How Israel failed its Arab citizens before, during and after the Lebanon war

I’lam, the only media centre for the Arab minority in Israel, issues a monthly “Alternative News Briefing” to journalists and others interested in the region as a corrective to the distorted coverage of events affecting Israel’s Arab citizens by the Israeli media.

Also in this Briefing

  • Court overturns Haifa University’s discriminatory policy on student dorms

    During the five weeks of fighting between Israel and Hizbullah this summer, the north of Israel took a battering from some 4,000 rockets. According to the Foreign Ministry, the civilian fatalities from the rockets numbered 43, including 18 Arab citizens.

    Of course, rockets don’t discriminate between Jew and Arab, as public officials were quick to point out. But unfortunately, the Israeli government does.

    There were many reasons why a high number of Arabs died in the war, a fact that has surprised many observers, including apparently the Israeli government, as it was widely assumed that Hizbullah would not endanger the lives of fellow Arabs.

    Before the war:

    One of the most important is that, unlike their Jewish neighbours, Arab communities had not been helped by the government to prepare for the war with Hizbullah, a war that according to reports in the American media had been planned by Israel for more than a year.

    The most notable failure was to provide Arab communities with any protection from the rockets. Almost all Arab towns and villages lack public bomb shelters, even though they have been constructed in most Jewish communities in the north.

    A few shelters have been built in border Druze villages like Hurfeish (the Druze serve in the army), and there are shelters in some mainly Arab neighbourhoods in Haifa, although according to a BBC report they remained locked during the war. The other 120 or so Arab communities in Israel, the majority of them in the north, had no public shelters in which residents could seek safety.

    Similarly, the civil defence authorities failed to ensure that Arab communities had air raid sirens to warn inhabitants of incoming fire. Rabia and Mahmoud Taluzi, two children killed by a rocket in Nazareth on July 19, were out playing when the rocket struck because there were no sirens to warn them to take cover. Only after their deaths did Nazareth, the largest Arab town in Israel, receive a siren. But most other Arab towns and villages went through the whole war without any warnings.

    Israeli officials claimed that they had not installed sirens in Arab communities because most Arab citizens do not wish not to mark the Holocaust and Memorial Days, the latter commemorating Israel’s fallen Jewish soldiers, including those who died expelling the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948.

    However, this excuse hardly stands up to scrutiny. The primary point of air raid sirens is not to force Israeli citizens to stand to attention when the state so desires but to protect them in times of war. The failure to put in place warning systems before or after the outbreak of war is a disgrace.

    Similarly, civil defence officials also issued emergency instructions to families about how to protect themselves — on the radio and television, and in brochures — only in Hebrew. Many Arab citizens speak Hebrew, their second language, poorly and a few, particularly older women who do not work, know very little Hebrew. Arabic is one of the state’s official languages and all material from the civil defence authorities should have been translated as a matter of routine.

    During the war:

    A separate reason why the number of Arab casualties was high was that Israel has positioned many of its military installations inside or next to Arab communities, compounding the problem of not offering these same communities protection, such as bomb shelters. In fact, few northern Arab towns and villages do not have a Rafael weapons factory, army camp or munitions store close by.

    As well as these permanent military bases, several Arab towns and villages in the north also found that the army chose to locate artillery batteries next to them that fired on Lebanon during the fighting.

    According to reports in Haaretz, for example, the Arab village of Fassouta had such a battery stationed next to it throughout much of the war. Similarly, according to the Nazareth welfare organisation the Laborer’s Voice, Majd al-Krum also had an artillery battery firing from the outskirts of the town. Both Fassouta and Majd al-Krum were hit on several occasions by Hizbullah rocket fire.

    In other Arab communities, including Jish, Shaghour, Kfar Manda and Lid, the army requisitioned areas for training soldiers for the ground invasion of south Lebanon. According to the Human Rights Association in Nazareth, army officials justified their decision on the grounds that “The landscape of Arab towns [in Israel] is similar to Arab towns in Lebanon.”

    This led one Arab Knesset member, Abbas Zakour, to accuse the Israeli government of turning Arab communities into “human shields”. He added: “During a short visit to offer condolences to the families of victims killed in Hizbullah’s rocket attacks, I saw Israeli tanks shelling Lebanon from the two towns of Arab Al-Aramshe and Tarshiha, which are predominantly populated [by] Arabs.” Three residents of Tarshiha were killed in a rocket strike, and two died in Arab al-Aramshe.

    However, the voices of Arab citizens were silenced during the war. In Haifa, for example, Arab and Jewish demonstrators were attacked by right-wing groups as police looked on. When the police did intervene, it was to arrest the anti-war demonstrators.

    Arab citizens were rarely given the chance to appear on Israeli television or radio, or their journalists to write for the Hebrew-language newspapers, and their protests were barely covered by the Israeli media.

    Their elected representatives were also silenced, with Knesset members regularly being ejected from the chamber during debates on the war. A complaint by MK Ahmed Tibi about incitement from cabinet minister Rafi Eitan, who compared him to Hitler, were ignored. In another disturbing incident, the Interior Minister Roni Bar-On asked the Attorney-General to investigate the possibility of stripping an Arab MK, Wasel Taha, of his citizenship over his comments about the war. Several Jewish MKs also demanded that their Arab colleagues have their citizenship revoked.

    Walid Hamis, the Arab deputy mayor of Haifa, a city often praised for being a rare model of coexistence inside Israel, was forced to resign on 4 September, saying the Jewish majority on the municipality were plotting to dismiss him over his comments against the war. He had been subjected to a campaign of intimidation and incitement, as well as being physically attacked. He observed: “This will be the first political dismissal in the city of Haifa as a result of expressing an opinion.”

    After the war:

    Following the war, at a cabinet meeting on 20 August, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to make reconstruction in the north of Israel his top priority.

    Throughout the fighting, however, the Israeli government refused to declare a state of war — apparently for cynical technical reasons. If it had done so, businesses in the north of Israel that were forced to close, and their workers, would have been entitled to automatic compensation. Instead officials have implemented an ad hoc system of compensation which is being used to deprive Arab communities and residents of the levels of compensation being paid to Israeli Jews.

    Entitled to full compensation for lost income are businesses and residents who belong to what have been called “confrontation line” communities. The Finance Ministry, which has been put in charge of drawing up the list of such communities, has not included a single Arab town or village. The communities included on this list are located up to 10km from the border with Lebanon, an area full of Arab villages that nonetheless have been excluded.

    Lesser compensation is available for residents and businesses of other northern communities in a new category called the “area of limitation”, according to criteria agreed by the Finance Ministry, the Histadrut labour federation and employers. Because Arab businesses and workers are included in this category, they will not be entitled to full compensation.

    In addition, according to a Nazareth-based welfare organisation the Laborer’s Voice, which is running a mobile advice centre in Arab communities, most Arab workers and business owners, as well as victims of the rocket attacks, have not been approached by government officials or given information about their entitlements.

    When officials have been contacted, they have either denied that compensation is available or misinformed applicants about what they are entitled to. One homeowner in Majd al-Krum, for example, was encouraged by the National Insurance Institute to sign up for compensation for his damaged home that was a fraction of what he should have received.

    In a similar vein, Arab businesses are also being discriminated against by the MATI business development centre, which is offering loans to businesses in the north under the auspices of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Interest-free loans of up to $10,000 are available, but only to Jewish businessmen or those who have served in the Israeli army, which excludes almost the entire Arab population.

    This week Israeli schoolchildren went back to school, as the Israeli government promised to invest money to rehabilitate the education system in the north as part of its reconstruction programme. Education has suffered from years of budget cuts, but the separate Arab system has been particularly underfunded, with a large shortage of classrooms, crumbling buildings, and a lack of books and equipment.

    During a cabinet meeting to discuss the new education programme for the north, the Environment Minister Gideon Ezra observed that Arab communities should not be included. “A distinction must be drawn, and it must be seen to that Arab communities do not receive the money for the education program.” What were his grounds for justifying such discrimination? Because during the Lebanon war, Arab “residents there behaved as per usual, as if nothing had happened” — a presumed reference to the fact that they did not flee their homes like many Jewish residents. This seemed a perverse claim as most Israeli leaders justify the continuing dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians of their homes and property because they fled, or were expelled by, the Israeli army during the 1948 war.

    One of the most pressing problems faced by Arab schools is a shortage of counsellors and psychologists to deal with the trauma suffered by children from the rocket attacks. Three-quarters of Arab schools have no access to counselling for their pupils.

    After the war, the Education Ministry hired extra psychologists to work with Jewish children and issued counsellors with special kits on how to identify and deal with post-traumatic disorders. The same services were not offered in Arab communities. The Ministry said it could not hire Arab psychologists because there were not enough qualified candidates among the Arab population.

    Dr Bilha Noy, head of the Ministry’s counselling service, however, observed in the Haaretz newspaper that the shortage reflected discrimination by the universities in refusing to accept Arab applicants for courses.

    I’lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel is a non-profit organization based in Nazareth. It was founded in 2000, by a group of Arab journalists and academics. As the only Arab Palestinian media organization in Israel, I’lam is deeply committed to the democratization of media policies, media practices, and the media landscape in Israel.