When the plan was born to establish Ahuzat Bait, which quickly became Tel Aviv, the Jewish community of Jaffa was involved, and even though it was a private initiative, it was considered to be an effort with national significance. Jews were building on the sands on which the first Hebrew city would be established. When Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit announced last week his initiative to establish the first Arab city in Israel, the Arab community in Israel was rather passive about it: It neither knew about it and when it heard the news, it was indifferent about it. Just a handful of Arab public figures welcomed the initiative, and they were sufficiently cautious to express their hope that the plan would actually be carried out.
It was not only Sheetrit's announcement that reflected state paternalism, but so did his style: In an interview on Israel Radio, he made it clear that his plan was meant to alter the habits of the Arab community in Israel, transforming them into modern citizens. The Interior Minister established that the traditional lifestyle of the Arab citizens of Israel is what is delaying their inclusion in the country: The new city, he said, is meant to solve a large portion of their problems, and especially allow the new generation to distance themselves from their parents' homes, not having to wait any longer for a piece of land for building a home, and adopt an advanced way of living. This way, the Arab citizens are meant to bridge the gaps dividing them from the population of the Jewish majority.
Sheetrit wanted to announce good news, but in fact he represented, without him knowing, the ugly face of Israeli rule in its history of dealing with the Arab minority. His point of departure reflected prejudices about some 20 percent of the citizens of this country, and a patronizing, arrogant attitude. The plan he announced, for now at least, is an idea "that he is working to manifest;" it is being put together behind closed doors and the representatives of the Arab community know nothing about it; the area where the new city will be built is unclear. The initiative appears to be more of a government decree that the state is planning to impose on the Arab Israeli citizens, rather than a major civil project which they will be part of. The plan to build seven townships in the Negev comes to mind, which was meant to concentrate the Bedouin population, an effort that only worsened the relationship between the authorities and these communities. The state experienced bitter failure in this effort.
Setting up a city for the Arab community is one of the ways of improving their situation, but it is not obvious that it is the best option. Here are some of the other options that the experts are discussing: altering the municipal boundaries of existing Arab towns to enable more construction in their territory (Arab citizens hold only 2.4 percent of municipal territory in Israel; in the Galilee, where the Arab citizens are 72 percent of the population, their municipal area covers only 16 percent of the land); recognition of illegal villages set up by Arab citizens as a result of lacking sufficient land and housing; restoring to those described as "present absentees" some of the lands taken from them; creating the conditions, including winning the hearts and minds of the Jewish community, for absorbing Arab citizens in the three large cities which pose a natural magnet for young and educated populations; and changing the traditional Zionist viewpoint regarding state-held lands and growing to regard them as assets that belong to all citizens, not only to the Jewish majority.
Even if it is decided that establishing a separate Arab city is the optimal answer, it is worth putting the plan together and promoting it with the considerable involvement of the Arab community and of the professionals within that population (city planners, economists, architects, engineers, etc). All differences aside, just like the establishment of Tel Aviv was an important expression of the manifestation of the Zionist vision, the creation of the first Arab city is meant to be an important expression of the state's recognition of the needs of the citizens in the Arab population. The Arab community needs to be addressed honestly and respectfully, transforming it into an active partner in the venture of establishing the city.
Unless Sheetrit's announcement is no more than a proposal, if not spin, which is meant to play the same role as that of, in retrospect, the Or Commission's recommendation for an internal police investigation into the killing of 13 Arab citizens by the police during the October 2000 riots. That recommendation was rejected by the attorney general.
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