The increasingly harsh political climate in Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government has prompted the leadership of the country’s 1.3 million Arab citizens to call for the first general strike in several years.
The one-day stoppage is due to take place on 1 October, a date heavy with symbolism because it marks the anniversary of another general strike, in 2000 at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, when 13 Arab demonstrators were shot dead by Israeli police.
The Arab leadership said it was responding to a string of what it called “racist” government measures that cast the Arab minority, a fifth of the population, as enemies of the state.
“In recent months, there has been a parallel situation of racist policies in the parliament and greater condoning of violence towards Arab citizens by the police and courts,” said Jafar Farah, the head of Mossawa, an Arab advocacy group in Israel. “This attitude is feeding down to the streets.”
Confrontations between the country’s Arab minority and Netanyahu’s coalition, formed in the spring, surfaced almost immediately over a set of controversial legal measures.
The proposed bills outlawed the commemoration of the Nakba, or catastrophe, the word used by Palestinians for their dispossession in 1948; required citizens to swear loyalty to Israel as a Zionist state; and banned political demands for ending Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Following widespread outcries, the bills were either watered down or dropped.
But simmering tensions came to a boil again late last month when the education minister, Gideon Saar, presented educational reforms to mark the start of the new school year.
He confirmed plans to drop the word “Nakba” from Arabic textbooks and announced his intention to launch classes on Jewish heritage and Zionism. He also said he would tie future budgets for schools to their success in persuading pupils to perform military or national service.
Arab citizens are generally exempted from military service, although officials have recently been trying to push civilian national service in its place.
Mohammed Barakeh, an Arab member of the parliament, denounced the linking of budgets to national service, saying that Saar “must understand that he is the education minister, not the defense minister.”
The separate Arab education system is in need of thousands of more classrooms and is massively underfunded — up to nine times more is spent on a Jewish pupil than an Arab one, according to surveys. Research published by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem last month showed that Jewish schools received five times more than Arab schools for special education classes.
Netanyau, who accompanied Saar on a tour of schools last week, appeared to give his approval to the proposed reforms: “We advocate education that stresses values, Zionism and a love of the land.”
Barakeh also accused government ministers of competing to promote measures hostile to the Arab minority. “Anyone seeking fame finds it in racist whims against Arabs — the ministers of infrastructure, education, transportation, whoever.”
Barakeh was referring to a raft of recent proposals.
Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister and leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, announced last month that training for the diplomatic service would be open only to candidates who had completed national service.
Of the foreign ministry’s 980 employees only 15 are Arab, a pattern reflected across the civil service sector according to Sikkuy, a rights and coexistence organization.
The housing minister, Ariel Atias, has demanded communal segregation between Jewish and Arab citizens and instituted a drive to make the Galilee, where most Arab citizens live, “more Jewish.”
The interior minister, Eli Yishai, has approved a wave of house demolitions, most controversially in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm in Wadi Ara, where a commercial district has been twice bulldozed in recent weeks.
The transport minister, Israel Katz, has insisted that road signs include place names only as they are spelt in Hebrew, thereby erasing the Arabic names of communities such as Jerusalem, Jaffa and Nazareth.
Arab legislators have come under repeated verbal attack from members of the government. Last month, the infrastructures minister, Uzi Landau, refused to meet Taleb al-Sana, the head of the United Arab List party, on parliamentary business, justifying the decision on the grounds that Arab MPs were “working constantly here and abroad to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state.”
Shortly afterwards, al-Sana and his colleague Ahmed Tibi, the deputy speaker of parliament, attended Fatah’s congress in Bethlehem, prompting Lieberman to declare: “Our central problem is not the Palestinians, but Ahmed Tibi and his ilk — they are more dangerous than Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad combined.”
Tibi responded: “When Lieberman, the foreign minister, says that, ordinary Israelis understand that he is calling for me to be killed as a terrorist. It is the most dangerous incitement.”
Israel’s annual Democracy Index poll, published last month, showed that 53 percent of Israeli Jews supported moves to encourage Arab citizens to leave.
Farah said the strike date had been selected to coincide with the anniversary of the deaths of 13 Arab citizens in October 2000 to highlight both the failure to prosecute any of the policemen involved and the continuing official condoning of violence against Arab citizens by police and Jewish citizens.
Some 27 Arab citizens have been killed by the police in unexplained circumstances since the October deaths, Farah said, with only one conviction. Last week, Shahar Mizrahi, an undercover officer, was given a 15-month sentence for shooting Mahmoud Ghanaim in the head from point-blank range. The judge called Mizrahi’s actions “reckless.”
This week, in another controversial case, Shai Dromi, a Negev rancher, received six months community service after shooting dead a Bedouin intruder, Khaled al-Atrash, as the latter fled.
Farah said the regard in which Arab citizens were held by the government was illustrated by a comment from the public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, in June. During an inspection of police officers working undercover as drug addicts, the minister praised one for looking like a “real dirty Arab.”
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.