August 16, 2011

Racism in the Galilee
By Sophie Crowe

Caging in Palestinians

Many Palestinians have been forced to leave Nazareth–the primary Palestinian city in Israel–and its satellite villages due to the absence of planning and lack of resources allotted by the government, which prohibits development and results in overcrowding.

Nazareth was allowed to keep its Palestinian population and identity after 1948 on condition that it was carefully contained within its original boundaries and gave up part of its space to the new neighboring, Jewish municipality of Upper Nazareth.

Upper Nazareth was built in the late fifties as a bulwark of Jewish sovereignty in the Galilee. Today it has a Palestinian population of 25 percent and is where most Palestinians in the locale facing a housing problem look for accommodation. The same trend is happening in all cities with mixed, Palestinian and Israeli populations, according to recent research by the Abraham Fund, an organisation promoting civil equality in Israel.

Upper Nazareth, the fastest growing town in the north of the country, illustrates clearly the disparity in development of Israeli and Palestinian towns. The largely Jewish city is home to 50,000 and was able to quadruple in size since its establishment in the late fifties by appropriating surrounding lands. According to a 2010 report by Middle East Monitor, a British-based news source, the number of Jews living in the Galilee tripled between the sixties and nineties.

‘The whole city is built on land confiscated from the Palestinians of Nazareth,” explains Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah, a Palestinian rights NGO. Nazareth has 70,000 people living on half the area of land as the new city and is prevented from expanding. The new town flourishes and thrives at the expense of Nazareth and its villages, which are in contraction.

The expansion of Upper Nazareth, which now dwarfs its neighbor, continues to fragment the landscape of the Galilee by confiscating village lands and creating enclaves of Palestinian communities.

While some of Upper Nazareth’s Palestinian community migrated there due to a lack of housing in Nazareth, wealthier Palestinians moved to the city for the benefits of privileged, spacious residential areas.

“The top socio-economic class of Palestinian society in the area have found what they want in Upper Nazareth, in the utilities of a modern city,” asserts municipality member Dr. Raed Ghattas.

“But cultural activities are outside,” Ghattas notes, “so people must go to Nazareth.” No Palestinian school exists in Upper Nazareth so children must travel to surrounding villages or Nazareth. While authorities cannot stop the migration of Palestinians to custom-built Jewish towns, they can marginalise their presence in cultural and political terms.

Ahmed Tibi is leader and founder of the Tnu’a Aravit LeHithadshut party, or Ta’al (the Arabic Movement for Renewal). Tibi’s party advocates for Palestinian-Israeli rights and is vocal on Israeli policy in the Galilee. He believes Shimon Gapso, mayor of Upper Nazareth, “is strangulating the Arab presence in Upper Nazareth.”

Judaization of the Galilee is indeed viewed as a crucial endeavour by Israel’s political elite. At a 2009 Israeli Bar Association conference, Israeli housing minister Ariel Atias, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, expressed anxiety over Palestinians moving to Jewish areas in the north. He was afraid that this would open the possibility of their integration there.

“If we go on like we have until now, we will lose the Galilee,” he worried. “Populations that should not mix are spreading there.”

His solution was the relocation of large numbers of religious Jews to northern Israel to ensure Jewish dominance there, boasting that he would create the north’s first Haredim town.

The Haredim, followers of possibly the most orthodox form of Judaism in practice today, also have the highest birth rate in Israel. They are being used as a demographic tool to push down the percentage of Palestinians in areas like the Galilee, where they have a slight majority.

Atias recognised the housing shortage in Palestinian locales, which he considered a nuisance as it meant, “they buy homes in Jewish places, which results in unwanted friction.” Keeping Palestinians out of mixed cities was thus a “national priority.”

Gapso echoed Atias’ fears, parroting, “As a man of Greater Israel, I think it is more important to settle in the Galilee than in Judea and Samaria, where natural growth is already high and enough Jews already live. I urge the settlers there to come here,” he continued.

Palestinian-Israeli MKs have criticised such sentiments for their exclusivist agenda. Jamal Zahalka, chairman of the Balad party, asserted that, “Minister Atias’ insane plan to suffocate the Arab communities must be stopped. Calling for the Judaization of the Galilee is racism.”

Gapso continues to call for transfers of religious Jews to his city to ensure the demographic balance swings in their favor.

For several years the building of a new Haredim-only neighborhood has been discussed, to be located beside Ein Mahel, a village 5 km northeast of Nazareth, which would effectively cut it off from its environs. The village was substantially reduced in size when 8858 dunams (or 2188 acres) of land were annexed in 1972 to make way for Upper Nazareth.

Under representation in Upper Nazareth

On 22 June, Adalah, a Palestinian rights NGO in Israel, sent a letter to the mayor of Upper Nazareth, Shimon Gapso, insisting he address the under-representation of Palestinians in his municipality. Palestinians are a significant minority in Upper Nazareth–up to 17 percent according to official statistics–which is not mirrored in the municipal system, of which only 5 percent are Palestinian.

Dr. Raed Ghattas is one of the two Palestinian municipal members in Upper Nazareth, out of a total of 17.

“We face a policy of discrimination like Palestinians in the rest of the country,” he observes. “There are barely any Palestinians in government companies or the municipalities.”

Ghattas believes his mere presence in the municipality is resented by his Jewish colleagues. “They hate Arabs working there,” he opines.

“We are working towards the development of Palestinians in Upper Nazareth, to allow them to reach the same level as Jews,” Ghattas notes. There may be some measure of success as, according to Ghattas, more Palestinians are being hired in the municipality now than in the past.

But the lack of municipal representation is reflective of the city’s overall resistance to Arab integration.

“It is no coincidence that there is under-representation in the municipality,” avers Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah. “The integration of Arabs in Upper Nazareth in general has been unwelcome by mayors and municipalities throughout the years and attempts are made to stop their rise.”

Such attempts include the pervasive refusal of authorities to allow the growth of this group. Educational facilities and employment initiatives are lacking. Most Jewish businesses refuse to employ them, too.

Discriminatory policy appears to be unabashedly deliberate and determined rather than covert.

Gapso, who was elected on the basis of his promise to keep Palestinians out of Upper Nazareth, is known for his consistently racist remarks. In June, he stated to Kol al-Arab, an Arabic language newspaper, his intention to prevent more Palestinians from moving to the city, which, according to him, would never be “mixed.” He even made the more violent claim that that had he been in power during the riots of October 2000, during which 13 Palestinian Israelis were killed by police, more would have died.

The glass ceiling faced by Palestinians in officialdom is one manifestation of Israel’s Judaization drive, which sees Jewish Israeli advancement at the expense of the Palestinians. Because of the strong Palestinian presence, the Galilee–and notably Nazareth–has felt the pressure of Judaization since the state’s creation.

This was the impetus behind nurturing Upper Nazareth as a counter-weight in economic, cultural and numeric terms to Nazareth, which is the largest Arab city inside Israel–also the only one with an Arab majority. Upper Nazareth has become the bulwark of Jewish sovereignty in the region.

Severe underemployment of Palestinian Israelis in the public sector in general is a perennial problem. They constitute 20 percent of the population but make up only 6 percent of the total number of Israel’s civil servants. While there has been a marginal increase, the government consistently fails to reach its targets of a more equitable ratio of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis in the bureaucratic world.

Research by Sikkuy, a joint Palestinian Israeli and Jewish Israeli organization advocating for equality in Israel, shows they find employment in positions of lesser importance and influence – in areas such as health and welfare – marginalized from the upper rungs of power.

According to Sikkuy’s Ron Gerlitz, governments in the last decade have tried to address this problem by offering incentives to Palestinians to join the bureaucratic system, for example by paying rent for Palestinian employees in Jerusalem where they would have to work.

“Some positions in the civil service are held for Arabs only,” Gerlitz notes, “though they do not hold senior positions.”

Legislation was drafted in 1988 to protect against discrimination in the work place, known as the Equal Employment Opportunities Act of 1988. This was designed to discourage policies colored by ethnicity, religion, or reservist duty, by making this a criminal offence.

But some say that the legislation was never implemented. Instead, it remains a vague nod to tolerance or the semblance of it.

The fact that Palestinians are exempt from military service, which serves as an unofficial rite of passage for Israelis, reinforces the understanding of them as an illegitimate presence in the land.

On a strictly legal level, there is nothing preventing Palestinians from walking the corridors of power. This may yet change, however. A new bill waits for a full hearing in the Knesset, which, if passed, shall privilege former soldiers in the civil service.

This is currently a de facto rule since Jewish Israelis, the vast majority of whom serve in the military, dominate political and decision-making elites. Palestinians are thus already absent from public discourse. Still, Adalah argues, the bill would institutionalize the status quo instead of opening up the system to extend real democratic rights to this group.

United Arab List – Ta’al chairman, Ahmed Tibi, heads a commission of inquiry on the under-representation of Palestinians in the public sector in Israel. “We found that this issue is systematic; it’s a built-in policy,” he states.

“In all fields of life, there are barriers in front of Arab citizens,” Tibi explains. “Misrepresentation in the corpus of local municipalities is a glaring example.”

According to Dr. Danny Gera, the professional adviser to the parliamentary inquiry, “the higher up the echelon of power you go, the fewer Palestinians you will find. At the top, they are completely absent.”

Dr. Gera is planning the first ever comprehensive master plan aimed at closing the socioeconomic gap between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. The government refuses to fund it, however.

Tibi notes the difficulty Palestinian graduates face in finding good jobs. “They don’t apply for top jobs because they know they will be rejected,” he continues.

When Ehud Olmert was prime minster, Tibi relates, he professed to the committee that, while the state’s political and municipal systems were undoubtedly discriminatory, he was powerless to change it. The committee is due to present its policy recommendations to members of parliament within the year, though Tibi doubts “the political will is there to bridge the gap.”

The invisibility of Palestinians in municipal systems is systemic and symbolizes the state’s careful efforts to shackle the political and cultural weight of its Palestinian community.

While Israel claims its Palestinian population has the same opportunities and access to power as their fellow Jewish citizens, this idea is mostly abstract, remaining in the legislative realm rather than real life. “The tyranny of the majority” might be a more appropriate description for the treatment of minorities in Israel.

“Most Palestinians want to integrate into Israeli society without losing their identity,” Dr. Gera reflects. “The initiative must come from those with power. But the Jewish majority is not generous to its minority.”