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Don't blame the Israeli Arabs

By Uri Dromi
Jerusalem Post

(October 11) - When angry Israeli Arabs took to the streets, throwing stones at cars, blocking roads, setting buses and banks on fire and even shooting at policemen, many in Israel went into a state of shock. Not me. I had a sense of deja vu. In 1992 I lived in Los Angeles. My office was at the Jewish Federation building, on Wilshire Blvd. On April 29, at 5 p.m., I heard noises coming from the street below. I looked out the window and saw a caravan of honking cars and shouting people, mainly African-Americans, waving their fists. I had heard on the radio that the LAPD officers charged with brutally beating Rodney King had just been acquitted, and everyone expected the blacks to be angry about that. So here they are, I thought to myself, let's see what they're up to. The rest is history. For days thereafter, riots shook the city. The images are engraved in my memory: the beating of the poor truck driver, Reginald Denny; a woman robbed and another shot in front of my office; police cars overturned and burnt out; stores looted; Koreans defending their businesses; malls burning and smoke blackening the skies day and night. Each evening we would hurry home before this large city in the mightiest country in the world, fell under curfew. At night we would climb up to the rooftops and watch the city burn. Then came the questions. Why are the rioters destroying their own communities? Who is responsible? Where was the police? And how did this happen yet again? Weren't there any lessons learned after the riots in Watts 27 years ago? The events of the last two weeks brought all those memories back.

Here are the Arab citizens of Israel who, ever since the establishment of the state, have felt discriminated against and disenfranchised. Until the mid-Sixties they lived under military rule, with curfews and travel restrictions. Later, even when those regulations were lifted, they never got a fair chance to make it in Israeli society. Unemployment is highest in Arab towns and villages; there is no master plan for Arab settlements, which results in lack of housing and leads to illegal building. Education and physical infrastructure are way below the standards of those in Jewish towns. Just go to Umm el-Fahm, a city of 25,000 residents, and you'll see open sewers - a disgrace for a modern country.

After returning from LA, I served as the spokesman for the Rabin government. Yitzhak Rabin was the first prime minister who realized that something must be done for the Israeli Arabs, in order to remedy their longstanding neglect. But he was gunned down by a Jewish assassin, who, by the way, explained his action by citing Rabin's "sin" of relying on the Arab vote. Just think what Jews in America or elsewhere would have felt had someone suggested that on certain issues, Jewish votes shouldn't count.

People who are the victims of discrimination tend to lose faith in the system, and from there it's a short leap to disobeying the law. Israeli Arabs claim that when they protest, the police treat them more brutally than they do Jews. When Orthodox Jews demonstrate in Jerusalem or when right wingers rally against the government, the police use restraint. Why are they suddenly trigger-happy when it comes to Arabs? Echoes of the blacks' complaints against LAPD.

Nonetheless, this doesn't justify throwing stones at innocent people, burning down public buildings or worse, shooting at police officers or at random passersby. But there is a fundamental difference between the riots in LA and those happening now in Israel. The mobs now rioting in the streets and blocking the highways are not motivated solely by rage built up over years of discrimination and deprivation. Because the Arab Israelis consider themselves to be part of the Palestinian people, they are susceptible to the calls for struggle against Israel urged by both Palestinian leaders in the territories and their own leaders, some of whom are even members of the Knesset.

It is said that on Yom Kippur, forgiveness for sins against God will not be granted until the petitioner asks forgiveness from his fellow man first. Personally, I asked forgiveness from my Israeli Arab friends, for having neglected their rights for so long. Things will only change when they truly feel they have a stake in being citizens of Israel.

I hope Israeli Arabs also reflected about their recent conduct and their overall attitude towards Israel.

Let us both work on our partnership, and in the words of Rodney King,

"We're all stuck here for a while. Let's try to work it out."

The writer is the publications director at the
Israel Democracy Institute,

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