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Between 2 Cultures : For Arabs of Israel, Life Is Schizoid

September 11, 1985|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

UMM EL FAHM, Israel — It was a sizzling day, and Hashem Mahameed, the mayor of this hilltop Arab village in Israel, was dealing with a stream of visitors to his office in the rundown municipal building. He said he felt "like a physician sitting in his clinic."

There was a new medical report, linking sewage in village streets to six cases of polio in the past five years, and mentioning an unusual number of cases of acute gastroenteritis in children.

The fall school term would be opening in a few days and the village lacked about a third of the 240 classrooms it needed. The other 80 would have to be rented. Of those available, some have no windows; one has no roof.

Umm el Fahm gets only a fraction of the financial support that Jewish towns of comparable size get from the Israeli government, and it is $1 million in debt. Village workers, including Mayor Mahameed, have not been paid in four months.

Upgrading Promised

Early this year, the government promised to upgrade Umm el Fahm from village to town, a change in status that would mean considerably more government money for the community, but the change has not been made.

Meanwhile, people here who are already at the bottom of the Israeli wage scale fear that they will lose their jobs in the country's worsening economic crunch. And they are even more frightened by the increasing hostility they face from Israel's Jewish majority as a consequence of recent terrorist attacks in which at least a dozen Jews have been killed.

The people of Umm el Fahm, Mahameed said, want "to feel they are part of the state of Israel" but find it increasingly difficult to do so.

2 Hostile Cultures

For 37 years, since they found themselves living in a Jewish state after the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, the Arabs of Israel proper have led a kind of schizophrenic existence at the confluence of two hostile cultures.

In 1948, the Arab population of Israel was about 150,000. Today, it is about 725,000, more than 17% of the total population. But the Arabs remain a group apart--apart from both the Jews with whom they share Israeli citizenship and the Arabs who either fled or were evicted from Israel in 1948.

A year ago, international attention was focused on the problems faced by Israel's Arabs and on the village of Umm el Fahm when right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocates the removal of all Arabs from Israel, announced that he would pay a visit to this place, touching off violent clashes between Arabs and the Israeli police.

What follows is an account of a day in the life of the village.

It was early Saturday afternoon, and the narrow streets and alleys were teeming with auto and pedestrian traffic. Most of the village's 25,000 people belong to one of four clans, so drivers know that if they are not careful they run the risk of hitting a relative.

There are a few new buildings--a modern mosque and a handful of houses--but for the most part the village looks dirty and run down--from the outside. Inside, the houses may be overcrowded but they are virtually all clean and well cared for, with wallpaper, paneling and modern furniture.

Only two of the 105 Arab settlements in Israel have sewage systems; Umm el Fahm is not one of them. Less than one family in five here has a telephone; the national average is nearly three out of four.

Before 1948, this was said to be the largest village in Palestine, with 4,000 Arab farmers occupying an area about 25% larger than San Francisco. Nearly 90% of that land has been confiscated and has become part of two Jewish kibbutzim (collective farms).

A Bedroom Community

Today, this is a bedroom community. More than 75% of the wage-earners commute to jobs, mostly menial, in Jewish cities. Mahmud Albaia, 24, who works as a clerk in a Tel Aviv clothing store, described Umm el Fahm as "a big hotel."

Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, is the busiest day in this Muslim village. "It's the only day (the workers) can see their children," Mahameed said. "I mean really see them and talk to them."

Also, a major Muslim holiday was coming up so there was extra shopping to do. "It's a very bad economic situation--but they must eat, so they must pay," said storekeeper Fawzi Said with a shrug.

There are no modern supermarkets here. The people buy much of what they need in bulk from stores that look like warehouses. At Said's store, 50-pound bags of rice were piled high, along with 20-pound bags of sugar and salt, and 125-pound bags of flour. Milk, bread, fruit and vegetables are sold mostly door-to-door by vendors with pickup trucks.

Watch TV, Play Cards

A dozen cafes were crowded with boys and young men watching television or playing cards. Every so often, a fight breaks out, according to Zaher Gabarine, a waiter at the Cafe Center.

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