Sept. 15, 2006
Making a delicate balance work
After the war, social groups set about rebuilding relations between
Israel's Arabs and Jews.
SIMON GRIVER ISRAEL PRESS SERVICE
The joyful shouts of more than 1,500 Jewish and Arab children splashing
about in a water park near Bet She'an in the late August sunshine
would not have been heard several weeks before. Not only was the
region within range of Hezbollah missiles, but organized activities
bringing together Jews and Arabs were put on hold as the missiles
threatened to rip apart the two communities, which had been cautiously
learning to live together in recent years.
As the Israeli government sets about rehabilitating the north, the
physical damage to the region as a result of the recent war is clear
for all to see. But the damage to the delicate relations between
Jews and Arabs is less evident to the eye.
Amnon Be'eri-Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Abraham Fund
Initiatives (TAFI) in Israel, which works to advance co-existence,
equality and co-operation among Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens,
explained that war always has a negative impact on the relationship
between Israel's Jewish majority and the Arab minority.
"Israel's Arab community is seen by some as a fifth column,"
observed Be'eri-Sulitzeanu. In fact, a survey conducted immediately
after the war by Mina Tzemach, Israel's leading pollster, exposed
Jewish misperceptions about Arab views. Tzemach found that only
18 per cent of Israel's Arabs supported Hezbollah, while 55 per
cent of Israeli Jews thought that all or most Israeli Arabs supported
Hezbollah. An additional 21 per cent thought half of Israeli Arabs
sympathized with the Lebanese Shiites.
"This war, in which both Jews and Arabs paid a heavy price
in human lives and property, offered a unique opportunity for the
creation of Jewish-Arab solidarity based on a common threat from
outside," said Be'eri-Sulitzeanu. "Yet Israel's Arabs
didn't support the war publicly and thus antagonized many from the
"Many Jews felt that Israel's Arabs were either with them or
against them," noted Mohammad Darawshe, director of development
at the Abraham Fund. "But the situation was not so black and
white, for Israel's Arabs felt that the war was not in anybody's
interest and was causing unnecessary suffering for both Israelis
and the Lebanese."
At the same time, the fact that many Arabs openly demonstrated against
the war while the fighting raged is seen by both Darawshe and Be'eri-Sulitzeanu
as a mark of the maturity and strength of Israeli democracy. This
type of dissent, they say, did not exist in the past and indicates
a greater self-confidence among Israel's Arabs and a desire to play
a more active role in the country's political culture.
During the early days of the war, the Abraham Fund conducted a survey
and was encouraged to discover that despite common perceptions,
Jewish-Arab interaction continued, as Jewish and Arab municipalities
and co-existence activists joined efforts to cope with the crisis.
Additionally, protests, which were voiced by Jews and Arabs alike,
were directed at the government, while objections against the Jewish-Arab
partnership were rarely raised.
The Abraham Fund can take much credit for creating a more tolerant
atmosphere that helped the Jewish and Arab communities survive the
war. The fund's Mirkam (Tapestry) initiative in the Galilee,
for example, has enhanced understanding and interdependence between
Jews and Arabs by fostering co-operative educational, social, business,
inter-municipal and community activities. The Police Community initiative
has enabled Israel's police force to better understand the sensitivities
of the country's Arab citizenry; as a result, the police acted with
greater restraint and, said Be'eri-Sulitzeanu, provided more egalitarian
policing services during the war.
"The Israeli establishment often has good intentions,"
said Be'eri-Sulitzeanu, "but the Arab minority is so marginalized
that its needs are often simply not taken into account. The war
with Hezbollah demonstrated clearly that the Israeli government
has not yet created significant policy that communicates to Arab
Israelis that they are a valued and welcome part of society, deserving
full equality in every sense."
With this in mind, as the war broke out, TAFI began monitoring and
examining emergency services to ensure that equal assistance was
provided to Israel's Arab citizens.
"We soon discovered," recalled Be'eri-Sulitzeanu, "that
the IDF Home Front had an excellent and friendly website in Hebrew,
Russian and English, but not in Arabic. We offered to translate
the material into Arabic and they were only too happy for us to
make the contribution.
"Additionally, due to our intervention, the Jewish Agency brought
thousands of Arab children from the north to the safety of summer
camps in the centre of the country."
Be'eri-Sulitzeanu stressed that TAFI also made major efforts to
encourage co-existence organizations to continue their programs
throughout the fighting. "We were afraid of a paralysis in
the area of co-existence because Jews and Arabs were angry with
each other," he recalled. "But we also felt that in addition
to the need to carry on a dialogue, it was critically important
to continue advocating for a shared society."
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the series of three activity
days sponsored by TAFI's Mirkam project, in partnership with the
New Israel Fund, was the start of a new and intensified effort to
re-establish trust between the Jewish and Arab communities.
"Activities like these have more impact than meets the eye,"
said Mirkam manager Basem Kanane. "The kids had a good time
playing in the water and each community realized that the 'other'
is very much the same."
Splashing in the water was Tamir Akran, a 13-year-old Jewish boy
from Hatzor Hagalil who spent most of the war with relatives in
the south after severe anxiety from falling missiles gave him acute
stomach problems. "I still get cramps when I hear a sudden
loud noise," he confessed.
Nearby was 11-year-old Fathiya Atamni, an Arab girl from near Nazareth.
"To be honest, I'm looking forward to the routine of going
back to school," she said. "We had no shelters in our
town and had nowhere to go when the sirens sounded. It was very
The Abraham Fund Initiatives staff believe that every crisis offers
"We have no choice but to intensify our efforts for co-existence,"
said Be'eri-Sulitzeanu. "Israel is home for all of us."