The West Bank Moves Further West (redux)

This is a post I wrote last summer that seems relevant today, given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arab-baiting electoral campaign in which he warned his supporters that Arab citizens were voting in “droves” and being brought to polling stations in buses.


Summer 2014: Arab citizens of Israel in the town of Acre protest Gaza war

Bethlehem, July 31, 2014—In the minds of the press and probably most of its readers, the immovable conflict over land between Israel and the Palestinians is centered in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

   On the Palestinian side, this intransigence is represented mostly by HAMAS, aka the Islamic Resistance Movement and its dream of a Muslim state encompassing Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. On the Israeli side, it is reflected by settlements in constant expansion, a process dedicated to keeping the West Bank under Israeli control if not annexing it outright.

    But obstinacy and resulting hostility has moved inexorably into Israeli Jewish and Arab society inside Israel as well. The longstanding dispute over Palestine has morphed into a conflict inside 1948 Israel over who belongs in the Jewish state. Specifically, whether Israeli Arabs belong. (I will use Israeli Arabs to distinguish the population inside Israel’s borders from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in full realization that many inside Israel identify themselves fully as Palestinian.)

   It’s easy to experience this tension once inside Israel. I visited to Acre, an old port city on the Mediterranean Sea, to visit its Crusader ruins and eat seafood. Upon entering, one is greeted by disturbing banners on houses in the Arab Old City neighborhood: Stop Ethnic Cleansing in My Hometown. We Will Not Move Out.

The Old City is populated by Arabs and sits on a seaside peninsula apart from modern Acre, the mixed but largely Jewish part of the city. Israeli Jewish investors are buying buildings in Acre and the Tourism Ministry hopes to turn the neighborhood’s alleys, caravansaries, and old houses into a visitor attraction. Arab-Israeli residents are suspicious. The tourism plan evokes memories of the Old City of Jaffa, from which Palestinians fled during the 1948 Israeli independence war. It is now a scrubbed tourist area without any sign that descendants of its original residents are refugees not far away, in Gaza or the West Bank. “They want to make Acre like Jaffa. A place where there is no memory of who was here,” a hostel owner told me on my visit.

As far back as 1989, during the first civil uprising against Israel on the West Bank and Gaza, a right-wing candidate for mayor suggested “transferring” the Arab population out of Old Acre. The winning candidate headed off the plan.

    New suspicions of forced relocation are fed by the intervention by pro-West Bank settler organizations. In 2001, a hesder yeshiva, which is a religious school that combines military training with spiritual studies, opened in Acre. The school was opened by an activist from the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh. The group actively campaigned to bring more Jews to Acre and settle them in the Old City.

Meanwhile among Arab Israelis elsewhere, an Islamic movement is growing that seeks formal autonomy within Israel. Its followers campaign to reopen abandoned mosques, restore Muslim cemeteries and set up a parallel education system for Muslim students. The Islamists reject integration into Israel and, ironically, find common cause with Israeli far-rightists who reject the notion that Arabs can integrate into the Jewish State.

Many of the Islamic leaders were influenced by HAMAS during the 1990s, when traffic between the West Bank, Israel and Gaza was relatively easy. Epicenter of the movement is Umm al-Fahem, a crowded hillside community that is home to four mosques modeled after the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and which supplied volunteers for the construction of an underground prayer chamber beneath al-Aqsa mosque. The subterranean structure was the subject of a visit by Ariel Sharon in the year 2000 that set off a riot and marked the beginning of the so-called Second Intifada.

   In any event, as the Israeli-Gaza war raged this summer, one might have expected demonstrations to break out all over the West Bank. Few did. Inside Israel, however, was a different story. Protests broke out in Arab neighborhoods across the country, including Jerusalem, Haifa and Nazareth, as well as the Arab towns of Jaffa,  Sakhnin and Umm el-Fahem. Israeli police arrested more protestors inside Israel than troops did in the West Bank.

In response, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman urged Israelis to boycott Arab businesses. He refers to Arab citizens as the “Arab sector” and wants to expel them all to the West Bank. Israeli social media commentary is full of vindictive anti-Arab commentary, with the main line of thought being  that they are guests, not native citizens of Israel. Attacks on Arabs in the street have become more and more common. On July 2, three Israelis kidnapped a Jerusalem teenager Muhammed abu Khedeir and burned him alive, supposedly in retaliation for the June abduction and murder of three Israeli teens, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, in the West Bank.

It’s clear where this will lead: to more and more Arab-Jewish conflict inside 1948 Israel, which will more and more resemble the intertwined yet hostile lives of Arab and Jew in the West Bank. And it’s not just Israel absorbing the West Bank. The West Bank is absorbing Israel. Such is one price for failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

See here for more on the difficulties of Arabs inside 1948 Israel.

Read this for a Los Angeles Times account of the 1989 problems in Acre.

This article recounts Arab demonstrations inside Israel last summer.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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