Friday, October 14, 2011

Israeli Arabs and the Housing Protests

By Evan Barton

Following the August 18 attack on an Egged bus en route to Eilat, a city in Israel's Negev desert, activists in the J14 social justice protests decided to forgo staging another Saturday demonstration, preparing instead for a silent vigil in solidarity with the soldiers killed in the bus bombing.

Notably absent from the main protest area that weekend were Arab Israelis. They had set up an Arab-focused tent area, but it was largely deserted before the Saturday-night vigil.

The center of Arab protest was in nearby Jaffa, an ancient port that has maintained a large – though decreasing – Arab presence within present-day Israel. While Jewish Israelis in Tel Aviv's Tent City expressed dissatisfaction with the nation's emphasis on military concerns over economic factors, Palestinian Israelis in Jaffa suggested that ongoing discrimination between them and other Israeli citizens had motivated them to join the protests.

Israelis from a broad range of civil society – college students, young professionals, engineers, former military GI’s, the unemployed and others – met in a central Tel Aviv neighborhood to protest the high cost of living in Israel and the country's lack of socioeconomic equality. Many hoped to change public perception in Israel so that people would vote based on social and economic issues, as opposed focusing exclusively on military concerns such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Signs surrounding the Arab Israeli tent on Rothschild Boulevard were written mostly in Hebrew, though some Arabic and English signs stressed unity among the different ethnic groups within the Israeli state.

Speaking with Jewish Israelis about their involvement in Israel’s budding social justice movement, many discussed the high cost of living, the concentration of wealth into a few powerful families, and the lack of affordable housing.

A few of the student protestors said that the settlement activity in the West Bank is problematic – if not illegal – and thought that the money spent on settlements could be spent elsewhere by the state. They were generally less comfortable talking about the issues specific to Palestinian citizens of Israel, although one 23-year-old engineering student admitted that there was not a lot of social justice for Palestinian Israeli communities.

For Palestinians, the high price of housing and commercial goods was less a priority than the broad span of social and institutional pressures that have dispossessed many Palestinian Israeli citizens of their homes.

“Seven-hundred families in Jaffa are in danger of losing their houses,” said Fatmeh Hlewa, a 28-year-old housing rights activist in the Tel-Aviv municipality of Jaffa. “How can they maintain their families without being able to keep their homes?”

In addition to housing dispossession, another key concern for Palestinian Israelis is the rate of housing demolitions in Arab Israeli neighborhoods and villages. According to Knesset member Haneen Zoabi, the Israeli government has not approved planning maps for housing in several Arab towns and villages for almost two decades. As a result, the state declared 10,000 houses built in Palestinian Israeli neighborhoods and villages as unlicensed, slating them for demolition.

Coupled with the issue of housing demolition is land expansion. “The Israeli government has built 700 villages and cities, none of which are for Palestinians,” Zoabi stated. She described the middle-class Israeli protests as protests of a First-World community, while Palestinian Israelis, in her opinion, were more of a Third-World community.

Urban planning professor Yosef Jabreen stated that in addition to creating master planning initiatives in Arab Israeli cities and ending housing demolitions, the Palestinian protestors are also calling for the expansion of Arab municipal jurisdictions.

In spite of the host of challenges facing Palestinian-Israeli communities, Palestinians associated with the protests emphasized the necessity of joining with the Jewish Israeli protestors in order to bring about social change for members of both ethnic groups. They also said that their struggle for housing was not a nascent one.

“We tried to organize housing protests several times,” Zoabi said, “but no one was listening to the Palestinians. The state doesn’t listen to Palestinians when they demonstrate.”

The Palestinian community has been protesting at least since 1976, she added, noting that this was the year when the first Land Day demonstrations took place. In her view, the Jewish Israeli protestors are actually joining the ongoing Palestinian Israeli protests for access to fair housing.

When comparing Palestinian concerns in the social welfare protests to those of the mostly Jewish Tent City activists, Hlewi stressed the need to secure housing rights before advocating for fair pricing. “We’re not struggling for quality of life, but for equality,” she said, speaking on behalf of the Arab community in Jaffa. As part of the poorest community in Israel, she suggested that Palestinians need to keep their homes to insure their survival within the state. A Jewish demonstrator in Jaffa backed her claims, adding that while Jewish citizens can attend demonstrations without being intimidated by police, police frequently visit Arab Israelis when they protest the policies of the Israeli government.

Zoabi expressed some ambivalence with the Jewish calls for social justice, stating that the middle-class protestors making up much of the current movement did not protest the dispossession of Palestinian land and homes, which she stated as having been part of the policy of the Israeli government since the 1948 war.

Daniel Tavoli, a 21-year-old student and organizer in Tent City, surmised that more people are involved in the current protest for social justice because more people are being affected by the lack of equality in the country.

Ophir Froydental, a 48-year-old software engineer, said that the threat of ongoing war with the Palestinian Territory and Israel’s neighbor countries had convinced many Israelis in the past that social welfare would have to wait until a later date. “The people of Israel didn’t believe you could protest because when there is war, you put the war first.” Now, people are tired of waiting for peace in order to demand social justice.

Froydental also stressed that the social justice protests were about the issue of the rich versus the poor, and that the “oligarchy” of families that dominated the country’s economy had caused prices to be overly elevated. He was less clear about how Palestinian Israelis fit into the protests, however, placing more emphasis on impoverished Holocaust survivors and disabled war veterans.

Avi Hazan, a 42-year-old former military GI, stressed the need for equal access to Israel’s resources for all citizens. “There is no difference in the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he said, referring specifically to the Palestinian citizens of Israel. “We’re all Israeli citizens.”

Although Hazan was uncomfortable with the notion that Palestinian Israelis might have concerns distinct from those of Israel’s Jewish citizens, Palestinian Israelis maintained that their communities had specific needs that should be addressed. “The student protestors, they talk about prices. We talk about demolition and evacuation,” Hlawy said. “We want to gain our basic rights, and after that we will talk about other things.”

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