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Israeli Arabs, fearing missiles, say government is neglecting them
JTA / July 18, 2006

By Larry Luxner

MAJD AL-KRUM, Israel  Across the Galilee, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews remain in bomb shelters today, awaiting the next Katyusha rocket barrage from Lebanon.

For Israel's Arabs, however, underground bunkers are out of the question because their towns don't have any.

Since the Hizbullah missile offensive began last week, dozens of Katyushas have landed in Arab villages including Majd al-Krum, Fasuta, Sasa, Horfesh and Jish. In addition, an unknown number of Arabs have been hurt in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa, which has seen some of the worst damage so far.

"Most of our villages are without shelters, and the houses are old and exposed to danger," complains human-rights activist Abir Kopty of Nazareth. "It's very clear that the Israeli media aren't dealing with what's happening in Arab areas. When they show on TV the maps of where Katyushas are falling, they don't mention our villages. It's like we don't even exist."

In the Galilee town of Majd al-Krum, population 13,000, residents were startled when six Katyushas hit their town last Wednesday, injuring 20 people and disrupting several weddings in progress.

Unlike nearby Carmiel  a prosperous, orderly city populated largely by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe Majd al-Krum is a jumble of dirt roads, crumbling houses and exposed power lines.

"Despite all we've risked for the Jewish state, we suffer from discrimination," said Mohammed Canaan, who served as the town's mayor from 1993 to 2003. "We are not equals, and now we look like enemies in the eyes of the Defense Ministry. Carmiel has been around for only 40 years and this village for over 1,000 years. But according to the Katyushas, we are equal. Nasrallah doesn't know exactly where the Katyushas will land."

Shortly after the Katyusha attack, Israel's education minister, Yuli Tamir, paid a quick visit to Majd al-Kurum. But Canaan, 54, dismissed the visit as inconsequential.

"This is nothing new... same problems, same talk," he told JTA. "The education minister came here for five minutes, visited three homes that were hit, and said everything will be OK."

Nadia Hilo, one of two Arab lawmakers representing the Labor Party in the Knesset, isn't satisfied. She's insisting that fellow party members visit Arab villages to see the situation for themselves.

"For the first time, Arab citizens of Israel are being hurt by this war, and for me, it's very important to be with the people, to listen to them, and to think about solutions. There are no places they can be safe," she said during an interview in Majd al-Krum.

Hilo, originally from Jaffa, insisted that "for years, the mayors of Arab villages have asked the government to build shelters. I know that some private houses [in Arab towns] have been built with shelters, but this is also a question of responsibility of the Israeli government as well as local authorities."

In the meantime, Hilo says she's devoting efforts to getting Arab children away from the danger zone and bringing them to Tel Aviv for fun, games and in some cases psychological counseling.

Israel has over one million Arab citizens, about 20% of whom live in the Galilee. Yet Hilo, like most other Israeli Arabs interviewed for this article, declined to criticize Hizbullah outright for its missile barrage against Israel and its recent kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, which sparked the latest crisis.

Kopty, whose organization Women Against War is comprised of both Arab and Jewish women, said it's no surprise that Israeli Arabs are far less supportive of the Israeli government's policies in Lebanon than are Israeli Jews.

"On one hand, we are worried and afraid, as all other Israeli citizens living in the north. On the other hand, the Arab minority has a very clear position againt war and occupation, and against the Israel Army's use of force," she told JTA. "We think that this war is avoidable. There is no justification. The Israeli government could have solved this issue from the first day through negotiations with Hizbollah and the Lebanese government. The Lebanese government has declared they're willing to negotiate, but Israel rejected their offer."

Canaan is equally critical of the Israeli government and its unceasing attack on Lebanon's infrastructure. "I think the Ministry of Defense has to know that this is the real result of war. All are frightened. We are all in danger, and this is because of the policies of the Defense Ministry."

He added: "I think the rockets will continue, and open war has started. It will last for another two weeks at least. Then pressure from Russia, Germany and Iran will bring both sides to a diplomatic solution. Israel will withdraw from Gaza and southern Lebanon."

Meanwhile, along Highway 77 linking Tiberias and Nazareth, Mahmoud Nasar is worried about business at his Younis Restaurant, which specializes in felafels and Arab cuisine.

"Look at the parking lot," Nasar complained, gesturing to an empty lot. "This time on Saturdays, it's usually full of people mostly Israelis because we're right on the highway. War is not good for anyone. It hurts all of us."

But Nasar, 39 and the father of four, refused to take sides.

"Personally, I don't like war. We Arabs don't support either side, not Israel and not Hizbollah." He added that "I don't feel safer than the Jews. Hizbollah doesn't know what it's attacking. it makes no difference to them."

Manar Makhoul, 26, is pursuing a master's degree in contemporary Middle Eastern studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. But last weekend, he returned to his native village of Peqi'in, down the road from the Israeli town of Ma'alot and only nine kilometers from the Lebanese border.

"There's a lot of fear and uncertainty here, because we feel kind of helpless," Makhoul said, noting that on Monday night alone, three Katyusha missiles struck his village of 1,000. "A rocket can land anywhere. If you stay inside your house, you're not safe, and if you go outside, you're not safe either. There's nowhere to go."

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