Monday, December 11, 2000

Refugee camps in the heart of Israel

In Jewish cities with an Arab minority, urban planning and official action reflect a Jewish desire to push the Arabs out. Sending weak immigrant populations to these places only worsens the problem.

By Lily Galili and Ori Nir


Immediately after the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the Islamic Movement in Israel reassessed the use of charity collected from the Muslim faithful. In the new order of priorities that was established, less funds were channeled to the territories and more to the mixed cities in Israel. This change reflected a realization that the residents of the mixed cities are the weakest and most neglected group - as well as the most marginal and the most threatened, from a political perspective.What the Islamic Movement understood seven years ago, the Israeli government has only grasped today. Three of the mixed cities - Acre, Ramle and Lod - are among the 11 cities included in the Ofek (horizon) plan, the government's new program for pinpointing the problems of weaker communities. They were not included because they are "mixed," but because they are weak. It is, of course, possible to argue that all the weak cities resemble each other, and in this respect there is no difference between Kiryat Malachi and Lod. However, in contrast to the other towns whose problems are being identified, the mixed cities were once grand Arab cities that have since collapsed. Their Arab residents have their own historical memory, but very few remnants of what were once thriving commercial and cultural centers and a vibrant political life.

The pinpoint plan ignores this aspect, expect for a footnote that refers to Ramle and Lod as cities with the potential to handle the issue of coexistence successfully. In Acre there is not even a pretense to that effect. The whole plan is based on assimilating the Arab residents out of a desire to improve the situation of the general population in those cities. It does not specifically refer to the urban needs of the Arab residents.

The mixed cities - or more precisely, Jewish cities with an Arab minority - are a metaphor for the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The urban space in which two peoples live reflects, on the planning and operational levels, a Jewish desire to marginalize the Arab residents. Sometimes actual steps are taken to do this, and sometimes there are only symbolic measures. Most of the mixed cities have no street signs in Arabic, and some of them do not have any signs at all, even in Hebrew, directing people to the Arab neighborhoods. In most cases, the Arabic street names have been replaced with Hebrew names loaded with Zionist meaning (like Hahagana, Hapalmach, Herzl and Weizman), which were intended to erase the past.

The Arab residents are also sometimes "erased" in a symbolic way: The Arab neighborhood of Pardes Snir in Lod, for example, does not appear on any city map. The hundreds of families that live there do not really exist, and barely get any attention from the authorities. Arab cultural life gets very little expression in all the mixed cities. Not a single one has an Arab cultural center or museum documenting Arab life. At most, there are community centers, and even those are not always suited to the needs of the weak Arab population.

A city is usually perceived as a place that provides residents with mobility and many more opportunities than any other area. But for Arabs living in the mixed cities of Israel, this is not the case; the advantages of being in a metropolis elude them. The mixed city transforms its Arab residents into sub-tenants. Over 60 percent of the Arabs in mixed cities live in housing that is the property of the state, property abandoned in 1948, according to a report released by the United Nations two years ago. Unlike other places in the world, where a city is synonymous with progress, the elite of Acre's Arabs have to send their sons and daughters to study at schools in the nearby villages of Iblin and Jedaida.

In Ramle and Haifa, most of the elementary school children study in private schools, in the absence of a suitable infrastructure of state-run schools. The crisis among Arab intellectuals is also especially severe in the mixed cities: they come there out of natural expectations, but the city does not provide them with suitable employment opportunities. The Arab population in the mixed cities is poorer than that of the villages. Neighborhoods like Ajami in Jaffa (the poorest Tel Aviv neighborhood) Harakevet in Lod and Juarish in Ramle resemble refugee camps. It is hard to believe that they are situated right in the heart of the State of Israel in the year 2000.

The periphery of the periphery

It is hard to understand what policy led to the creation of this situation - if there is one - and has been maintaining it for over 52 years. "In my opinion, there is a de facto institutional policy of non-renewal," says Dr. Hawala Abu Bakar , of the Yezreel Valley College. "There is a policy of institutionalizing this underachieving population, a tendency to not let it rehabilitate itself. Otherwise, how is it possible to explain the fact that problems whose solutions require minuscule resources are still around after 52 years?"

Naturally, nationalist and religious organizations have entered this social and cultural vacuum. A young leadership, gradually evolving in all the mixed cities, is attempting to cultivate independent communal institutions to highlight the unique history of each city, and try to formulate an image of a civil society for a dispersed and defeated population that is largely comprised of refugees. They are doing so without any assistance from an umbrella organization, without any budget worthy of the name and with only partial backing from the Arab population of these towns.

Such initiatives have no chance of overcoming the built-in political weakness of the Arab population of the mixed cities. From a political perspective, the Arab residents of these cities are the "periphery of the periphery," according to Prof. Majid al-Haj, a sociologist from the University of Haifa. Unlike those of the Arab villages, the local authorities of the mixed cities are always in Jewish hands, and the ability of Arab residents to influence them is marginal. Unlike their brethren in the Arab villages, they are not represented on the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, and consequently, this umbrella organization for Arabs in Israel is unable to work on their behalf for budgets and other benefits. "In my eyes, the Arab residents of the mixed cities are one of the most marginal groups, if not the most marginal, in Israeli society," says al-Haj.

The absence of vibrant city centers hinders the emergence of modern Arab politics in Israel, says Dr. Azmi Bishara, the head of the National Democratic Alliance (Balad), who has written extensively on the subject. "In every other state, modernization of the political system occurred on the fertile ground of an urban environment. We don't have that." Even Nazareth cannot be considered an Arab city in this context, says Bishara.

Many Arabs in Israel believe that only the establishment of a new Arab city can rescue the urban Arab population from its distress, and serve as a lever for development and progress among the entire Israeli Arab population.

"We are capable of establishing a vibrant Arab city that will attract an educated population and provide an answer for the needs and ambitions of many young Arabs in Israel, says Dr. Thabet Abu-Ras, a lecturer on political geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He says that the establishment of such a city is being prevented not only by the authorities (since 1948, not a single new Arab community has been established - urban or rural), but also by disagreement within the Arab population. Opponents of the idea say that before focusing on developing a city of an elitist nature, the existing Arab communities should be developed.

The idea of establishing a new, modern Arab city, similar to Modi'in, has come up in several Jewish-Arab planning forums over the last two years. It gained special momentum after the rioting in Umm al Fahm that followed land appropriations there in 1998. Prof. Oren Yiftachel, the head of the geography and environmental development department at Ben-Gurion University, participated in some of those discussions.

"Now that the old Arab cities are finished, it is important for Palestinians who are citizens of Israel to have a city where they can develop and grow without being constricted by the clan structure," says Yiftachel. "In Palestinian society in Israel, the rural structure is a hindrance to the development of a political society. Every society needs urban space where innovations can be created. Cutting off the urban head of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens is a death blow to their society, and consequently the matter becomes a problem of Israeli society at large."

An "Arab Modi'in" is not being mentioned, and development in Israel continues to be managed by what Yiftachel calls an "ethnocracy" - "a type of regime that helps one ethno-national group to spread out in a disputed multiethnic territory." This regime promotes the territorial, economic, political and cultural goals of the dominant ethnic group. The ethnic rules of the game also dictate the class structure.

Agents of Judaization

Signs of ethnocracy are most clearly visible in the mixed cities. It is apparent not only in the oppression and marginalization of their Arab residents, but also in the use the government makes of new immigrants in these cities as tools of Judaization. In the 1950s, it was immigrants from Middle Eastern countries who were sent to the mixed cities and border neighborhoods in order to serve as a physical and geographical buffer between Arab residential areas and the areas where the ruling elite lived. Since the 1990s, similar use has been made of immigrants from the CIS. In all of the mixed cities, there is today a very high percentage of immigrants from the former Soviet republics. Most live in areas that are very close to the Arab neighborhoods; the overwhelming majority are from the weaker strata among the immigrants, a situation which also helps maintain the class division.

In the age of direct absorption, where every immigrant ostensibly has the right to chose where he or she will live, this use of immigrants seems surprising. However, there is no doubt that it is happening. Construction planning, a basic component in dispersing population groups, actually channeled the immigrants to the mixed cities, to the cheap housing projects.

While many mixed cities are merely an intermediate stop for the Jewish population, which rushes to leave once they get a little stronger, the immigrants find it difficult to gain additional mobility. Consequently, a weak immigrant population finds itself trapped in a city with a weak Arab population. Not only does one ethos clash with another, but insult follows insult, and both of these feed the mutual hostility and fear.

Often in these cases, the ignorance of the recently arrived immigrants is also exploited. The immigrant residents of Lod's Ganei Aviv neighborhood did not even know, upon their arrival, that there were Arabs living in the city. When they found about their Arab neighbors from the Pardes Snir and Rakevet neighborhoods across the road, they felt as if they were sleeping with the enemy. Residents of Haifa's Hadar neighborhood, who have better neighborly relations with the Arabs, also said they did not know when they arrived that their neighborhood was mixed. Using immigrants for Judaization is also clearly apparent in Upper Nazareth, which is reminiscent of a mixed city. This is true not only because of the nature of its ties with Nazareth, but also because of the considerable number of Arab residents who living in Upper Nazareth.

A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office acknowledges the folly of sending immigrants to weak places, a method described as "cheap at first, and expensive later on." However, the human mosaic of the mixed cities is still in the process of creation, as newly-arrived weak populations continue to be sent to live among veteran weak populations.

It is possible to learn about the fragility of this human fabric from the flurry of appeals from Jewish residents of mixed cities that have in recent weeks arrived at the office of MK Michael Kleiner (Herut). Some complained of harassment by Arabs, others referred to police weakness, and some complained of property damage and physical threats. Kleiner is now working on setting up a forum of mixed cities, whose unique problems can easily deteriorate into racist phenomena. The term "militias" has already surfaced in internal Jewish discourse in several mixed cities, following the rioting of recent months. MK Issam Makhoul (Hadash) is trying to form an Arab body that will lobby on behalf of the interests of Arabs in mixed cities. Both processes clearly indicate that the issue of mixed cities is acquiring a special status within the overall issue of relations between Arabs and Jews - especially given the establishment's longstanding tendency to overlook the problem and the lack of any clearly formed policy.

Focus on the common interest

tAfter 52 years, the problems of mixed cities have not only been left unsolved, but are gradually worsening. More and more cities are in practice becoming binational. That is case in Be'er Sheva, whose municipal boundaries clearly separate Arabs and Jews, but whose experience resembles that of a mixed city. For Arabs, as well as for Jews, the city is the "capital of the Negev" and Arab academics and professionals from the south flock to it. The most recent metropolitan plan for Be'er Sheva presented to the government contained the definition "binational metropolitan." Policy-makers are still ignoring the presence of one nation in Israel's fourth largest city. Even though some 7,000 Arabs already live there, the Be'er Sheva municipality refuses to open an Arab school in the city, or even a mosque - apparently hoping to halt the trend.

The authorities are actually proud of Be'er Sheva's Bedouin market. Expressions of Middle Eastern folklore are welcomed in the mixed cities: Everyone loves the decorated neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas, the fish restaurants of Jaffa, the festival in the Old City of Acre and even the market at Lod. Every liberal Jew has his favorite hummus outlet in some mixed city. The problem is that all those things, which sometimes make Arabs feel as if they live on an Indian reservation, are gladly accepted by the Jewish establishment only as long as they are not translated into a real demand for multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism is only one possible direction for developing a mixed city. The state needs to define for itself how it sees the future of the mixed cities within the broad picture of relations between the two peoples living in the State of Israel. The mixed city as a microcosm contains within it all of the possible variations on coexistence, a kind of workshop from which solutions can be derived.

For 52 years, the state acted as though it expected the Arab residents to eventually get the hint, and leave. Instead, the Jews were the ones to leave. The Zionist response deemed appropriate to the marginalization of Arabs in mixed cities was to also neglect the Jewish residents. Senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office were surprised to learn that a 15 percent income tax break, granted to Acre residents in an attempt to halt the flight of the established Jewish population from the northern section of the city, is actually attracting more Arabs from the surrounding areas to Acre.

Any government policy on mixed cities must refrain from focusing obsessively on the demographic balance. Instead of that, the time has come to focus on the common interest of the two communities living in them, with respect for the independent special concerns of each group. Such an approach will also provide a natural answer to the question of separation or mixing. Mixed neighborhoods are not necessarily a sign of success; separate neighborhoods are not necessarily a sign of failure. Mixed neighborhoods were a relative success story in places where they came about naturally, such as in Haifa's Ein Hayam neighborhood. They failed when there was a forced attempt to use them to stop "the demographic threat."

A foundation of basic quality and freedom from restrictions, anchored by law and in practice (one example of a restriction is the demand made of residents of Lod's Ganei Aviv neighborhood not to sell their apartments to Arabs) could lead to a natural separation that is not necessarily a negative thing. Nothing good will emerge in a place where both populations feel they were forced on each other.


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