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COLUMN ONE : For Arabs in Israel, Alienation : They are asking if Arab citizens can be more than refugees in their own land. Their anger is matched by hardening attitudes and suspicion from Jews.

June 19, 1990|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"This was a costly event for Israel," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist at Hebrew University. "The Arabs were told they are not legitimate. It confirmed their feelings of inferiority."

Statistics tell a depressing tale of Arab life in Israel. The rate of Arab unemployment is estimated at more than 20%, more than twice the national rate. Half of the 600,000 Israelis who live below the poverty line are Arab. Five percent of university students are Arab, although the percentage of Arabs in the population at large is 18%.

Since the Rishon Le Zion incident, Israeli authorities have gone to great lengths to counter the argument that Arabs are second-class citizens. Officials take pains to point out that Arabs in Israel are better off than many Arab citizens of neighboring states. If Arab income is only two-thirds the income of Jews, they say, it is because they started at a lower level. The reduced municipal budgets for Arab towns are explained by the lower taxes collected from the Arabs.

Israeli Jews and Arabs agree that one obstacle to Arab progress in everything from social welfare to education to acceptance in high-security jobs is their exemption from military conscription.

The army in Israel is not just a military force; military service represents a kind of passage to citizenship, a communal rite that conveys full identity with the state. A Jewish Israeli who refuses to serve faces ostracism. Arabs, already looked on with suspicion, are excluded from this most respected of national institutions.

Arabs are not drafted, although some Bedouins and Druze, the latter an offshoot sect of Islam, volunteer and serve in special units. No specific numbers are available, but the few other Arabs who volunteer for the army are almost all rejected.

Several right-wing politicians have suggested that Arabs not be allowed to vote because they do not perform military service. Arab politicians are more ambivalent, especially so because the army is used to suppress the Palestinian revolt against Israeli rule.

Beneath the surface give-and-take over the rights and responsibilities of Arab citizens, there are other contradictions. A few years ago, a survey of Israelis showed that while 60% wanted to burden Arabs with the same national obligations as Jews, fewer than half supported equal rights for them.

Many Arabs have come to believe that they will always be pushed to the back of the line, be it for jobs or, as in the case of En Hod, common services.

"We all work in Israel," said Abu Elhijeh, the village leader's son. "We travel around and see what is going on. We want to live like other people, like the rest of the Israelis."

En Hod was a Crusader outpost that was settled by Arabs in the distant past. In 1948, when Britain abandoned its hold on Palestine and Israelis and Arabs went to war, the families of En Hod conducted raids on the nearby highway to Haifa. Armed Israelis took over the village, and most of the residents took refuge abroad or with families elsewhere in Israel.

But one clan stayed on, on nearby land used for grazing, and formed the nucleus of the new En Hod.

These people raised goats and grew olives and were generally ignored by the government. Then, in the 1970s, the state put up a fence to keep the village from expanding. Trees were planted for a new national park, and the shade of these trees killed the olive trees. Goats were forbidden on grounds that they damaged the environment.

But the Arabs persisted, and they found a loophole in the building restrictions: The fence meant to hem them in obstructed only the march of the village up the mountain. The ravine was left unfenced, and the residents began to build down, often at impossible angles.

"It took three years to lay the foundation of a house because we had to scrape away at the mountainside," Abu Elhijeh said.

In 1986, the village began to lobby for municipal status for its 130 residents. This seemed to awaken the government to the existence of Arab En Hod, and it was to the village's disadvantage. Instead of helping out, officials sent word that three new houses would be demolished.

A sit-in and a sympathetic campaign on television and in newspapers saved the houses. But the publicity awakened other Arab communities with similar problems.

It turned out that restrictions on the growth of Arab communities had led to a spate of illegal building nationwide. About 40 communities banded together with En Hod to solve a problem common to them all, the lack of services. The campaign was backed by the New Israel Fund, a North American and Israeli group that supports community work and promotes democracy in Israel.

The Arabs complained that smaller Israeli villages get full services. Also, remote Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are provided with roads, water and electricity.

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