Literary figures call for release of Arab-Israeli poet charged with incitement

More than 150 literary figures, including nine Pulitzer Prize winners, are calling for Israel to free an Arab-Israeli poet charged with inciting violence through social media.

The open letter announced Tuesday in support of Dareen Tatour, who has been under house arrest since October, was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace and Adalah-NY (The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel). Authors Alice Walker, Claudia Rankine and Dave Eggers were among those who signed on in asserting “poetry is not a crime.”

“We believe in the rights of artists and writers to freely express their artistic vision, and share work freely,” the letter says. “The Israeli government’s actions reveal a desire to silence Tatour, part of a larger pattern of Israeli repression against all Palestinians. Expressing resistance to oppression and Occupation through poetry is by nature non-violent and should not be criminalized by any government.”

Israeli police arrested Tatour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, in October for Facebook postings and a poem written in Arabic and posted on YouTube called “Resist my people, resist them.” She was charged with incitement to violence and terrorism, and is said to be one of hundreds of other Palestinians apprehended for expressing anti-Israeli sentiments on social media, USA Today reported.

Although not directly referring to violence, some lines of the poem allude to joining martyrs and not “succumbing to the ‘peaceful solution.’”

They include:

“Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist the settler’s robbery
And follow the caravan of martyrs.”

Tatour has been under house arrest in a Tel Aviv apartment with no internet access; she previously served three months in Israeli prisons. At a court hearing on July 18, she will appeal for transfer to house arrest in her hometown. Additional hearings are scheduled until September, when a verdict is expected to be handed down.

Tabour recently told the Israeli daily Haaretz: “I never imagined that in a democratic country, I would not be allowed to write and publish. … I cannot live without poetry. For me to be a poet without a pen and without feelings. But if I cannot mourn for my compatriots who are being killed, how will I be able to be a poet?”

Arab-Israeli lawmaker calls Israeli soldiers ‘murderers,’ spurring impeachment inquiry

An Arab-Israeli lawmaker called Israeli soldiers “murderers” on the floor of the Knesset, spurring talk of impeachment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The lawmaker, Hanin Zoabi, also demanded in her remarks Wednesday afternoon that the Knesset apologize for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens in clashes on a boat attempting to break Israel’s Gaza blockade. Netanyahu has apologized to Turkey for the incident.

Zoabi, who made the “murderers” remark as visiting soldiers were observing the parliament from the visitors’ gallery, also demanded Knesset lawmakers apologize to her. She has been censured by the Knesset, including when she participated in the Mavi Marmara flotilla and recently after she met with Palestinian terrorists’ families and stood for a moment of silence in their memories.

“I demand an apology for all the political activists on the Marmara and an apology to MK Hanin Zoabi for inciting against her for six years and hounding her. You all need to apologize, all of the members of Knesset here,” Zoabi said. “Those who murdered need to apologize, you need to apologize.”

After she was shouted down by fellow Knesset members, some of whom rushed the podium in order to remove her by force, Zoabi asked to return to the microphone to apologize. But instead, she said: “As long as there is a blockade [on Gaza], I will object to the blockade, and there’s a need to organize more flotillas.”

Knesset members responded by calling Zoabi “liar” and “filth,” and saying “You belong in Gaza.”

Zoabi’s statements came a day after Israel and Turkey signed a reconciliation deal restoring ties that had been severed following the Mavi Marmara episode.

Lawmakers Nachman Shai of the Zionist Union party and Amir Ohana of Likud filed complaints against Zoabi with the Knesset’s Ethics Committee, which is expected to meet and discuss the incident.

On Wednesday evening, Netanyahu said he contacted Attorney General Avichai Mandelblot to discuss starting the process of impeaching Zoabi from the Knesset.

“She has crossed the line in her deeds and her lies, and has no place in the Knesset,” he said in a statement that was posted on Facebook.

Netanyahu apologized for the deaths in a 2013 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The apology was a Turkish condition for the resumption of diplomatic ties.

Ayman Odeh brings his message of shared history — and destiny — to America

Ayman Odeh travels the land of his heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, but prefers to deliver paeans to their inspiration not in their native English, but in Hebrew and Arabic.

Meeting me here last week in the cafeteria of the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, where he has just completed a meeting with another civil rights-era hero, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Odeh ventures gingerly into an interview in English until my pronunciation of an Israeli term gives me away.

“You speak Hebrew?” he asks. His eyes light up, and Hebrew guides us into the familiar zone all strangers seek — in this case, between a Jewish-Israeli and an Arab-Israeli, or as he prefers, an Arab citizen of Israel.

Odeh, 40, is more than just a citizen: He is the first Arab-Israeli to unite four parties into a single list, and his Joint List won 13 seats in the March elections, making it the third largest faction in the Knesset. Foreign Policy magazine named him one of this year’s top 100 global thinkers.

His message, like his affect, his embrace of Hebrew and Arabic, is one of outreach. Odeh wants to bring Arabs and Jews together, and he is enervated by those who would divide them — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, although he is careful in how he frames it, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.

“The boycott must be against the occupation in the clearest way,” Odeh tells me, saying he prefers the narrower boycott of products from Israeli settlements. “With a clear agenda, which the end is the end of the occupation.”

That’s a pronounced distinction from the BDS movement’s stated goals, which embrace the “right of return” for the descendants of Palestinian refugees to Israel, a path Israelis believe leads not to two states, which Odeh favors, but a single binational one. He does favor a right of return to their ancestral villages for internally displaced Arab-Israelis.

But before he gets to policy, Odeh wants to get to know his countrymen, wherever they are. In the bustling, buzzy basement of a Capitol Hill office building in Washington, D.C., perhaps the most significant Arab-Israeli politician of this generation sets about making me feel like a landsman. Where are you from? Where is your family? How do you get away with not wearing a tie?

It’s the quintessential question for an Israeli male greeting another while traveling abroad. His staffers – some of them Jewish-Americans who immigrated to Israel – roll their eyes.

“He’s a journalist,” one says. “Not a visiting parliamentarian.” Odeh adjusts his tasteful burgundy tie and grimaces.

The schmoozing is replicated, multifold, an hour or so later as he heads into the Palestine Center across town.

“My people are from Haifa,” where Odeh was born and still lives, a shy young woman tells him, and he hugs her. Odeh started his political career straight out of obtaining a law degree in Romania, at 23, running for the Haifa municipal council. He is married to a physician and has three children.

He delivers his talk in Arabic – allowing for slight changes in emphasis, it is essentially the same pitch he delivered to me in Hebrew an hour or so earlier.

Ayman Odeh casting his vote at a ballots station in Nazareth, Israel on election day, March 17, 2015. (Basal Awidat/Flash90)Ayman Odeh casting his vote in Nazareth on Israel’s Election Day, March 17, 2015. Photo by Basal Awidat/Flash90

Odeh quotes extensively from his American inspirations and embraces the anger of the Palestinians, citing Malcolm X. But he believes the best path to equality is through working together with Jews, referencing King.

In this setting at the Palestine Center, an advocacy group for the Palestinian cause, he is slightly more deferential to the BDS movement, but gets to the same point: Narrow the scope to the occupation.

“I’d like to salute the people who are working on BDS because it puts Israel on the spot in world public opinion,” he says, answering a question from an activist for Jewish Voice for Peace, a non-Zionist group that backs BDS. “This effort, the more it is focused on the central issue of occupation, then it is going in the right direction.”

Notably, he had to be reminded to answer the question on his BDS position, which was included among several proffered to him at once, and when he gets around to it he speaks of BDC, not BDS, until a host’s whisper corrects him. Pressed further by the audience, Odeh finally betrays a flash of anger, wondering at outsiders who would prescribe his politics.

“I tell people who try to tell us to boycott other things, I say, ‘We understand our situation well,’” he says.

My questioning earlier about the particulars of the movement similarly seems to annoy him. I tell him it’s likely to be on the agenda when he meets leaders of U.S. Jewish groups in New York, but he waves away the questions, saying he is unfamiliar with the instances of BDS movement targeting I mention, including SodaStream seltzer machines and Sabra hummus.

Odeh does not deemphasize his Palestinian identity, but wraps it into a broader identity that he wishes his interlocutors would understand is more nuanced and complex.

“We are not just a national minority, we are also natives, and the country that we are citizens of is occupying the people we belong to nationally,” he tells me, repeating the same locution to the Palestine Center crowd. “To give a true answer, we must see the complexity of the issue.”

He does not like the name “the Joint Arab List,” the term sometimes used to describe his faction in the Israeli media. The party he leads, Hadash, the one-time Communist list, has historically had Jewish and Arab members.

To me and at the Palestine Center, Odeh praises the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, quoting Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, as saying that the primary reason he killed him was because he relied on the votes of Arab Knesset members.

“The strength of Rabin is that he saw in citizenship such a value, he allowed himself to rely on Arab voters,” Odeh tells me, and he repeats something close to it later. “Rabin started taking them out of the cycle of marginalization.”

It’s telling: With an Israeli Jew, it’s safe to assume a shared affection for Rabin. That’s not the case among pro-Palestinian advocates.

It’s an expression of shared citizenship and history he wishes were reciprocated among Jewish-Israeli leaders. He rattles off annual Israeli confabs that focus on security, on Jewish identity, on economic equality, and he identifies one lacking: a conference that would advance a civil society that embraces all of Israel’s citizens. He plans a march next year from Nazareth to Jerusalem that would celebrate the value of citizenship, and hopes to launch an annual conference on the topic in Haifa.

Odeh is not sensing a love of civil society from the current Israeli leadership, noting Netanyahu’s now notorious appeal to Likud voters on Election Day scaring up an image of “hordes of Arabs” heading to the polls. Scooting past the U.S. Supreme Court in a cab, he mutters “huh, no earth movers,” and then explains his reference to Moti Yogev, the Jewish Home member of Knesset who recently joked that he’d like to upend the Israeli High Court of Justice with bulldozer-like machines.

He does not spare the Zionist left, decrying its talk of the necessity of preserving a Jewish majority.

“If I am part of the demographic problem, when will my turn come?” Odeh says at the Palestine Center.

In his week here, Odeh meets with Congress members, including Lewis and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, with senior Obama administration officials at the White House and State Department, and with Jewish officials, although his staff won’t tell me which Jewish leaders — apparently his interlocutors are sensitive about the meeting. There were also meetings here and in New York with Arab-American groups and leaders of progressive think tanks.

What’s his message for American Jews? Odeh hearkens back to the era of King and Malcolm X.

“I call on them the way they stood on the right side in the 1960s, to stand with us now,” he says. “It will be added value for everyone.”

Kibbutz attacker tells court stabbing was an accident

An Arab-Israeli man arrested for a stabbing attack at a northern Israeli kibbutz said the attack was an accident.

Ala Mhamed Zwid, 20, said through his attorney on Monday in Haifa District Court that he accidentally ran over two soldiers at a bus stop in Kibbutz Gan Shmuel near Hadera on Sunday night before stabbing several people while trying to protect himself, Ynet reported.

Zwid, of the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, located 12 miles from the scene of the attack, stabbed one of the soldiers he hit with his car, a 19-year-old woman. She remains in critical condition and on life support.

Dozens of demonstrators marched in Hadera on Sunday night after the stabbings to protest the dangerous security situation.

Arab-Israeli killer in Michigan prison seeking deportation to Israel

An Arab-Israeli immigrant to the United States who is serving a life sentence for murder has sued the U.S. government in a bid to be deported to Israel.

Elias Abuelazam, 37, a Christian Arab from Ramla, filed a lawsuit earlier this month in a Michigan federal court saying he committed a murder in Israel in 2009, months before he came to Flint, Mich., and stabbed a man to death.

“I have written letters to the Israeli authorities asking them to prepare the necessary warrants and extradition documents to bring me back to Israel where I will stand trial and be sent to prison,” Abuelazam said in the lawsuit, The Associated Press reported.

Abuelazam, who lived in the United States for several years as a child, reportedly was living legally in the United States on a green card obtained when he married a U.S. citizen. He was accused of killing three people in three U.S. states during the summer of 2010, and was arrested on Aug. 1 of that year in Atlanta after boarding a flight to Israel. He claimed that demons told him to commit the attacks, but a jury rejected the insanity plea.

Abuelazam was not tried for the other two murders because he was given a life sentence without parole in the Michigan case.

Ed Zeineh, Abuelazam’s attorney, said his client could serve his sentence in Israel if Israel would take him.

“I don’t believe this is a mechanism to get out from a life sentence,” Zeineh told AP. “Abuelazam was and is mentally ill, and I believe the structure of the correctional system in Israel is able to better treat mental illness.”


Israeli Arab reinstated at job after suspension over anti-IDF Facebook post

An Arab nurse at an Israeli hospital suspended from his job for a Facebook post that calls the Israeli military “war criminals” was reinstated.

The Arab-Israeli male nurse at Sheba Medical Center must issue a public apology to the hospital administration, according to reports.

The agreement between the nurse and the hospital came on Wednesday, a day before a scheduled hearing at the Tel Aviv labor court.

Several Israeli-Arabs reportedly have been fired from their jobs during Israel’s current Gaza operation, for statements against Israel or the Israel Defense Forces.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel this week stressed that employers are forbidden from firing a worker just because of his or her viewpoints or online comments.

ACRI in a statement “also has reminded the public that in general, employers bear no responsibility for statements made by their employees in the context of their personal lives outside of the workplace. It is forbidden for employers to spy on their employees or interfere in their personal lives by imposing sanctions or threats thereof.”

The organization also stressed that Israel’s Law for Equal Opportunities in the Workplace “prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee because of his/her viewpoint unless the comments made affect the professional functioning of the employee.”

Israeli-Arab journalist arrested for visiting Lebanon

Israel arrested an Israeli-Arab journalist and political activist on suspicion that he met foreign agents after entering Lebanon illegally.

Majed Kial, 23, was arrested this week by the Shin Bet security service after returning Saturday from a visit to Lebanon, which Israel considers an enemy country, Army Radio reported Thursday.

Kial admitted to leaving Israel for Lebanon last month to attend a conference celebrating the 40th anniversary of Al Sapir, a Lebanese paper for which Kial writes on social and economic issues.

Kial, who lives in northern Israel, also is the editor of the website for Adallah, an Israeli not-for-profit organization that deals with issues connected to Israeli Arabs.

Israelis are required to seek special permission to visit enemy countries, but Kial entered Lebanon without permission through contacts at the Palestinian Authority, Army Radio reported. Aram Mahmid, Kial’s lawyer, said he viewed the law requiring Israelis to seek permission before visiting enemy territories as “arbitrary.”

Kial said he would not have been allowed into Lebanon if he had first received permission from an Israeli court, Army Radio reported. He added that he did not meet any Hezbollah officials in Lebanon and that his visit was for his journalistic work.

An unnamed Shin Bet source was quoted as telling Army Radio that Kial “contacted Palestinian officials to arrange for his entrance into Lebanon despite being an Israeli citizen. The journalist entered Lebanon with Palestinian documents. In the following days, a decision will be made about the investigation into his actions and his indictment for visiting an enemy country.”

Gazans in Jordan scramble for news about relatives

[Jerash “Gaza” Refugee Camp, Jordan] With one eye on Skype and the other fixed on the television screen, Salma anxiously searched for news about her father, two brothers and younger sister in the Gaza Strip. “I am suffering so much. I do not know how I will handle not being near my family, even under the bombardment,” Salma, 23, who grew up in Gaza and moved to Jordan in 2010 after she married, told The Media Line. She asked not to use her last name out of concern for her family.

Salma said she has been in touch with her family but communication has been only sporadic during the last few days as Israeli military action in Gaza has been stepped up.

“My family is fine, but I am not only worried about them, all of Gaza is my family,” she said. “I am trying to call my father or anyone from the family since last night, but I can not get through. Nobody answers the phone and they don’t appear on Skype,” she said with tears running down her face.

Four years ago, during the previous large-scale Israeli ground operation intended to halt rocket fire, Salma was in Gaza. Even though it was difficult then to live under fire, she says, it is harder this way – watching from afar.  “It was much easier to be in Gaza, at least I knew what is happening,” she said as she tried to soothe her crying one-year-old son, Abdullah.

Salma lives in the Jerash refugee camp, which takes its name from the nearby Roman city of the same name. Located about 30 miles north of Amman, it is also called “Gaza camp,” as it is home to almost 50,000 Gazans who arrived in Jordan after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The camp’s community leaders say that even though most of its residents here are poor, they have started a campaign to collect donations on behalf of Gaza’s 1.7 million citizens. “We are already very poor and hardly make a living, but we offer whatever we can,” Abdullah Asmar, one of the camp’s leaders told The Media Line, as he flipped television channels looking for the latest news from Gaza.

Jerash is composed of narrow streets strewn with garbage. The sanitation system is inadequate and the stench of raw sewage hangs in the air. Children, some of them barefoot, run through the streets playing hide-and-seek.

Even Jordanians who don’t have relatives in Gaza are closely following events there.

Several dozen demonstrated near the Israeli embassy in Amman, calling on the kingdom’s government to recall Jordan’s ambassador to Israel and to cut diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. They cite Egypt, which recalled its ambassador from Israel as soon as the fighting began. The demonstrators say they plan to camp out near the embassy until the government complies.

A similar call was made by Jordan’s Islamist movement. “As the ‘Arab spring’ has made more people free and the will of the nations are being translated into action, we call on the government to recall the ambassador and end ties with the ‘Zionist enemy,’” Hamza Mansour, the Secretary General of the Islamic Action Front  (IAF), told The Media Line.

Government officials said they are considering recalling the ambassador, but say that at the moment they are more focused on providing humanitarian assistance to the people in Gaza. The army has already sent food and medical supplies; and Jordan has also set up a field hospital in Gaza to treat Palestinians wounded in Israeli airstrikes.

Some Palestinians in the ‘Gaza camp’ say they are angry with the Jordanian government for taking little action against Israel.  “I cannot eat or sleep as I wait for news about my nephews and nieces,” Abdel Rahman Ashi told The Media Line. “The government is only making statements. They should provide more support.”

Israel bracing for ‘more tense and Islamist’ region in the coming year

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Director of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, in his annual intelligence assessment to Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and the IDF general staff, warned on Monday that Israel will face an increasingly volatile region in the coming year, one that is “more tense and Islamist in nature than before.”

According to Kochavi, the area is “experiencing a series of crises, both regional and internal, which add to the overall sensitivity of the players involved and could lead to unexpected flare-ups.”

Kochavi said the annual intelligence assessment “is the result of a long and thorough process of research and analysis.”

“The work is led by the research unit and utilizes all of the existing intelligence-gathering bodies in the intelligence branch, as well as ones created in the passing year,” he said.

In related news, foreign weapon sales by the U.S. tripled last year to $66.3 billion as Persian Gulf states sought to build up their military supplies amid growing tensions with Iran, a new report said.

U.S. arms sales reached a record high, up from $21.4 billion in 2010 and $31 billion in 2009, according to a study by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Weapons sales declined amid the global economic downturn but increasing tensions with Iran over its nuclear weapons program have seen Gulf countries spend billions of dollars on defense procurement.

Foreign arms sales have become increasingly important to weapons makers as the Pentagon’s budget flattens because of U.S. deficit-reduction requirements.

U.S. military deals with Saudi Arabia topped $33.4 billion last year, according to the report. Agreements included the purchase of 84 advanced F-15 fighter planes and upgrades of 70 of the F-15 fighter planes in the current fleet, said the report.

The United Arab Emirates purchased Lockheed Martin’s Theatre High Altitude Area Defence system in a deal valued at $3.49 billion last December and 16 Chinook helicopters for $939 million. Oman acquired 18 F-16 fighters for $1.4 billion.

Arab League head: Egypt should amend peace treaty with Israel

For more evidence of its increasingly precarious position in the Middle East, Israel need not lok any further south than neighboring Egypt. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told The Cairo Review of Global Affairs in an article published this week that Egypt should amend its 1979 peace treaty with Israel because the latter is violating the accords with respect to the Palestinians.

Elaraby, 77, was appointed secretary-general in July 2011, after a brief stint as Egyptian foreign minister in the first government of the post-Hosni Mubarak era.

“Israel is violating every day what they have committed themselves to do,” Elaraby said.

“What I’ve been asking is look at every step taken by Israel and see whether it really fits with its commitments,” Elaraby said. “I’ll tell you: no. I’ll just give you one example: Camp David, and I was there. They committed themselves that [UN Resolution] 242 would apply to every single front, or to every single country, which accepts to live in peace with Israel. Fine. Palestinians have said for 20 years now we have recognized Israel, but they don’t want to apply 242, they don’t want to withdraw, they don’t want to stop the settlement activities. They have tens of thousands of prisoners who have been there for over 20 years. They are acting in a wrong way. They claim that they have withdrawn from Gaza, but they are surrounding Gaza and any day they will go and kill people in Gaza and go out. They are the occupiers. It’s not necessary in occupying a territory to be in every single yard of territory. They are outside but they are occupying it. So, everything is wrong. You need to rectify the relations. This is not going to work at all. You need to rectify the relations to have a healthy relationship in the future.”

Elaraby said that the new situation in the Middle East would change the dynamic of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“The way that the Israelis were using brute force and not taking into consideration the rights of the people around them, particularly the Palestinians, will have to change,” he said. “But they are reading it wrongly. They are claiming to the Americans, to the Europeans, ‘It is changing here. We don’t know what will happen. We will not talk unless they accept our conditions.’ They have to realize that if they want to live in peace with their neighbors, they have a chance to do that. But they have to live in peace, they have to act according to the rules of international law everywhere. [The Arab peace plan] has been there 10 years there now, and it’s still there. Ten years, they’ve not reacted to it.”

Elaraby said the Egypt-Israel peace treaty should be amended on the security front, as well as the commercial area.

“People in Egypt under the former regime have added things which are not in the treaty,” he said. “People say Camp David requires Egypt to sell gas to Israel. Gas was not there at that time. Camp David and the treaty speak about the right of Israel to bid for oil which Egypt does not need. But people think that it contains obligations on Egypt to sell oil to Israel, which is not true.”

Knesset approves citizenship law

Israel’s Knesset approved a law that would permit revoking citizenship rights of Israelis convicted of terrorism, espionage or treason.

The law, which passed late Monday night by a vote of 37 to 11, is opposed by many Arab-Israeli groups and Israeli human rights groups on the grounds that it is designed to delegitimize Arab-Israeli citizens.

Under the law, a dual citizen could be stripped of his Israeli citizenship entirely; other Israelis would be granted some form of resident status. Someone convicted of terrorism would lose his or her right to all state allowances, including welfare.

The bill was introduced by the Yisrael Beiteinu, the nationalist party of Israeli Foriegn Minister Avigdor Lieberman and fulfills his campaign promise of “No loyalty, no citizenship.”

The Knesset also voted Monday to strip former Israeli Arab lawmaker Azmi Bishara of his parliamentary benefits, including his pension. Bishara fled Israel in 2007 after being accused of treason for allegedly giving Hezbollah information on strategic locations in Israel to be attacked with rockets during the 2006 Lebanon War.

Israel confronts shared future with Bedouin citizens

At first glance, Um Batin seems almost familiar. It’s as if you’ve glimpsed something like it before in a TV docudrama, or on the glossy pages of National Geographic or as part of a news clip on CNN. It’s part Middle Eastern, part African. It’s part dust bowl, part fledgling village. It speaks of poverty, though there’s a gentle mood to the place, as if no one there is really complaining about their lot — almost as if they’ve picked it themselves.

And they have, in a way.

Um Batin, deep in the sandy, rocky terrain that is Israel’s Negev Desert, is a Bedouin Arab community of 4,000 people. Up until two years ago, Um Batin (“One Hill”) was considered an unrecognized village in Israel, meaning land claims had not been officially settled with the government, and hence all building was technically illegal and subject to demolition. The village’s status also meant that it was ineligible for basic municipal services, like running water, electricity, garbage removal, sewage systems, paved roads, even a high school.

Yet the Bedouin are full Israeli citizens, comprising about 80,000 people in northern Israel and 180,000 in the south, roughly 25 percent of the entire Negev population. They are entitled to the rights of Israeli Jews — that is if they could just stay put.

A nomadic people, “Bedouin” is the general name for Arabic-speaking tribes in the Middle East and North Africa that originate from the Arabian Peninsula, the Jazirat al-Arab. Before 1948, Bedouin were for generations the only residents of the Negev, a land mass that makes up some 60 percent of present-day Israel but comprises less than 10 percent of the total population.

About 15 million Bedouin live in the Middle East, including North Africa, and they have one of the highest birthrates in the world. Bedouin females, who typically marry before 20, have six to nine children, on average, with polygamy still practiced (Islam allows up to four wives). Two wives are not uncommon, even in Israel in the 21st century. With the husband and resulting children, families of nearly two-dozen members share a lifestyle and often an actual household.

That makes it a force to be reckoned with, according to professor Alean Al-Krenawi, chairman of the Spitzer department of social work, and director of the Regional Research and Development Center for the Bedouin Society at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who provided the statistics.

“My father used to say, ‘You have to walk with the wind,'” Al-Krenawi said. “Well, the Israelis, they were working against the wind. They were working with the Bedouin, and they didn’t understand them. Slowly, they’ve started to change their thinking and adapt Western models to ones that fit the Arab people.”

In the mid-1960s, the government attempted to settle some of the Negev Bedouin. It planned a development project in the south called Tel Sheva — not too far from the Jewish town of Beersheva, now a burgeoning city of nearly 200,000 — and started to build houses and an infrastructure to situate tribes. The problem was that nobody consulted the Bedouin, who didn’t want or ask for the homes. They simply weren’t interested in such a sedentary existence. The place was left empty for quite a while; “it was a big mistake,” said Al-Krenawi, himself Bedouin.

Eventually, the second generation of Israeli Bedouin, those coming of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s, did start to move in to Tel Sheva and six other recognized villages: Rahat (now a city of about 40,000), Segev Shalom, Hura, Lakiya, Kifssa and Arara. Today, about one-half of Negev Bedouin live in these areas. Tel Sheva, the first development, now with more than 12,000 residents, remains the least successful.

The professor explained that there are crucial problems: a dramatic shift from living in tents and caring for land and animals to moving into contemporary abodes, coupled with no economy, few jobs and large families to educate. Many subsist on “social security,” Israel’s name for welfare, which he said is hardly enough to support 12 children.

The Bedouin were “pushed to the margins of society; they were left out,” Al-Krenawi said. “Joblessness is among the highest in Israel. It’s a big welfare population. It’s a disaster.”

The question, he continued, is one of the future: “Where are you taking this portion of society?”

“A Ticking Time Bomb”

Critics say the government has ignored the entire Negev since the founding of Israel in 1948 and is only now starting to realize its potential. It was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who saw possibility in the desert, so much so that when he retired from public office, he and his wife, Paula, moved to Sde Boker, in the central Negev below Beersheva, where they are buried. Ben-Gurion’s words sound surprisingly relevant these days: “The Negev offers the greatest opportunity to accomplish everything from the beginning.”

Signs of Bedouin movement do exist. It is a population that votes. It’s one that serves in the Israeli army and doubles its size every 13 years. It’s one that the average Israeli Jew realizes has been left out of the picture, not because of religion or politics, but because of lifestyle choices and because the Bedouin were never really considered at all.

Nine more recognized villages are in the works at various levels and stages of development. A regional council for this area, the Abu Bazma Council led by the government-appointed Amram Kolagy, has been set up and a modern building constructed to meet its needs. (All new towns in Israel, no matter the ethnicity or religion, get a Jewish mayor appointed by the Interior Ministry for a period of five years. After that, the mayor can be re-elected for another term or the town can choose its own new leader. The idea is for an experienced person to jump-start civic systems and get them up and running before handing them over to local authorities.) New schools, which will incorporate both boys and girls, are being built to accommodate the youth, which make up 60 percent of Negev Bedouin.

Kolagy, who is of Iraqi descent and well-versed in Arab customs, noted that the problems are more severe than first thought. He acknowledged that Israel made mistakes with the Bedouin from the start– “when the government system trickles down, a lot is lost along the way” — but his presence represents a new process, one that is working within the culture to make changes at the grass-roots level.

Arab lawmaker quits Knesset as probe begins

Israeli Arab lawmaker Azmi Bishara has abruptly ended a parliamentary career built on denouncing the Jewish state from enemy capitals and then dodging charges of sedition at home.

After weeks spent abroad on what he called routine travels, Bishara turned up at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on April 22 to submit a letter of resignation to the Knesset.

The move followed an announcement by the Israeli police that Bishara, who heads the predominantly Arab party Balad, was under investigation for allegations that could not be published due to a court-issued gag order that was extended to Wednesday.

Bishara, 50, has denied wrongdoing but made clear he is in no hurry to face the probe.

“I decided to tender my resignation today, after leaving the country, because I know that I would not have been able to leave the country for three years, the time it would take the court cases and investigations,” he told Al-Jazeera.

“Exile is not an option. Return is definite, but the matter will take some time and arrangements,” said Bishara, a Christian from the religiously mixed town of Nazareth.

For many mainstream Israelis, it was goodbye and good riddance. In an Israeli Arab leadership increasingly considered disloyal among the Jewish majority, Bishara stood out for his especially provocative antics.

He visited Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon to voice outrage at Israel’s military offensive last year. He met with Syrian President Bashar Assad as well as radical Palestinian leaders, always ready to praise the ethos of armed “resistance” against Israel.

Bishara overcame repeated attempts to have him tried for fraternizing with Israel’s enemies, invoking his parliamentary immunity from prosecution. This enraged rightist Israelis, who warned of a “fifth column” among the country’s Arab minority.

Some moderate Israeli Arabs also sought to distance themselves from Bishara, so astounded by his temerity as to suggest it was all an elaborate cover for a role as an Israeli spy or covert diplomat.

“The definition of Knesset member Bishara as a ‘collaborator’ is one of the ways to explain the behavior, conduct and statements of this man, in oratory and in writing,” Alex Fishman wrote in Yediot Achronot. “He has stretched all the ropes to the breaking point, tested the limits of the tolerance of Israeli democracy, and each time succeeded in establishing a new limit.”

Balad, which holds three of the Knesset’s 120 seats, calls for Israel to abandon Zionism and become a “state of all its citizens.” That is out of the question for most Israelis, who want the country to remain a democratic Jewish homeland.

News of Bishara’s departure and rumors of his legal worries, which may involve charges from the counter-terrorism and counter-espionage Shin Bet agency, was greeted with regret in some corner of the Israeli intelligentsia.

There was empathy and even admiration for the scintillating intellectual, who speaks four languages, including a Hebrew more erudite than that of many Jewish Israelis.

One veteran commentator, Yaron London, saw in Bishara a sort of latter-day version of the Diaspora’s old political mavericks — the revolutionaries and utopianists.

“I once said to Azmi Bishara that he is more Jewish than I,” London said. “The heart of a Jew, even one who lives among Jews in their state, is the heart of a minority figure, but a Christian Arab who is a citizen of the Jewish state is an island within an island, a minority within a minority.”

“Bishara, a brilliant and arrogant intellectual, bossy and stormy, charming and easily offended, has no time to waste. He realized that the Jews would not accept his vision unless they were greatly weakened — and therefore they must be weakened.”

Accord Was to Ensure Jewish Majority

The Oslo agreement was the first agreement ever signed between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), intended to put an end to the national struggle that is the heart of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Olso agreement was the natural continuation of the framework agreements signed at the 1978 Camp David summit between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which also provided the basis for the 1991 Madrid Conference.

But, the talks that I initiated in Oslo contained two unique elements: For the first time, the Palestinian partner was clearly identified as the PLO, and the idea was proposed to transfer to Palestinian control most of the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area, even before elections were held for the Palestinian Authority’s legislative council and leadership.

The Oslo process was intended to save the Zionist enterprise before Israel would control an area where the majority of residents would be Palestinian. Anyone who believes that Israel must be a Jewish and democratic state must support the establishment of a border between Israel and the Palestinian side — preferably by consent rather than by unilateral measures.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin understood this and gave his support to the Oslo process. He faced opposition from a right-wing camp that presented itself as nationalist but did not propose any solution that would guarantee a Jewish and democratic future for Israel.

The interim measures did not accomplish their goal — that is, a final peace agreement — because of efforts by elements on both sides.

On the Palestinian side, the extremist religious organizations understood that Israeli-Palestinian peace would be the end of the road for them, and they acted to undermine the process through violence. The more difficult the conditions became in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the more public support these organizations gained.

On the Israeli side, it was the right wing — in particular, extremist settlers — who did whatever they could to foil a final status settlement that would divide the Land of Israel.

Attempts to attribute the past three years of violence to the Oslo agreement are characteristic of people who did not believe in the agreement in the first place and who believe that any agreement with the enemy is a surrender that ultimately will engender more violence.

I am not saying that the Oslo agreement was free of flaws. But those flaws were not the result of an innocent belief that the five-year interim period would build such confidence and esteem between Israelis and Palestinians that it would be easy to reach a final status settlement.

In my opinion, there were two flaws in the Oslo Agreement and its implementation:

First, the fact that no reference was made to the freezing of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — the Palestinians accepted Rabin’s personal commitment to halt the construction of new settlements — created an opening that a subsequent right-wing government used to build new settlements, though it clearly was not the original intent of the agreement.

Second, Israel did not give sufficient importance to incitement in the Palestinian media, thinking it was a trend that would pass when the final status agreement was signed. This incitement played a significant role in the Palestinians’ return to violence in 2000.

Both sides blame the other for the process’ failure, though the Palestinians’ choice of violence means they have the greater share of blame.

But our future does not lie in reciprocal blaming. If we want to secure the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, we must do it before there is a Palestinian majority under Israeli control.

If the Palestinians want a state with a secular and pragmatic leadership, they must do it before Hamas and Islamic Jihad conquer the hearts of the people.

We have no time. The only effective way to do this is to complete the Oslo process and reach the final status agreement as quickly as possible.

Yossi Bellin was minister of justice in Ehud Barak’s government and one of the architects of the Oslo agreement.