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Sociopolitical Situation

Despite initial promises in Israel’s Declaration of Independence of “complete equality of social and political rights,” inequalities persist between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities. Arab citizens of Israel currently comprise just over 20 percent of the total Israeli population, numbering around 1.4 million. Arab Israelis are legal citizens of Israel who pay taxes, speak Hebrew (in addition to their native Arabic) and may voluntarily serve in the Israeli army. Arab Israelis rarely do, since serving could mean postings in the West Bank. Nevertheless, not enlisting in the army creates a prime, fundamental opportunity for the Israeli government to differentiate between its Jewish and Arab citizens. Military service is a prerequisite for such benefits as public housing, new-household subsidies and job opportunities, especially government or security-related industrial employment.

Systematic inequalities continue to divide Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Legislation and policies passed by the Israeli government and other unofficial forms of discrimination deprive Arab Israeli citizens’ access to resources, rights and representation. In 2009, for example, the Israeli government passed six new laws that require Arab Israelis to accept aspects of Jewish values, recognize the legitimacy of Zionism and assert their patronage to the Jewish State. The Israeli government also continues to uphold the temporary order of the Nationality and Entry into Israel Law of 31 July 2003, which prohibits Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from marrying Israeli citizens to acquire Israeli residency permits.

To preserve its identity as a Jewish, democratic state, Israeli government officials have openly declared that non-Jewish population growth (Arab birth rates and non-Jewish immigration) remain a threat to the Jewish demographic majority as well as Israeli security. Each Israeli cabinet that is elected has various standpoints regarding the Arab Israeli population, but not one Israeli government has yet to officially recognize the population as a legitimate national minority.

Intercommunity relations are weak and Jewish citizens largely fear and mistrust Arab citizens, especially those that have familial ties to the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Jews and Arabs generally live in segregated neighborhoods and towns, send their children to separate schools, and have little personal contact with one another. Studies show that Israeli Jews express negative attitudes toward Israeli Arabs; more than 75 percent of Israeli Jews would not agree to live in a building with Arab residents. Around 50 percent feel fear when hearing someone speak Arabic, though Arabic is one of the official languages of the State of Israel, and more than 50 percent agree that the Israeli government should encourage emigration among its Arab citizens to other countries.

In fact, 48 out of the 61 poorest towns in Israel are Arab. Local Arab authorities have jurisdiction of only 3 percent of all state land, where severe overcrowding, high unemployment and poverty rates afflict the Arab communities. There is also a lack of planning for Arab neighborhoods and towns. This complicates procedures to obtain building permits and leads to the demolition of illegal buildings. Since 1948, almost no neighborhood or town has legally been permitted to expand. In mixed cities such as Akko, Haifa, Jaffa, Lod and Ramla, where Arabs coexist with Jewish Israelis, Arab neighborhoods have glaring deficiencies in infrastructure and funding relative to their Jewish neighbors.

Education also fairs worse as Arab public schools in these communities receive just half of the budget per capita of Jewish public schools. Arab public school students have the highest drop-out rates and lowest achievement levels in the country. The Israeli government has also systematically eradicated the initial right for the Arab Israeli school system to determine the content of its cultural and historical curriculum in addition to refusing students’ rights to recognize their historical and cultural narrative.

The Israeli government has also implemented some new measures to mitigate the Arab character of Israeli neighborhoods, for example, transferring Jewish right wing settler groups from West Bank settlements to Arab and mixed towns and cities across Israel. In recent months, the transfer of these settlers to Arab neighborhoods in Haifa, Ajami in Jaffa, Nazareth or Ramla often escalate tensions between Arab and extremists Jewish residents.

The Israeli government is also working alongside the Israel Land Administration entrusted with Palestinian “absentee properties” of 1948 to market these homes to private buyers. In the past 30 months, 282 Palestinian refugee homes have been sold to private individuals where any right of return becomes almost impossible. The Israeli government is also working to demolish or evict Arabs from homes allegedly illegally built on state land. It was reported recently that around 500 Arab Israeli families in Akko, Haifa and Jaffa and other towns will eventually lose their homes due to government procedures.

Arab Israelis are also indirectly barred to buy or rent housing in Jewish neighborhoods. Arab Israelis have been asked by some vetting committees of local and regional councils in the Galilee to sign a loyalty oath and new secondary bylaws demand non-Jews to sign a pledge of support for “Zionism, Jewish heritage and settlement of the land.” This bylaw was adopted by the Misgav community in the Galilee and has been used by 700 other rural communities in recent years, which reportedly now have control of over four-fifths of the countryside.

Israeli Arabs are experiencing an identity crisis. They are torn between their desire to belong and to be accepted equally with Israeli Jews as citizens of Israel and their connection to the Arab world and Palestinian society. Despite the divisions between Jews and Arabs, a recent study found that a solid foundation for coexistence does exist; most Jews and Arabs polled believe in coexistence, share some political views and are committed to equal rights.

Israeli Arab Bedouins number 110,000 people, most of whom live in the Negev Desert in 45 villages that continue to be unrecognized by Israel and in 8 towns characterized by high unemployment rates and having the lowest income in the country. This minority group also continues to suffer from discrimination and lack basic services, such as water, sewage treatment, electricity and support in education and health care services that are entitled to all Israeli citizens.

Religious Situation

At the time of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, it is estimated that Christians numbered some 350,000 — almost 20 percent of the total population. Of the 750,000 Palestinians that were forced from or fled their homes in 1948, some 50,000 were Christian or 7 percent of the total number of refugees and 35 percent of the Christian population at that time. Today, Christians in Israel are a minority within a minority, totaling around 155,000 people or 2.1 percent of the total Israeli population.

The largest community is the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, with an estimated 60,000 faithful. Other communities include Greek Orthodox, Maronite and Latin Catholics. There is also a number of non-Arab Christians in Israel, including 30,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia. A majority of Arab Christians live in Nazareth and in towns of the Galilee such as Eilabun, I’billin, Jish, Kafr-Kanna, Kafr-Yasif, Shefa-‘Amr and Tur’an. Arab Christians also live in a number of smaller mixed villages, including the Druze villages of Hurfeish and Maghar.

Recently, interethnic tensions between minority groups have increased, spurring Arab Christian emigration. Even children participate in the harassment and intimidation. For example, it was reported that at a local government school in the village of Tur’an, near Nazareth, a teacher drew a lottery to see which of her Muslim students would sit next to the only Christian student in the class. Skirmishes between Christian, Druze and Muslim families can even spur larger clashes resulting in destroyed property, threats or worse. These factors as well as the overall poor economic situation, increasing rates of unemployment and opportunities for a better life abroad urge Christian families to emigrate. The Christian families who remain often feel isolated and out-numbered. They fret when their communities will be taken over by other minority ethnic groups. Young, newly married Christians living in these villages also aspire to move to Nazareth and Haifa, cities that are prosperous and have large Christian minorities.

Church leaders report an enduring identity crisis among Christian youth who are largely alienated by Israeli society and its government and are separated physically, socially and culturally from Palestinian society. Churches continue to focus on cultural and social activities that provide the opportunity for Israeli Christian youth to socialize with youth from the West Bank. But Israel’s permit system impedes upon these activities; West Bank youth are often unable to receive a valid entry permit to enter Jerusalem and greater Israel.

Christian tourists wishing to eat St. Peter’s fish caught in the Sea of Galilee or to immerse themselves in the waters of the Jordan River will soon be discouraged. Local environmentalists have encouraged the government to ban all fishing from the Sea of Galilee. Over-fishing has depleted stocks; last year, only 8 tons of St. Peter’s fish were caught as compared to 500 tons of fish caught five years ago. Additionally, Palestinian and Israeli teams of scientists have warned the Israeli and Jordanian governments that large stretches of the biblical Jordan River could dry up by next year if immediate steps are not taken to treat effluent and allow more fresh water from the Sea of Galilee and the Yarmouk River, Jordan’s largest tributary, to flow into the Jordan. Some environmentalists are strongly discouraging baptisms at the traditional baptism site of Jesus, claiming the foul state of the waters there make it a public health hazard.

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