Jews-only bill roils Israel

Cabinet endorses land legislation that foes call racist

By Uli Schmetzer,
Special to the Tribune.
Tribune news services contributed to this report

July 10, 2002

JERUSALEM -- Adel Kaadan's seven-year struggle to buy a plot of land in a town reserved for Jews only is splitting Israeli society, triggering an acrimonious debate about democracy and the essence of the Jewish state.

Israeli airwaves resounded Tuesday with charges of "apartheid" and "racism" after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet endorsed legislation that would allow Jewish communities to bar Israeli Arabs from moving in. Supporters of the bill, meanwhile, defended it on security grounds and as a way to protect the Zionist ideal.

Kaadan, a 48-year-old surgical nurse, said all he wants is a better place to live, up in the Jewish hill town of Katzir in northern Galilee. There, way above Kaadan's Israeli Arab city of Baka al Garbiya, the winds are cool, the streets paved, the sewage system works and the schools would give Kaadan's four daughters a better education.

Kaadan, an Israeli Arab, battled for a place on the hill from the day in 1995 when he saw a placard at the entrance of Katzir. It said: "Build Your Own Home Here."

Although Israeli courts eventually ruled in Kaadan's favor, saying that Arab citizens were entitled to use state-owned land, Kaadan's application to lease land in Katzir was again rejected by local officials. Sharon's Cabinet on Sunday backed a wider measure that would allow Jewish communities to exclude Arabs and other non-Jews.

The proposal faces several legal hurdles in the Knesset before it could become law.

Some Labor Party politicians threatened to pull out of Sharon's coalition of national unity. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres pledged "to fight with all our power against this racist decision."

But the religious parties that sponsored the bill, taking advantage of the anti-Arab sentiments among Israelis following a series of suicide bombings, defended its passage Tuesday as no more than a piece of legislation that would permit residential communities the right to decide who lives among them.

"All we ask for is that we are allowed to create all-Jewish towns if there is a need of it," said Moshe Stern, spokesman for Haim Druckman of the National Religious Party, the Knesset member who proposed the bill. "To accuse us of racism is demagoguery. We are not asking for the right to oppress another people or take away their rights."

Security argument

Education Minister Limor Livnat of the Likud Party said the legislation is intended to protect Israeli security by helping to ensure a Jewish majority in the heavily Arab Galilee.

"This does not stem at all from discrimination, rather from the main basis of Zionism--the return of the Jewish people to its land," Livnat said.

"We are trying to convince the whole world there is no gap between Judaism and democracy, but when there is a conflict, everyone has to remember there is only one Jewish state," Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, also of Likud, told Israeli radio. "We have to keep it secure [for its] future. . . . This is the state for the Jewish people, not the state for all its citizens. That has to be obvious."

Despite the opposition, the bill's authors believe it may pass the Knesset because of the fear many Israelis say they feel with Arabs living next door.

But the controversial Cabinet decision has rekindled discontent among Israeli Arabs such as the Kaadan family. Though they have full Israeli citizenship, many Israeli Arabs say they are treated as second-class citizens, surrounded by suspicion and confined to live in "Arab" towns. Such towns, they say, are way behind Jewish cities in government-sponsored infrastructure such as sewerage and roads.

`Smells of racism'

"It's a miserable decision, and it's miserable timing," Kaadan said by phone from his home in Baka al Garbiya. "If I now want to talk about peaceful coexistence there will be no ears listening to me. They have taken cynical advantage of a security situation to pass a law that smells of racism."

Israel has an estimated 1 million Arab citizens, about 15 percent of the population.

"The decision will plant in Israel the seeds of apartheid. If we have to, we will take recourse with the United Nations Human Rights Commission," said Hassan Jabareen, chairman of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

The Cabinet, which supported the bill by a 17-2 vote, was responding to a 2-year-old ruling by the Israeli High Court of Justice on the Kaadan case. The court granted Kaadan, his wife, Iman, and their daughters the right to build their dream in Katzir.

At the same time, the nation's highest court ruled that the state of Israel could not discriminate between Arabs and Jews in land allocation--including land handed to the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, which receives grants and finances land purchases for Jewish immigrants.

The ruling infuriated Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor, who charged it was putting an end to the cornerstone of Zionist policy--the construction of Jewish communities as a way of reclaiming the land of Israel.

"I am opposed to the High Court of Justice ruling," Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said Tuesday. "It is inconceivable that community settlements cannot determine for themselves who will live in them."

But he added: "On the other hand the bill might cause problems for Israel on the international level."

Zionist issue

Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein rejected assertions that sharing land would be contrary to Zionist policy.

"There is no contradiction between striving to grant the Arabs equality as required by law and decency and the fulfillment of Zionism," Rubinstein said. "Whoever wants to preserve Israel as a democratic and Jewish state must strive to grant equality to the Arabs."

The furious debate over an Israeli Arab's right to a plot of land in a Jewish town has torn at the national unity forged during the Palestinian uprising, redefining old battles overnight.

On one side are religious and right-wing parties who seek Jewish ownership of all biblical land. On the other side are leftists who advocate Palestinian statehood and egalitarian coexistence. Many Israelis fall somewhere in between.

"This bill will bring us close to an apartheid regime," said Roman Bronfman, a Knesset member of the Party of Democratic Choice. "It will undermine the delicate fabric of relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Israel."

The bill has wide ramifications. Subsidized housing and land have attracted hundreds of thousands of non-Jews to Israel. The ban on Palestinian labor has led to the "import" of more than 200,000 "guest workers" from as far away as Thailand, China, Russia and Romania, who fear this proposal would be a form of legal discrimination.

"What would Israel say if a European city banned the entrance of Jews as happened in the past?" said Mark Gurin, a Russian immigrant who has been in Israel 10 years. "We would call them Nazis and fascists."

Seeking better life

Kaadan is the only Israeli Arab to use the courts to pursue his ambition to live in a Jewish town, according to Arab rights organizations.

"All I want is to give my family better living conditions, my daughters a better education. That's all I'm interested in," he said. "As a man who is earning the bread for his family, I'm not interested in what other people say."

After the High Court ruling two years ago, Kaadan once more applied for a plot of land. The municipal officials in Katzir were courteous but firm: Court decision or no court decision, he could not have land. It would set a precedent.

Kaadan still calls the municipal officials on the hill "my friends." And he said that if they offered him the right to buy a plot, "I would pitch my tent there today and start building my house tomorrow."

Copyright (c) 2002, Chicago Tribune

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