Palestinian village of Anata standing in line to greet him.

"I won't stop. This is serious," Bishara declared. "I am going all the way." His goal is neither to spur on what he calls the "toppling of the apartheid being fostered in the country," nor to stop the building of the fence.

"The goal is to bring pressure on the Israeli government from the world and from Israeli society, to move the people in Jerusalem, to balance the weight of Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon. The whole world is dealing with the question if he is leaving Gaza or not, but the main thing is happening here, division and separation."

In the period between the High Court of Justice ruling on the routing of the fence and the ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague on the entire project, the fence has once again become a hot political-media issue. But Jamal Jum'ah, the coordinator of the Palestinian campaign "against the apartheid fence" and one of some 25 people who joined the hunger strike during the week, has become convinced that the anti-fence protest tent in A-Ram is not a case of an Arab political movement from Israel has been drafted into the efforts against the fence on a one-time basis.

"We have noticed recently that there is much more interest among the Arab Israeli community in solidarity activities with us. People are asking what they can do," he said. "From now, matters will start to move ahead. People will begin to recognize that the fence hurts the on-going relations and culture of Palestinians on both sides of the fence, as one people.

No-show demos

There is no denying that relations between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians are at a critical juncture, largely because of the fence. This is one of the reasons that Arab lawyers from Israel are leading the legal team fighting against the fence and that a number of Arab Knesset members, like Mohammed Barakeh and Ahmed Tibi (Hadash-Ta'al), are regular fixtures at anti-fence demonstrations. But strangely, while Arab MKs are commenting to the media, joining the hunger strike and submitting no-confidence motion in the cabinet after the Hague court ruling, from the Israeli Arab street the fence appears mainly a Palestinian problem. It has been standing tall in Wadi Ara for a year already, shaking the regional economy and family ties - but apart from two small demonstrations in Baka al-Garbiyeh in February, no Arab demonstrations, petitions or protests were initiated.

"The most amazing thing is that people in the Wadi Ara villages did not protest," an Arab MK noted sadly. "It was very difficult to get people to come out against the fence," he admitted.

Jewish and Arab activists in the anti-fence protest movement are critical of the Arab political movements. "We expect them (the Arab communities in Israel) to be much better organized," said Jum'ah. "There should be more campaigns to raise awareness, groups should come here and start touring the wall, let them see the situation, let them express solidarity."

Hulud Badawi, a field researcher for the ACRI (Association of Civil Rights in Israel) estimates the number of Israeli Arab anti-fence activists at no more than 100. Many of them, like her, are identified with the Arab parties and join in activities of Palestinian organizations or Israeli leftist groups - Arab Jewish groups like "Anarchists against the Fence," "Ta'ayush," (Israeli Arabs and Jews for Coexistence and Partnership), and the Women's Coalition for Peace.

"But the Palestinians from the territories are deeply disappointed that Palestinians from Israel are not fighting together with them against the wrong being done them," says Badawi. "This [disappointment] does not stem from a feeling of abandonment, but from the realization that the fence will have implications for the Palestinians of Israel, that it is designing a new history for the entire Palestinian people, a second naqbah - the Palestinian name for the establishment of Israel. They are still waiting. We activists are much appreciated. When I come to a demonstration and say I'm from Nazareth, I always get such a smile, a smile of hope. People want to see more and more."

There is more than one answer to the question as to why protest among Israel's Arab population is weak and hesitant, or in fact non-existent: a leadership crisis in Arab society, and comatose political activism in general, the sense of despair and apathy, and resistance of many Israeli Arabs, since the events of October 2000, to going out to demonstrate or express a nationalist stand.

"The main problem is the consensus in Israeli society, both on the left and the right, about the fence," explains MK Ahmed Tibi. "Anyone who is disconnected from Palestinian suffering over the fence is being dragged along behind the idea the Israelis are being stuffed with, including Israeli Arabs, that the fence is a magic solution that will being about an end to the conflict. This is false magic, it's an illusion, and some of the Israeli Arabs have fallen for it."

It is interesting that there is no place for supporters of the fence in open political dialogue. "The separation fence is racist," "the apartheid wall, " and "the second naqbah" are terms seen often seen on the manifestos of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, political bureau and in newspaper articles that were published before and after the Hague ruling. These strong words are more than lip service. All through the intifada, Israeli Arabs have witnessed the suffering of their brothers east of the Green Line and felt their pain.

This sense of solidarity is explained by some using the model of the Jews of the Diaspora and the Jews in Israel. If Jews living far from Israel can feel the distress of their brothers here, how should Israeli Arabs feel, sometimes only meters away from Palestinian villages.

Pro-fence Arabs

The fence aroused no Israeli Arab protest even when its northern segment was built during 2002-03, cutting off these towns from adjacent Palestinian communities with which they had maintained natural and immediate relations for 36 years.

How did it happen that only a few dozen Israeli Arabs protested the fence, while Israeli Arab contractors participated in its construction? How did it happen that in some places, under pressure from Arab local councils, the fence was routed eastward, at the expense of Palestinian lands?

Are there Israeli Arabs who support separation? On condition of anonymity, one well-known Arab public figure, a resident of the Triangle, was willing to speak.

"It's true that the Arab public wants a peace agreement, but beyond the political dimension, 99 percent of the Arabs in Israel believe that the fence is a positive thing. It has blocked all illegal attempts [by Palestinians] to enter Israel, and has cut down on robberies and other crimes. The economy is flourishing; millions that were invested in the Palestinian towns are now invested in Wadi Ara. And don't forget that the Arab public is different from the Palestinians. The Arab public has a different pattern of life."

This public figure is not alone. "People say `good riddance,'" according to a journalist who lives in Umm al-Fahm. Between anonymous speakers on the one hand and Tibi and Bishara on the other, it is difficult to identify a single "Arab stand" on separation.

There is only one individual who openly expressed qualified support of the fence - Sheikh Hashem Abd a-Rahman, mayor of Umm al-Fahm. In January, a-Rahman told Haaretz that since the portion of the fence opposite his town went up a few months before, "residents are sleeping peacefully, they feel more secure. People aren't passing through their houses and their fields, they are not blowing up anything and not endangering the residents."

His stand is complicated. He supports the fence only if it passes along the Green Line, and only if arrangements are made for Palestinian passage through it. Like many others in Umm al-Fahm, located on the seam line, Abd a-Rahman is disturbed by the damage caused to his town and its image during the intifada, because of terrorists from Jenin who passed through it on their way to carry out attacks in Israel.

The city's good name was maligned to such an extent that residents started using false addresses. "No fence can cut me off from my people," says the sheikh, "but I want also want security, I also want peace. Since the government put up the fence, you haven't head one case of an attacker that came through Umm al-Fahm."

Similar statements can be heard on the street in Umm al-Fahm or in nearby Kafr Kara, but Sheikh Hashem's saying it caused a public earthquake. From his prison cell, Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the Northern Islamic Movement, rushed to publish an article condemning the fence. Sheikh Hashem is on his own for the present.

Jamal Jum'ah never heard that there are Israeli Arabs who support the fence. When he hears the quotes, he has trouble hiding his disappointment. "I think that this is largely lack of information," he excuses it at first, but then he begins to get angry.

"This is not right. I feel bad when I hear such things. This is a selfish point of view. Where is the point of view of the other? Does the speaker know what the fence means for the Palestinians? How much destruction it causes, how it oppresses them, takes away their land and their resources? The lives of the Palestinians are being destroyed. They are the ones who will live in a ghetto. I don't think he will sleep peacefully after this happens."