Rage, Neglect and Transfer: The Israeli Arab Region Lieberman Wants to 'Give' to the Palestinians

Wadi Ara is home to some 200,000 Israeli Arabs and has often been the scene of civil unrest, leading politicians to propose a population transfer – even if the residents themselves aren't interested

David Green
David B. Green
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Israeli Arabs in the town of Taibeh in March 2007.
Israeli Arabs in the Wadi Ara town of Taibeh in March 2007.Credit: JINI
David Green
David B. Green

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s call Sunday morning for a “boycott” of a group of Arab towns in northern Israel is a less drastic version of a plan he’s been hawking for years.

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Ever since he founded his Yisrael Beiteinu party in 1999, Lieberman has been the prophet of a policy he calls “transfer” – by which he means handing over the so-called “Little Triangle” of Arab towns bordering the West Bank, and home to more than 200,000 of Israel’s approximately 1.7 million Arab citizens, to a future Palestinian state.

Wadi Ara (“Nahal Iron” in Hebrew), at the southern base of the Triangle, is the name of the roughly 20-kilometer (12-mile) long valley traversed by Route 65, running from just east of Hadera northeast toward Megiddo. (Hadera is some 50 kilometers north of Tel Aviv.)

The 15 villages in the region were ceded to Israeli forces by the Arab Legion in the 1948-49 War of Independence, in exchange for territory south of Hebron that was turned over to Jordan. Ironically, Lieberman – and reportedly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, too – want to give it back.

Lieberman was reacting to a demonstration late Saturday night at Route 65’s Arara junction, west of Umm al-Fahm, which drew some 200 people protesting last Wednesday’s announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump of Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Some of the demonstrators threw stones at police and at passing cars on the busy thoroughfare. Three passengers on an Egged bus traveling south to Tel Aviv were injured, as well as the bus driver. A press photographer said demonstrators destroyed his motorcycle after pelting it with stones.

In response, Lieberman called on Israelis to “simply boycott Wadi Ara.” Speaking on an early-morning radio news show, the defense minister went on to elaborate: “There’s no reason to go into their stores, there’s no reason to patronize their businesses.” He added that the people of Wadi Ara should be “part of the Palestinian Authority. They have no connection to the State of Israel.”

Asked by radio host Arye Golan if he wasn’t overgeneralizing in blaming all of the residents of 15 different communities for the dangerous and subversive actions of a small number of protesters, Lieberman reminded the radio audience of events last July. After three Israeli-Arab men from Umm al-Fahm – the largest city in Wadi Ara and home of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel – murdered two Israeli policemen in a terror attack outside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, he said, “thousands participated, thousands identified” in the funerals of the assailants.

“All that they learn, including in our [public] schools,” continued Lieberman, in his famously impassive voice, “is hatred of the State of Israel. And therefore what we have to do is transfer them to the Palestinian Authority via the same framework for territorial exchanges” that he has been promoting for more than a decade.

Protesters in an Israeli-Arab town during Land Day demonstrations in 2010. One of the protesters holds an image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.Credit: AP

Lieberman didn’t address the question, and his interviewer didn’t ask him, whether his proposal doesn’t violate the so-called boycott law from 2011 that his party co-sponsored in the Knesset. The law calls for civil penalties against someone who calls for “deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or body solely because of their affinity with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control.”

Violent demonstrations

Wadi Ara has seen demonstrations turn violent before. In September 1998, demonstrations in Umm al-Fahm against government plans to expropriate 500 dunams (about 125 acres) of land for the state led to the police responding with tear gas and rubber bullets. The police also raided a protest tent and the local high school, where some of the protesters had taken cover.

The Or Commission into the October 2000 disturbances among Israeli Arabs pointed to the 1998 events as a contributing factor to the riots, which resulted in the use of live fire by police, killing 12 Israeli-Arab citizens and a Palestinian from Gaza.

In general, the commission of inquiry, though it pointed fingers at a number of Arab politicians (most significantly, Sheikh Ra’ad Salah, who was at the time mayor of Umm al-Fahm but is better known as the longtime leader of the Islamic Movement; it is he who regularly warns the Arab population that “Al-Aqsa is in danger” from the Jews) for stirring up unrest within the community, it also was quite direct in its criticism of the police and Israel’s successive governments in general for being “primarily neglectful and discriminatory” in their treatment of the Arab population.

The 2000 demonstrations, which came immediately after the killing of seven Jerusalem Arabs a day after the visit to Temple Mount by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon, took place spontaneously in a number of northern Arab towns. Three of the 12 citizens killed were in Umm al-Fahm. They were shot by police snipers.

The Or Commission was not empowered to bring charges against anyone, only to recommend further investigation of possible criminal activity to the Justice Ministry. When it released its findings in 2003, it did reprimand eight police officers for their actions but largely overlooked the political act. In any event, the government, by then led by Sharon, did nothing to implement any of the commission’s recommendations, something that remains a source of anger and frustration among the country’s Arabs.

The murderous attack on the Temple Mount on July 14 was carried out by three men from Umm al-Fahm, who hid their weapons on the mount for several days before bursting out of the holy site and shooting up a Border Police station near the Old City’s Lions Gate. They killed two policemen, both of them Israeli Druze, before being shot to death themselves. Before being shot dead, one of them reportedly shouted out, “I’m from Ra’ad Salah’s group!”

In response, Israel shut down the Al-Aqsa compound for two days while it checked for additional weapons and installed metal detectors at entrances to the site, which in turn led Muslim prayer-goers to boycott the site and conduct their Friday prayers in the streets of the Old City until Israel removed the devices. Only after things returned to normal did Israel release the bodies of the three assailants, and it was to their funeral, on the night of July 26, that thousands showed up and praised them as “shahidin” (martyrs).

The next day, Channel 2 News reported, with no attribution, that Netanyahu, in earlier discussions with American negotiators looking to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, had suggested his willingness to sign over Wadi Ara in its entirety to a future Palestinian state in exchange for Israel receiving sovereignty over the Jewish settlements of Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman entering a cabinet meeting, November 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

It was the first time Netanyahu had ever been cited as endorsing Lieberman’s “transfer” plan.

The premier’s office did not deny the report. For his part, Lieberman responded immediately with a tweet to Netanyahu, saying “Welcome to the club.”

By proposing to change the sovereignty over large tracts of the State of Israel, and their inhabitants, the transfer plan lacks the brutality of expelling people from their homes and moving them to a different country.

But both Israeli and international law would prohibit such a drastic move without the agreement of the parties involved – namely the residents of Wadi Ara themselves and the PA. Neither has shown any interest in making Lieberman’s plan a reality: According to a 2013 poll, some two-thirds of Israeli Arabs were not interested in seeing Lieberman’s plan realized.

Israeli-Arab protesters in Taibeh during Land Day demonstrations in March 2007.Credit: JINI

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