At Risk of Losing Their Israeli Citizenship in ‘Deal of the Century,’ These Arabs Are Feeling Betrayed

In ‘Triangle communities’ such as Kafr Qasem and Taibeh, locals voice their dismay at Donald Trump’s idea of transferring their hometowns to a future Palestinian state

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Esawi Freige and his daughter Amna at their office in Kafr Qasem, January 30, 2020.
Esawi Freige and his daughter Amna at their office in Kafr Qasem, January 30, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Esawi Freige served in the Israeli parliament for six years as a member of the left-wing Meretz party. Yet under U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” he could eventually be stripped of his Israeli citizenship.

Buried deep in the 181-page “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People” is a paragraph of great relevance for the roughly 350,000 Arabs, like Freige, who live in an area of Israel known as “The Triangle.” Originally designated to fall under Jordanian jurisdiction, this cluster of towns along the Green Line (the pre-1967 borders of Israel) was handed over to Israel as part of the 1949 Armistice agreement. Trump’s new “vision” for peace in the Middle East raises the possibility that Israel would hand it back.

“The Vision contemplates the possibility, subject to agreement of the parties, that the borders of Israel will be redrawn such that the Triangle Communities become part of the State of Palestine,” the document states. “In this agreement, the civil rights of the residents of the triangle communities would be subject to the applicable laws and judicial rulings of the relevant authorities.”

Even though Arab citizens would not be forced out of their homes or off their land, “this proposal is effectively a plan for deportation,” warns Freige.

The former Israeli lawmaker is a resident of Kafr Qasem, a city of some 25,000 residents situated northeast of Tel Aviv and bordering Rosh Ha’ayin (home to Benny Gantz, the man with the best chance of replacing Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister). It is one of 10 towns and cities that make up The Triangle.

A mosque in Kafr Qasem, one of 10 Arab towns situated in the Triangle area next to the West Bank.

“My father and I grew up under Israeli rule,” says Freige, 56, speaking in his Kafr Qasem office a few days after Trump’s plan was published last Tuesday. “My grandfather grew up under British rule and my great-grandfather under Ottoman rule. I say, ‘Enough already!’ It’s time we had some stability in our lives.”

Freige, an accountant by profession, served in the Knesset from 2013 until last September. He was sixth on the Meretz slate in last September’s do-over election, but the party only won five seats. He is currently 11th on the newly created Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket, but, based on recent polls, has even less of a shot at getting in when Israelis vote again in March.

His accountancy office is located next door to the neighborhood elementary school his son attends. And this youngest child, Freige relays, has come home from school with many questions in recent days.

“He tells me all his friends are talking about how they want to kick us out of here, and he keeps asking me whether it’s true,” Freige says. “So I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to calm people down. But deep in my heart, I’ll be honest, I don’t think this is a joke. Maybe it won’t come to pass in my lifetime, but the fact that people are even talking about it worries me deeply.”

Armed with a plate of fresh strawberries, Freige’s 25-year-old daughter Amna, a partner in the family accountancy firm, enters the office and joins the conversation. “I don’t understand why others get to decide for us where we will be citizens,” she says. “We should do here what was done in Northern Ireland [in 1973]: Hold a referendum, and let those of us who live here decide – rather than Trump and Netanyahu.”

A recent graduate of the Hebrew University, she says that, given the choice, she would rather stay put. “Not because things are so great” in Israel, she clarifies, but because she is used to her life in the country “and I don’t want to have everything shaken up.” For someone who spends her days dealing in the intricacies of Israeli tax law, she notes, suddenly finding yourself under the jurisdiction of another country is no trivial matter.

Her father, meanwhile, is not sure how the threat of potentially losing their citizenship might affect Arab citizens’ desire to vote on March 2. “It could go either way,” he says, noting that some voters could boycott the election out of a growing sense of disenfranchisement, while others might feel even more driven to topple the current government headed by Netanyahu, who has firmly embraced the Trump plan.

Eyad Amer, a local high school principal, believes the latter will be the case. “I think we’re going to see an even higher turnout rate in Arab society this time around,” he says.

An Arab woman voting in Kafr Qasem, April 9, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Explaining the logic behind placing residents of the Triangle under Palestinian jurisdiction, the Trump plan notes that they “largely self-identify as Palestinian.” Amer scoffs in response, insisting there is no contradiction between identifying as Palestinian and being a proud holder of Israeli citizenship. “You can be proud of your ethnicity and religion, and still want to be Israeli – even if you don’t necessarily identify with all the symbols of the state,” he says.

“It’s not that we did something bad. And it’s not that there should be this dark stain on us. This is who we are. And I believe that if you ask other Arab citizens, 100 percent of them – not 90 percent, but 100 percent – would not want to give up their citizenship. After all, this is our country too.”

As if to demonstrate how much he feels part of the place, Amer points to the stack of books on his desk. Near the top is a thick, leather-bound copy of the Bible (“the Torah,” he calls it) translated into Arabic. It was given to him as a gift by a prominent Sephardi rabbi. “I love reading it,” he says.

Black humor

Trump’s plan is not the first time such a population transfer has been raised. Indeed, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman – known for his anti-Arab views and frequent references to Arab citizens as a “fifth column” – is a high-profile advocate. This is the first time, however, that it has appeared in an official U.S. peace proposal.

As residents of Kafr Qasem ponder what it all means and whether they will have a future in Israel, it is almost paradoxical that Roladin – the largest bakery chain in the country – has just set up its first branch in the city.

Kareman Amer, the 35-year-old owner of the local franchise, is busy making sure the place is well stocked for the official grand opening later that day. (In addition to the usual fare of croissants, pastries and cookies, there are also different varieties of hamantaschen – the triangular cookies traditionally eaten on Purim – on display, even though the Jewish holiday is more than a month away.) Asked if she’s not concerned about the Trump plan, the young businesswoman replies: “I don’t take it seriously. I really don’t see anything coming out of it. Anyway, my mind is all full of business today – I can’t even think about politics.”

Eyad Amer in Kafr Qasem.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Monira Essa, 25, is taking a break from her household chores to have coffee with her older sister at the new café. “I’m not happy at all,” she says when asked about the possibility of being forced to trade in her Israeli citizenship for Palestinian citizenship. “Israel is our country too, and we will not agree to this.” Her sister nods in consent.

At another table, Neveen Omar – a lecturer in the nursing program at the Rabin Medical Center in nearby Petah Tikva – is taking advantage of her maternity leave to hang out with some friends. The 40-year-old mother of four, who wears her hair long and uncovered, can’t help but inject some black humor into the conversation. “What next?” she asks. “Are they going to also throw us in jail?”

On a serious note, she adds: “How can you really call this place a democracy when you’re not allowing people to decide for themselves where they want to be?”

Even though she believes “life wouldn’t be necessarily worse” under Palestinian rule, Omar says she prefers to hold onto her Israeli citizenship. “This is the life I’m used to,” she explains.

Kareman Amer, who owns Kafr Qasem's newly opened branch of the Israeli bakery chain Roladin.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

‘Crazy idea’

If the Trump plan is ever put into action, Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives – a nonprofit that promotes a shared society for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens – could also see his Israeli citizenship revoked. Abu Rass is from Kalansua, another town in the Triangle. The fact that this is even being discussed, he says, “is a natural continuation” of the nation-state law, passed in 2018 and widely seen by Arab Israelis as an attempt to downgrade them to second-class citizens by prioritizing the state’s Jewish character.

“Just imagine if today Donald Trump would tell Hispanic Americans living in the southwest, in territories annexed to the United States from Mexico in the 19th century, that they are Mexican citizens now and no longer American citizens,” he says. “That is exactly what they are trying to do to us.”

Neveen Omar at a cafe in Kafr Qasem. “How can you really call this place a democracy when you’re not allowing people to decide for themselves where they want to be?”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Maisam Jaljuli, local chairwoman of the Israeli women’s organization Na’amat, lives in Tira – another town that could be affected by this redrawing of Israel’s borders. The day after the plan was announced, she relays, her teenage daughter took part in what is a rite of passage among Israeli high school students: a trip with her entire class to the local branch of the Interior Ministry, to receive her Israeli identity card.

“She called me right after and said, ‘Mom, you wouldn’t believe it – we got green cards instead of blue cards.” (Israeli ID cards come in a blue casing, whereas the Palestinian ones are green.) “She was obviously joking,” says Jaljuli, “but this is the kind of black humor that has become very prevalent in recent days.”

Taibeh is one of the larger cities in the Triangle and its mayor, Shuaa Mansour, says the reaction of his Jewish friends to the plan has disturbed him most. “For so many years, these people were my partners in trying to promote the idea of a two-state solution and of shared society – and suddenly, not a word from them,” he says. “Hardly any response at all to this absolutely crazy idea. Even if they’re in favor of certain parts of the Trump plan, I would have expected them to speak out loudly against the idea of revoking our citizenship.”

This is not the first time Esawi Freige has felt deeply let down by his Jewish friends in recent months either. In last April’s election, he was widely credited with saving Meretz by getting lots of Arabs in Kafr Qasem and other parts of the Triangle to vote for the party. In the following election, though, he wasn’t placed highly enough on the slate to win a Knesset seat. And he was pushed even further down the ticket after the recent merger with Labor-Gesher.

But what bothers him far more these days is the nonresponse of his Jewish friends to this latest affront to Israel’s Arab minority. “It is the silence of the Jews that really bothers me,” he says. “You would have thought that Israel would be the best place in the world to live as a minority – after all, the Jews have always been a minority in other countries and should know how that feels. But in actuality, people here have become blinded by racism. So if you ask me if I’m worried, the answer is yes. Am I panicking? Just a bit. Am I disappointed? Totally.”

Thabet Abu Rass at his home in Kalansua, another Arab city in The Triangle.Credit: Amir Levy
Esawi Freige, right, with Meretz's then-leader Tamar Zandberg meeting the electorate in Kafr Qasem on Election Day, April 9, 2019.

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