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Israeli Arabs join forces in Knesset to change status quo

Israel has 1.7 million Arab citizens, some 20 percent of the country's population. Yet Arab Israelis hold few leadership positions in the country -- and nearly half of the country's Arab population live in poverty. This spring, Arab Israeli lawmakers rallied under a unified political bloc for the first time, ushering a new generation of Arab Israeli lawmakers into parliament who intend to change the status quo. Special correspondent Martin Fletcher reports from Israel.

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    Israel's home to more than 8 million people, and while it's known as a Jewish state, one in five is Arab: Muslims and Christians.

    The largest minority group in the country, Arab Israelis have few leadership roles in the country's social and government institutions — and economically, they trail far behind the Jewish majority. Nearly half of Israel's Arabs live in poverty.

    Guy Ben-Porat studies minority issues at Israel's Ben-Gurion University.


    "There were some strides being made in recent years, with some affirmative action laws et cetera, but still the gap between Jews and Arabs are very, very large. They are the poorest population in Israel."


    But today, after Arab political parties joined forces and then captured 13 of the Israeli parliament's 120 seats, a new generation of Arab lawmakers wants to change things.

    In his very first speech to Israel's parliament, or Knesset, newly-elected member Yousef Jabareen called for more equality for Israeli Arabs: more acceptance of Arab culture, more Jewish-Arab dialogue on campuses, and above all, an Arab university.


    "I myself you know I'm an academic, I'm a professional, I'm an expert in educational issues, but I have zero influence on the curriculum in — you know, on the issues that my kids are being taught at the Arab schools."


    Aida Touma-Sliman, another new Arab member of parliament and the first Arab in Israel's history to chair a permanent parliamentary committee, says she'll emphasise women's rights.


    "Only 22 or 23 percent of the Palestinian Arab women are working. I would like to change this reality by creating more job opportunities, by pushing for a plans, how to do that."


    Mark Regev is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's long-time spokesman. And he says that's exactly what the Israeli government wants, too.


    "I agree more needs to be done. We're working on education both for men and for women. We're working on investment and encouraging tax breaks for people to invest in the Arab sector. We did a public campaign spent by taxpayers' money encouraging employers to employ Israeli Arabs. We are fully committed to seeing those Israeli Arabs, the Israeli Arab community, as a full participant in the economy."


    As citizens, Arab Israelis are guaranteed the same legal rights as the Jewish majority. But the new Arab leadership in parliament says just spending money won't solve the deeper issues of inequality.


    "When we are talking about closing the gap and money and budgets, we are talking on the easy side, let's say, of our demands, because nobody can explain to me on civil level why I am not equal. I'm citizen. I'm full citizen. On that level, I think even Netanyahu with his brilliant way of speaking cannot explain that, why you have two levels of citizens in the only democratic country in the Middle East."


    The Israeli Arabs, or as some of them prefer to be called, Palestinians living in Israel, are the descendants of the 150,000 Arabs who remained in Israel in 1948 following Israel's war of independence – what some Arabs call the Naqba, the catastrophe. Today there are one point seven million Arabs here, 20 percent of the population.

    Yet only 8 percent of government employees are Arabs. Arabs have only 3 percent of jobs in academia. Only 2 percent of Arab computer science graduates found work in high-tech, one of the main drivers of Israel's economy.

    The prime minister's spokesman Mark Regev insists that despite their problems in Israel, Israeli Arabs still have it far better than other Arabs in the Middle East.


    "I think it's important to look at the full — the half glass that's full. I mean let's remember that Israeli Arabs are the only Arabs in an entire vast region of the greater Middle East that have consistently enjoyed full, democratic rights: the right to vote, the right to freedom of religion, freedom of organization and so forth. Rights that their neighbors in the surrounding Arab countries unfortunately could only dream of."


    Since Israel's first elections in 1949, Arab citizens have held seats in the country's parliament. But they've never been part of a governing coalition and until this election, they were splintered across a range of political factions.

    This spring, however, four Arab Israeli parties ran a unified campaign. Their coalition drew international attention and some analysts said Arabs might finally have a seat at the table.

    But on election day Prime Minister Netanyahu called on his supporters to come to the polls because, quote," Arabs are voting in droves." His comments were widely denounced. President Obama called them, quote, "contrary to what is the best of Israel's traditions."

    Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev.


    "He publicly apologized for his remarks, which were misinterpreted. He has a consistent record. And we are fully committed to seeing complete equality of our citizens. We want to make sure that all Israelis, Arab Israelis too, feel that Israel is their home."


    But for some Arab citizens of Israel, like Arab actress and artist Raida Adon, Israel can feel like a foreign land.

    Adon's video artwork is featured in a gallery in the town of Um el Fahem. It's a part of Israel known as the Arab triangle, a string of Israeli Arab towns and villages close to the West Bank border. With fifty thousand people, Um el Fahem is Israel's second largest Arab town.

    Raida Adon's film depicts the Arab refugee exodus in 1948. But her message is for today.


    "You cannot listen to their screams. There's no one hear their screams. And that's the situation here. No one hear us. No one seen us. When I'm talking with the Jews, I'm not say to them that you are jealous, you make this, you take my land, you take — no. I want him just to listen to my sorrow. I want him to respect my identity and to respect my language and to respect everything that I am doing like I respect him."


    Instead, a right-wing campaign ad during Israel's March elections resurrected a long-running threat to expel some residents of the Arab Triangle. Ariel to Israel, Um el Fahem to Palestine, the slogan goes.

    Meaning, the land of some West Bank Jewish settlements becomes part of Israel, and Um el Fahem and other Arab towns and villages become part of a future Palestine.

    Under the proposal about 300,000 Israeli Arabs would lose their Israeli citizenship. This is Baart'a, one of the towns under threat. It sounds simple.


    "The border between Israel and the West Bank runs right through this stone over here, the so-called Green Line. The proposal is that the Arabs who live on this side of this stone, which is Israel, become members of a future Palestinian state on this side of the line."

    The proposal might have been campaign sloganeering — most analysts consider the swap idea a nonstarter. But some Arabs call it a move to de-legitimize their citizenship.

    Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn't support the swap plan. And spokesman Mark Regev says the government has spent one and a half billion dollars over the last five years to help close the gap between Arab and other citizens. That's two hundred dollars per person per year, spent on…


    "…education, health care, housing, other services for the Arab community specifically to narrow those gaps, which are unacceptable quite frankly."


    But that's nowhere near enough, says Odette Hilwi, who runs a school in the northern town of Acre on Israel's coast, funded by an NGO, payments from parents who can afford it, and small government subsidies.

    She says Arab Israeli daycare centers don't have enough money, schools don't have enough classrooms, and all that means Arab Israeli children get a worse education than Jewish children.


    "If there would be money I would open a kids club here, but we need money, a place to help with homework and to play."


    Back in the parliament, Arab lawmakers agree. They say a lot more is needed than just talk.


    "So you have a good law. You have a good statement by policymakers in Israel. But on the ground the change is very, very slow if any. And the change is not enough to close the gaps between our community and the majority."

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