Negotiate, but Don't Forget Us Israeli Arabs

The Arabs in Israel have been forgotten, not only by Israel but also by the Palestinian leadership, which failed to protect any of our vital interests.

If the peace talks are indeed on ‏(again‏), we Arab citizens of Israel have a duty to relate to them this time as full partners, or opponents, rather than as viewers in the bleachers. These negotiations affect us no less than the rest of the Palestinian people. If they succeed, we will be facing a new reality requiring a sea change. And if they fail, we will have to bear the consequences.

There are two issues that touch upon our very existence in the Galilee, in the so-called Triangle of Arab communities in central Israel and in the Negev: international recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and the evacuation of the settlements. The two issues are intrinsically connected. In the event a peace agreement is indeed signed between the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel, and the state’s Jewish identity becomes a fact, we will face the start of a difficult and perhaps fraught process between us and that re-promised Jewish state.

It is a near-certainty that the immediate response to any collective complaint by Israel’s Arab citizens would be, Go realize your national identity in your new state. The public tolerance for the demands and rights of the Arabs who live here will be lower than ever. The Israelis will want to relax now that, in their eyes, they have rid themselves of the shrapnel in the national backside once and for all. The “end of the conflict” with the PA is the beginning of the conflict with us.

Tens of thousands of settlers, after being evacuated willingly or by force, will come to the core of our existence. There are already nongovernmental organizations working to transplant messianic religious settlements in Israel’s mixed cities and other areas where Jewish and Arab populations mingle, such as Acre, Lod and Ramle. If and when the settlements in the West Bank are dismantled, we will have tens of thousands of evacuees wanting to Judaize the Jewish state from within.

Some people think many of the settlers will emigrate if they are evicted by force, because they won’t withstand being separated from the groves of Nabi Saleh and Na’alin. They were so accustomed to hugging the trees ‏(before burning them‏). The messianic. ideological stream will want to put down roots in Israel, between Sakhnin and Arabeh, between Nazareth and Kafr Kana.

The truth is that in a properly run country that shouldn’t be a problem, provided that I and my kind can plant an Arab farm town between Ramat Hasharon and Herzliya. This unilateral “planting” of communities is an unbridled assault − geographic, economic and in terms of identity − on Israeli Arabs. If the settlements are evacuated, tens of thousands of additional armed and eager “nature lovers” will join the assault force.

Throughout the history of the state’s relations with the Palestinians, the Arabs in Israel have been forgotten and trampled on, not only by Israel but also by the Palestinian leadership, which failed to protect any of our vital interests. We did and will continue to support the Palestinians’ struggle, not as cheerleaders on the sidelines but as part of it. But the people within the struggle must also protect their own interests rather than accepting as gospel the assumption that liberating confiscated land in the occupied territories is more important than protecting the lands of Baka al-Garbiyeh and of Jatt. Even the prisoner exchange proposal soon to be discussed excludes convicts who are Israeli citizens.

Of course the ideal solution is a single, secular, liberal and democratic state for both peoples, but until we achieve that goal, and in the event an agreement is signed at any stage, we must protect our very existence in the face of the establishment-settler Judaization campaign, which will be even more aggressive than it is now. The situation of Israel’s Arab citizens is bad from every perspective, but even more worrying is the possibility of “popular” racism becoming entrenched policy in the Knesset and the government, shamelessly and without restraint. Such a situation is fertile ground for the settlement enterprise.

The settlements should remain part of the state of Palestine along the pre-1967 borders, in the event it is established, and the settlers should accept its laws and travel abroad with that state’s passport. Anyone who does not agree is politely invited to move to Israeli communities such as Savyon or Ofakim. The land in Al-Araqib is not up for grabs.

Ala Hlehel is an author and journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language website Qadita.