Their situation is profoundly better. However, nearly 70 years after the state of Israeli was established, the level of engagement between the Jewish and Palestinian-Arab populations is minimal, and discrimination against the latter is rife. One major reason for the low level of engagement is that most Israeli-Palestinians live in separate villages and cities, and although they share the same country they have different experiences from the cradle to the grave.
One might expect that the exception to this would be for those who live in what is known as “mixed cities.” However, there are only seven such places in Israel, and in them only about 8 percent of the Israeli-Palestinian population live side by side with Israeli Jews. Palestinians are a minority in all these cities where, with the exception of two, they were a majority before the war of 1948.
Rich history characterised places such as Haifa, Acre, Jaffa, Ramla and Lod, home to generations of Palestinians. During the war of 1948, most were forced our or left. While Jews lived there before the 1948 war, they were a minority. This changed after the war, when the empty homes of the dispossessed were quickly taken by Jewish migrants mainly from Europe and the Middle East. Almost overnight the populations of prosperous and culture-rich communities became minorities, though unlike their brethren in places that were solely Palestinian, they were at least not under Israeli military law.
In his article “Tenants in their own home: On the status of Arabs in Acre,” the Israeli Palestinian author Zuhayr Bahlul asserts that “the story of mixed cities in Israel is one of the darkest chapters in the history of the state.” One of the main reasons for this is that these communities were not integrated cities but segregated, with Palestinian neighborhoods deliberately neglected.
There is an obsession in the Israeli psyche with creating a Jewish majority everywhere. There is even a term for it, “Judaization,” with many not realizing its deep racist connotation. The policy is mainly associated with the northern part of the country, the Galilee, where the state expropriated extensive areas of Arab land, openly and unashamedly “in the interests of the Jewish majority.” In the first two decades of the state of Israel, hundreds of Jewish settlements were built on expropriated land, including new cities.
Upper Nazareth is a disturbing example of one such new Jewish city built next to the historical Arab city of Nazareth with the aim of limiting the expansion of its Palestinian neighbors. Ironically, the restrictions on the development of old Nazareth almost forced Palestinians who wanted to stay in the area to move into its Jewish neighborhood, turning it into a new mixed city. This was an opportunity to develop intercommunal relations without the burden of the past. Yet, despite the fact that Palestinians are nearly a quarter of the population of Upper Nazareth, there is not a single Arab school there, or recognition of the Arab language. Worse, the former mayor flagrantly employed slogans such as “Upper Nazareth – Jewish for ever” to win the mayoral elections four years ago.
Israel cannot be a true democracy until it recognizes the culture, history and rights of its Arab citizens.
Haifa is usually hailed as the model for Jewish-Arab coexistence, with its joint institutions, Arabic speaking schools and even streets named after notable Palestinians. Joint celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah and Eid Al-Adha have come to symbolize this tolerant coexistence, where the Palestinians make up a mere 11 percent of the population. However, Haifa is unique, and does not reflect the separate existence of Jews and Palestinians in other mixed cities.
This is a missed opportunity, as there are too few mixed cities in Israel to set the tone for genuine and respectful coexistence. Only when Israeli-Palestinians are able to purchase property in every part of the country, and their culture and heritage are recognized, will the state move a step closer to becoming a true democracy. When on the one hand there is a constant effort to “Judaize” Arab areas, and at the same time hysterical calls, some from prominent rabbis, to prevent the “Arabization” of the Jewish ones, the real victim is peaceful future relations between the Jews and Palestinians of Israel.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg