“They are not running away, they are trying to create a future for themselves. And if that requires them to go elsewhere instead of staying in the state that discriminates against them, what can we do?” said Rania Laham-Grayeb, deputy director of Mossawa, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel.
“This development has to do with discrimination against Arabs in Israel,” Samer Salame, head of the employment unit in the Palestinian Authority’s ministry of labor, said. “They come to the West Bank to work in the IT [information technology] sector, academia, open businesses, or study. They often live here as well.”
However, fearful of losing their citizenship or residency in Israel, most do not register their change of work or living place — there are no official figures for the number of Palestinian citizens of Israel living in the West Bank, though Salame said there were at least 1,000 citizens of Israel running businesses or employed in Ramallah, not counting students and artists.
As of 2011, there were approximately 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel, comprising about 20 percent of the population of 7.7 million. These figures — collected by the Israeli authorities — include the 285,000 Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, most of whom do not hold Israeli citizenship but have permanent residency status (“Approximately 7,746,000 residents in the State of Israel,” Central Bureau of Statistics, 8 May 2011 [PDF]).
Palestinians in Israel are politically marginalized and economically underprivileged, according to a recent International Crisis Group report (“Back to Basics: Israel’s Arab minority and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” 14 March 2012 [PDF]).
Adalah, an organization giving legal aid to Palestinians in Israel, stated last year that 30 laws in Israel discriminate either directly or indirectly against Palestinian citizens (“The Inequality Report: The Palestinian Arab minority in Israel,” March 2011 [PDF]).
“That puts Israeli democracy under a big question mark,” said Mossawa’s Laham-Grayeb.
The Citizenship and Entry to Israel law — prohibiting Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who are married to citizens of Israel from acquiring Israeli residency — is another reason why Palestinians in Israel are leaving for a new life in the West Bank. “They have no other choice. Family considerations are a big emigration factor, as it is impossible for Palestinians in Israel to get married with someone from the West Bank and live together in Israel.”
Saed Nashef, who grew up in a mixed neighbourhood in Haifa, graduated from an Israeli university in electrical engineering, and then worked for years as an IT specialist in the US and Jordan. When he came back to look for work in Israel, he found it difficult, he said.
“I applied for more than 100 jobs. Once, the interviewer said: ‘Oh you are an Arab from Nazareth. Unfortunately, we are doing stuff for the Israeli army, I am sorry,’” Nashef said. Being refused positions for security reasons is a common reality for many Palestinians in Israel.
The Israeli foreign ministry said Israel does not discriminate against people due to their ethnicity, but that an army-related background might be required for certain positions. This applied not only to Palestinians in Israel, but also new immigrants who had not done military service in Israel, according to the ministry.
However, Adalah’s “Inequality Report” notes that “Palestinian citizens are … excluded from the labor force by the use of the military-service criterion as a condition for acceptance for employment, often when there is no connection between the nature of the work and military experience.”
Palestinians in Israel are also denied a variety of public funds conditioned on military service, which effecively “widen[s] inequality between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in the state,” Adalah states.
Today, Saed Nashef is running his own company in Ramallah. “But salaries here are much lower than in Israel and the environment is less exciting,” he said. “I would like to work in Israel. It is more challenging, more cosmopolitan. But until those racist barriers disappear, you don’t feel the cities are welcoming you.”
Reacting to these allegations the Israeli ministry of labor said that Israel’s labor legislation is “very progressive in terms of equal opportunities.” Recently an equal employment opportunities commission was established. National commissioner Ina Soltanovich-David told said: “We see the subject of discrimination against the Arab population in the workforce as one of the main issues.”
But Mahmoud Mi’ari, who was to have taken up a post at Haifa University in 1972, left Israel long ago.
“Only ten days before I was supposed to start teaching, the Shin Bet [Israeli secret service] cancelled my appointment,” said Mi’ari, a professor at Ramallah’s Birzeit University. He was rejected for security reasons. Mi’ari said he never found out what exactly was held against him. “The general feeling of marginalization and discrimination just made me want to move to the Palestinian side.”
Other Arab intellectuals highlighted the marginalization of Palestinian scholars in the Israeli academic system as the main reason for leaving, noting the requirement to work in Hebrew. Majid Shihade, another professor at Birzeit University who is an Israeli citizen, said: “Our skills are worth more here.”
Students are also turning their backs on Israeli universities. According to the Knesset Research and Information Center in Israel’s parliament, some 1,300 Arab students with Israeli citizenship are currently studying at West Bank universities, including some 800 enrolled at the American University of Jenin, and 400 mostly Bedouin students at the university in Hebron. Some 5,400 Palestinian citizens of Israel are pursuing university education in Jordan.
The research center also notes that Palestinian students who graduate from Israeli universities find it difficult to get jobs if they have not completed military service.
“Artists, authors, all kinds of people in the culture field move to the West Bank. There is simply more potential here than in Israel, where the ministry of culture spends less than 3 percent of its budget in support of cultural organizations,” Laham-Grayeb said.
Artist Elias Nicola from Haifa is one of those Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who came to live in Ramallah for cultural reasons. He is managing a restaurant attached to al-Kassaba Theater in Ramallah, after having run a bar in Haifa before. Teachers, artists, students and businessmen dealing with traditional handicrafts were all attracted by the cultural environment, he added.
However, Nicola expressed concern that Palestinian emigration from Israel is what the government might want, saying: “They would be happy to see all of us live in Ramallah.”
The Electronic Intifada contributed to this report.
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