In Trump plan, Arab Israelis see assault on their identity

Dina Kraft

It’s called “the Triangle” – a cluster of Arab towns and villages nestled along a valley and on the slopes of adjacent hills in north-central Israel, across the border from the northern West Bank.

President Donald Trump’s new Middle East peace deal suggests the borders be redrawn so the 300,000 Arab citizens of Israel who live in the Triangle, a fifth of the country’s Arab minority, become part of a future Palestinian state.

The swift and furious answer to that proposal from those who live there, one that cuts to the core of their complex identity, has been nearly unanimous: No way.

Despite the ongoing challenges they face, Israeli Arabs – or Palestinian citizens of Israel, as they increasingly identify – are more economically and socially integrated now than at any time in Israel’s history.

And they, along with some Jewish Israelis, are surprised that an idea first floated on the country’s extreme right has now been adopted by the White House as one of the ways the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be resolved.

They reject the proposal – part of an overall plan heavily tilted toward Israeli negotiating positions – as an attempt to delegitimize their citizenship, and view the very idea as both racist and illegal.

“It shows how the state of Israel views us – as a fifth column. That’s why they want us swapped out,” says Diana Buttu, a political analyst and Palestinian citizen of Israel.

“It’s not that inside Israel is great, because we are not treated as equals and there is lots of discrimination. But Israel is a state. The difference is that this is about being pushed into a state-let,” she says, describing her take on the future Palestinian state laid out in the plan.

“It’s not going to be a place with freedom of movement, a developed economy, or infrastructure development,” she says. “It’s a way to push Palestinians into a repackaged form of occupation.”

A complex identity

Yousef Jabareen, a member of parliament from the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties that joined forces in recent elections to become the third-largest party in Israel, lives in Umm el-Fahm, the largest town in the Triangle. He says he fears the real reason for the plan is not to promote “peace” but to provide a convenient way for Israeli hard-liners to have a country with fewer Arab citizens.

Yet despite the challenges Israeli Arabs face as a minority, the controversy over the Trump plan is prompting a conversation about those things many Palestinians do value about being part of Israeli society – among them, their role fighting for equality and social justice and their growing visibility as university students and in the medical and other professions.

Arab citizens, Mr. Jabareen argues, can still retain their historic Palestinian national identity while maintaining their identity as Israelis.

“For over 70 years we have built social and economic ties within our Arab community in Israel,” he says. “We are part of the country’s job market, we have our social and economic status here. You cannot suggest such a dramatic change without consulting the community.

“This is about trying to question our status as if we are not really full citizens. This is not how a democratic country deals with its citizens.”

Mr. Jabareen, a former law professor, argues that such a dramatic change in citizenship status would be illegal without the consent of the citizens in question. The wording of the Trump plan does say that involved parties would have to agree to it.

Painted as the enemy

While the peace plan was announced with much fanfare at the White House on Tuesday, no Palestinians accompanied President Trump or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After news of the Triangle proposal broke, Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, warned proposals for further population transfers might follow, involving Arab Israelis in other parts of the country.

“What about those who don’t live by the West Bank border? They could be part of the next plan,” he said.

The Trump plan was announced at a time when Palestinian citizens of Israel increasingly feel painted as the enemy by Mr. Netanyahu and other hard-liners. Mr. Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political survival – he was indicted on corruption charges the same day the Mideast plan was announced – has repeatedly suggested, especially close to recent elections, that Arab citizens pose a threat.

In March, Israel heads to its third election in a year – the result of no one party winning decisively enough to form a governing coalition.

After the most recent election, in September, there was speculation the Joint List might support Mr. Netanyahu’s political rival – the Blue and White Party headed by Benny Gantz, a retired general.

Arab politicians are also arguing the proposal to transfer the Triangle to Palestinian control is Israel’s way to get rid of Arab voters by what amounts to gerrymandering.

Backlash among Jews

Opposition to placing the Triangle area under future Palestinian rule has also come from Jewish Israelis across parts of the political spectrum.

Ofer Shelah, a Knesset member from the center-right Blue and White Party said, invoking both Jewish and Arab towns to make his point, “One thing must be ruled out: Israeli citizens and communities will not be transferred to the Palestinian state. Neither Kfar Saba nor Tira, neither Kochav Yair nor Taibeh. The very idea is obscene.”

On Friday, the editorial board of the left-wing Haaretz newspaper published its take on the plan under the headline, “Israeli Arabs Are Not Pawns.”

Israel, the editorial says, must “reject out of hand this warped idea of the Washington peacemakers, who aren’t familiar with the fabric of life in Israel. … The overwhelming majority of [Arab Israelis] see themselves as an inseparable part of Israel. They were born, raised and educated in Israel, where most of them want to keep living. … If Arab Israelis are temporary citizens, the state shouldn’t expect their loyalty and integration. If Israel wants to be loyal to its citizens, all of them, it must immediately drop the dangerous and outrageous idea to drive this community out of here.”

Palestinian Israelis as bridge

Salam Ayash, a truck driver from Umm el-Fahm, has very practical questions of the Trump plan.

“What is this Palestinian state? Does it have border crossings? Does it have an airport? A port? Will it be like living in Gaza, which is under a closure and you cannot come and go as you want?” he asks.

“We are used to this country, used to going to the sea, and are connected to its hills and land,” he says. “Since 1948 when Israel was founded we have become a community of our own of Arab citizens.”

Noting that families live in various parts of Israel, Mr. Ayash continues: “You cannot separate us from each other … and we are a loyal minority to the state. We helped build this country. Our doctors treat people in its hospitals, our professors teach in its universities. You cannot cut us out because someone like Trump or Netanyahu decides to.

“We are not the problem,” he says, “we are actually part of the solution to this conflict. We can be a bridge between our nation and our state.”

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