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talking politics

Arab Parties in Israel Avoid the Main Issue: Poverty

T

he Monitoring Committee of the Arabs in Israel declared a general strike for October 1, 2009, in memory of those killed in the demonstrations of October 2000. The strike was explained as a response to a series of anti-Arab bills presented to the Knesset, above all the proposed Naqba Law; this would forbid ceremonies commemorating the catastrophe of the Palestinian people in 1948, which culminated in its expulsion from the land. If this bill passes, the State will punish all recipients of government funding that organize Naqba ceremonies.

General strikes proclaimed by the Arab Monitoring Committee don't usually make ripples in Israel as a whole, because they have little effect on the day-to-day economy. Moreover, the influence of the Arab parties in the Knesset, or in public campaigns, has lessened considerably since the events of October 2000. Nonetheless, the very fact of the strike's proclamation amounts to an act of defiance, a reminder that the gap between the State and its Arab citizens is growing, together with anger and mutual mistrust.

The three parties representing the Arab public in the Knesset share a consensus on certain topics: First, they agree that the State of Israel discriminates against its Arab citizens in all areas of life. Second, they oppose the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian territories. Third, they decried Israel's recent war in Gaza and condemn its crimes.

However, the rivalries among the Arab parties sow confusion when it comes to the interests of their constituents. In the week when they decided on the general strike, each party acted according to its own agenda, without coordination. Instead of focusing on the right-wing Israeli government, they busied themselves with attempts to hamstring their rivals.

Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, led by the Communist Party ) today dominates the Monitoring Committee, having secured the election of Muhammad Zeidan. Hadash also dominates the National Committee of Local Arab Councils, under Nazareth mayor Ramez Jeraisi. Accordingly, it can claim to be the main force behind the recent general strike. In its day-to-day agenda, however, Hadash is preoccupied with attacking Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; this is part of a general attempt to compete with Balad (the Democratic Nationalist Alliance led by Azmi Bishara) for the favors of the secular, mostly middle-class Arab public. Lieberman, we recall, won 15 Knesset mandates on the basis of a racist campaign against Arabs. Thus he became an easy target for the Arab parties, which seek to restore their public support and regain the limelight.

Yet on October 2, one day after the general strike, the northern (radical) wing of the Islamic Movement, headed by Sheikh Rayed Salakh, held a mass meeting in Um al-Fahm under the slogan, "The al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger!" The Islamic leadership called on the faithful to come and demonstrate at the mosque's compound in Jerusalem, in order to oppose a Zionist takeover—and specifically against attempts by Jewish extremists to go up and pray in the compound. The resulting clashes between police and Arab demonstrators upstaged the issue of Lieberman and the general strike. Sheikh Salakh, who had only recently supported the strike, stole the show as the hero of Al-Jazeera TV and the Arab press. Coincidentally or not, the campaign around al-Aqsa became the central line of Hamas in its media fight against Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), President of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The campaign served as an excellent pretext for Hamas' refusal to sign a reconciliation agreement with Fatah. Hamas remains opposed to this Egypt-brokered document, claiming that it fails to mention armed struggle.

No sooner had the Islamic Movement turned Arab citizens into pawns in the contest between Hamas and Fatah, Gaza and Ramallah, when along came Balad with a call to mobilize behind its "national" agenda. Balad attempts to portray the Arabs in Israel as influencing events in the Palestinian arena. At a convention in Acre, which took place the same week, the party demanded that Abbas resign as PA head, because he had delayed submitting the Goldstone Report to the UN Committee on Human Rights in Geneva. The overthrow of Abbas is of higher priority to Balad than the campaign against Lieberman—or, in Balad's own words, the fall of Lieberman depends on the fall of Abbas.

In a single week, then, we received a thick brew of "struggles"—from a general strike, through a convention for deposing Abbas, to televised clashes at al-Aqsa, all starring the Arab citizens of Israel. One might easily conclude that the Arabs here are firmly mobilized behind their parties, and that the issues raised by the party leaders burn in their bones. Not at all. Indifference and frustration have become the general lot, and the ordinary citizen is not in the least involved in these media-seeking "struggles." The social situation of the Arabs in Israel is in free fall. This sector's internal disintegration is evident daily in crimes of murder and robbery, family honor killings, violence in the schools, and clan feuds.

At a time when the Arab parties are busy spinning topics that will win them points against one another, they neglect the issues they ought to be fighting for. According to a report by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics (Sept. 21, 2009), 73% of Arab children in Israel are at poverty risk. (That is, they belong to a household with a disposable per capita income that is less than 60% of the national median.) Within the Arab sector, the rate of forgoing food because of poverty has risen from 21% in 2003 to 50% in 2007. In 2007 only 33% of Arabs above age 20 reported being able to cover their monthly household operating expenses. Arab schools have ceased providing education and have become mere day centers where children pass the time. For the Arab worker, the minimum wage is the maximum, and more than 80% of Arab women don't work at all. The poverty of Arab society extends into the functioning of local institutions and schools. It increases violence and strengthens the patriarchal structure; it fans the flames of hatred among Muslims, Christians and Druze; it encourages corruption and harms democracy; it deepens indifference and fractures social solidarity. Yet poverty finds no place on the agenda of the Arab parties.

These parties have given up on the daily struggle of Arabs for livelihood. Since October 2000, they have sought to erect a thick wall between their constituents and the Israeli public. The campaigns against Lieberman, against a Zionist takeover of Jerusalem, and against Mahmoud Abbas are not directed at the Israeli public. Consequently, the parties see no need to formulate ideas clearly, put forth a logical program, or establish attainable short-term goals. Stuck in the despair of their constituents, they are preoccupied with political survival. And so we get the following absurdity: the Arab citizens, a fifth of Israel's population, are prevented from fulfilling their social and political potential, which would enable them to influence the society as a whole.

What happened in the first week of October 2009 points to a loss of direction among the Arab parties. It is time to switch diskettes, to change policy, to seek by every means to save the Arab population. The parties should address the Israeli Jewish public as well. The struggle should be aimed against the government of Israel, which is directly responsible for the structural discrimination against Arabs.

Meanwhile, internal rivalry only strengthens those who present the Arabs as exclusively responsible for their situation.

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