CARMIEL, Israel — With his impassioned complaint, Halil Ibrahim Hasarme sounded like thousands of Palestinians who have felt robbed of their land to make room for new Soviet immigrants coming in waves to Israel.
"I will die here rather than give it up," he told visitors as he threw up his hands in a gesture that spoke more of dejection than defiance.
Hasarme is not, however, Palestinian, and he does not live in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip. Rather, he is an Arab citizen of Israel whose family has lived on this scrubby property inside Israel for longer than this nation has been independent.
He is one of about 100 villagers in a strung-out community called Ramyah who have been notified that their 25 acres are being expropriated and annexed to the nearby town of Carmiel, home to 30,000 Jewish citizens of Israel.
Carmiel is growing fast, and the town's mayor says the land is needed for housing. Each of about 17 families is being offered one-eighth of an acre to build a house.
Arab Israelis such as Hasarme believe that they are being squeezed in a quiet demographic war. Acreage is not the issue, they say, but rather the question of which people--Arab or Jew--should dominate the uneven terrain of the Galilee region in Israel's north.
"If they really needed it, I might feel different," Hasarme insisted. "But they don't."
For the first time in 15 years, since an eruption of riots that are still commemorated by Arabs as Land Day, Arab Israeli land is being requisitioned for Jewish use in the Galilee. The expropriations have prompted resentment and fear among the Arabs that the immigration is coming at their expense--not only in land but also in resources from a cash-strapped government that is seeking U.S. help in obtaining large loans to house and provide jobs for the newcomers.
Israeli officials do little to dispel the Arabs' fears and openly affirm that the goal of Galilee land seizures is to ensure that Arab enclaves never connect to form a continuous metropolitan area. In the official mind, such an event would reopen the question of who owns the Galilee, an area won by the Israelis during their 1948 independence war and considered part of Israel ever since.
"It is important to settle where there are not many Jews," said Adi Eldar, the mayor of Carmiel. "Israel is not just the coastline. Maybe in the future, someone would say the land does not belong to us."
The expropriations are not limited to the area around Carmiel. The Jewish town of Upper Nazareth is expanding toward neighboring Arab villages, bringing protests from several Arab mayors. The current population of 25,000 is expected to double in the next few years.
"They want to use confiscated Arab land to house Soviet Jews. It's like pulling the rug from under our feet. They want Arabs to live in closed areas, surrounded by Jews," Mohammed Zeidan, mayor of the Galilee Arab village of Kufr Manda, told reporters recently.
The government insists that, despite the complaints, the program will benefit the Arabs as much as the Jewish residents. "The construction will help develop the area as a whole, including establishing new employment centers for all residents of the area," said a statement from the Interior Ministry, which has ordered the seizures.
About 700,000 Arab citizens live in Israel proper, with most of the rights of Jewish citizens. They are largely exempted from serving in the army.
The seizures come atop protests about the Arabs' second-class status in Israeli society. Arab municipal government is funded by the state at lower levels than Jewish communities, the Arabs complain. Arabs are restricted in building new houses, prompting many to build without permits; the structures are then subject to demolition. The population of Majd al Kru, a town near Carmiel, has grown from about 1,400 to 8,000 inhabitants in the past 40 years, but its municipal boundaries have shrunk from about 5,000 acres to 1,700 acres in that time.
About 120 squatter communities of Arabs dot the countryside of the Galilee and other parts of Israel, some of them composed of Arabs who fled their original homes in 1948 but were never permitted to return. Others, like Ramyah, are considered too small for official recognition. All the phantom towns lack electricity, paved roads, sewers and water services.
Hilal and other residents of Ramyah are Bedouins who once roamed the Galilee freely but settled into subsistence farming more than 40 years ago. They grow olives and raise chickens and cows; some of the younger residents work in towns, including Carmiel, where they tend the landscaped parks and streets.
"We are sons of Israel," Hasarme said proudly.
Some leftist Israeli activists have taken up the Arab cause, arguing that it is immoral and unjust to expropriate land on the pretext of public use in order to replace one group of people with another.