In the Middle East’s “only democracy” discrimination is a way of life for a sizeable portion of its population. Israel’s Arab sector has faced inequity since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 but recently racism has been on the rise, say Arab and Palestinian residents.
Israel's Jewish community increasingly supports the discrimination and even deportation of Arabs, say Palestinian human rights activists in Israel.
“Anywhere you go in Israel you will not find Arabs represented or integrated. And this holds for all aspects of life, from basic representation on the street to that of public institutions,” Jafar Farah, director of the Haifa-based Mossawa Advocacy Center, told AlArabiya.net.
Israel’s more than one million Arab citizens make up 18 percent of the population. While 90 percent of the Arab community lives in the entirely Arab towns and villages of Galilee, Triangle and Negev, some 10 percent live in mixed Arab-Jewish cities like Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Acre.
Despite having a distinct national, ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic character, Arab Israelis are treated as second-class citizens.
“Discrimination is regularly apparent in state resource allocations in every field, and Palestinian Arabs continue to be excluded from the centers of power and underrepresented in decision-making public institutions, and in the general public sphere,” Yousef Jabareen, law lecturer at Haifa University and director of the Nazareth-based Arab Center for Law and Policy told AlArabiya.net
Gaza war widens gaps
The recent war on Gaza was the latest fissure between Arab and Jewish sectors in the society.
An overwhelming percentage of Arab-Israelis opposed the 22-day-war on Gaza which claimed the lives of 1,300 Palestinians at a time when most Jewish Israelis supported the assault.
Polls showed that more than 94 percent of Israel's Jewish population backed the war, while 85 percent of the Palestinian sector opposed it.
Michele Sharkasi, an Arab Israeli who preferred not to give her real name, told AlArabiya.net she and all Arab Israelis opposed the war.
“We were squarely behind our people in Gaza, demonstrating and showing support while Jewish public opinion attacked us,” said Sharkasi.
“The worst feeling was that of helplessness, as we could not do anything to stop the massacre of our people in the face of an overwhelming Jewish support for this war.”
Lack of contact between Palestinian Arabs in Israel and Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza was apparent during recent events.
“We are not able to keep strong ties with Palestinians in Israel because the communication is scarce,” said Auraib Ali, Al Arabiya TV’s correspondent in Jenin.
Demonstrations in Palestinian villages in Israel brought together tens of thousands of people who protested in the towns of Galilee and Baka al-Gharbiya in what some said were the biggest protests ever staged by Palestinians in Israel.
Marginalizing Arab political parties
In the last week of Israel’s devastating Gaza offensive, Israel’s parliament banned two Arab-Israeli parties from running in the upcoming elections, in a move to have an all-Jewish Knesset.
"The Palestinians in Israel don't count, not in the politics of peace and not in the politics of war," Dr. Adel Manna, a historian and director of the Center for the Study of Arab Society in Israel was quoted as saying by the Haaretz.
The Knesset accused its Arab political parties of inciting anti-Zionism and supporting terrorist groups, allegations that came in response to Arab Knesset members' opposition to the war.
Ahmed Tibi, a member of the Israeli Knesset, described the ban as "a political trial led by a group of Fascists and racists."
Jabareen said the ban comes at time when middle ground no longer exists in Jewish public opinion.
"The ban comes when public opinion in Israel is less and less moderate and increasingly extremist,” he told AlArabiya.net.
Preserving the character of the Jewish state
A 2008 report on racism in Israel by the Mossawa Center found the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the main source of increased racism in public opinion, with ideas like population exchange and racial segregation gaining currency amid growing paranoia over Israel's Jewish character.
“Creating and preserving the Jewish character of Israel always trumps the rights of the native community," Farah said.
For one, Arabic is banned from all areas of the public sector in order to preserve the “Jewish character” of Israel, although its official primary languages are Hebrew and Arabic.
“Something as simple as street names cannot be printed in Arabic, because this would somehow reduce the “Jewishness” of Israel’s public space,” said Jabareen.
Michele Sharkasi, an Arab Israeli who preferred not to give her real name, told AlArabiya.net she felt uncomfortable with national symbols like the flag, with a Star of David, and the anthem, which speaks of the "Jewish soul."
"These were made and meant for the Jews, not for the Arab minority," she said. "If Israel wants to integrate us fully, then we need an anthem and flag that can do that.”.
“The majority of Jews here claim they are against full equality for Arabs; two-thirds think Arabs should be encouraged to emigrate,” Sharkasi explained, noting that the workplace environment where Arabs and Israelis work together is often a very tense one.
“Incidents of conflict at work increase in such times of tension. I know people who stopped working in public places where Jews work to avoid any confrontation,” she said.
Inequality extends throughout the economy, with three times as many Arab families than Jewish ones living below the poverty line. Average earnings among Arab Israelis are two-thirds that of Jews while the unemployment rate is four times as high.
And as the socio-economic state of Arabs in Israel worsens because of neglect, hate and stereotypes control the public sphere.
“A recent report of Haifa University shows that 75 percent of Jewish pupils think that Arabs are ignorant, uncivilized and dirty,” said Jabareen.
In 2006 the National Committee of the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel issued a declaration highlighting the aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel.
“We are the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, the indigenous peoples, the residents of the States of Israel, and an integral part of the Palestinian People and the Arab and Muslim and human Nation,” it said.
Three years later, however, the declaration remains a dream unfulfilled.