Electoral gains revive old dilemma for Israeli Arabs
When election results confirmed that an Arab alliance had emerged as the third largest bloc in Israel's parliament, its leader Ayman Odeh reached for the Old Testament, tweeting in Hebrew from Psalm 118 that the stone which was rejected had become the cornerstone.
His message: the Arab community, long shunted to the margins of Israeli society, is going to use its new-found influence to set the country on a more equitable path.
The results left the two biggest parties deadlocked, but marked a victory for the Arab bloc and put Odeh in a strong position to become the first Arab opposition leader, an official role that would allow him to receive high-level security briefings and meet visiting heads of state. Outraged at what they see as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's racist policies and incitement, most of the bloc recommended his opponent, former army chief Benny Gantz, as prime minister, the first time Arab parties have backed an Israeli candidate since 1992.
The potential for new-found influence has forced Arab citizens to confront a dilemma going back to Israel's founding: working within the system might secure social gains for the marginalised community, but risks legitimising a state that many feel relegates them to second-class status and oppresses their Palestinian brethren in the occupied territories.
"We truly want to support Gantz," said Abed Abed, a food wholesaler in the Arab town of Nazareth in northern Israel. "But at the same time we are Arabs and the people in Gaza and the West Bank are our brothers. If Gantz goes to war in Gaza tomorrow, then we can't be part of it. So we're in big trouble."
Israel's Arab citizens make up 20% of the population of 9 million and are descended from Palestinians who remained in Israel following the 1948 war that surrounded its creation. They have citizenship and the right to vote, they speak Hebrew and attend Israeli universities and have increased their presence in a wide array of professions, from medicine to tech start-ups.
But they still face widespread discrimination, particularly when it comes to housing and accuse Israeli authorities of ignoring crime in their communities, contributing to soaring homicide rates. They also have close family ties to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and largely identify with the Palestinian cause.
"This Place": photos of Israel and the West Bank
With his photo project "This Place", Frederic Brenner sought to provide a different insight into Israel and the West Bank. As part of the project, 12 international photographers present landscape and portrait photos that aim to contribute to the observer's understanding of the conflict region. The exhibition runs at the Dox Center for Contemporary Art in Prague until 3 March 2015. By Felix Koltermann
In his project, the French photographer and initiator of "This Place", Frederic Brenner, combines portraits of families and individuals with landscape photography. His monograph "The Architecture of Fear and Desire" is published by Mack Books in London.
Over the course of a number of years, the American photographer Wendy Ewald held participative photography workshops with groups of different ages in Israel and the West Bank. A monograph of her work entitled "This Is Where I Live" will be published by Mack Books in April 2015.
The Czech filmmaker Martin Kollar assembled images from military training camps and research facilities in Israel to create strange, dream-like sequences of pictures. An artist book entitled "Field Trip" is available from Mack Books in London.
In his photographs, the Czech artist Joseph Koudelka examines the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, which he depicts in rough-grained, black-and-white panorama shots. His book "Wall" is published by Aperture in New York.
The Korean photographer Jungjin Lee depicts the landscape of the region in alienated, large-format panorama pictures. Her book "Unnamed Road" was published last November by Mack Books in London.
For "This Place", the French documentary photographer Gilles Peress, who has an in-depth knowledge of the region, focussed on documenting the daily life of Palestinians in the district of Silwan in East Jerusalem. A monograph of his work is planned for 2015.
The American photographer Fazal Sheikh photographed the Negev desert in southern Israel from the air for his monumental project "Desert Bloom". His pictures map the incursions of the local population into the landscape. "The Erasure Trilogy", the monograph on his project, will be published by Steidl Verlag in 2015.
For "This Place", the legendary American photographer Stephen Shore focussed on urban spaces and the landscape in Israel and the West Bank. His monograph on the project, "From Galilee to the Negev", is published by Phaidon in New York.
The American photographer Rosalind Solomon, at 80 the oldest participant in the project, travelled across Israel and the West Bank by bus in search of motifs for her portrait series. Her monograph, entitled "Them", is published by Mack Books in London.
In his project, the German artist Thomas Struth combines large-format landscape pictures with interior photos, both of places of religious significance and of Israel's high-tech research landscape. His accompanying monograph is published by Mack Books in London.
The English photographer Nick Waplington's contribution to the project consists of an archive of portraits and landscape photos from Jewish settlements in the West Bank. His monograph "Settlement" is published by Mack Books in London.
That has led many Israelis to view them as a fifth column allied with the country's enemies, fears Netanyahu has repeatedly exploited to whip up his right-wing base in election campaigns.
The Joint List of Arab parties has vowed to use its political influence to address day-to-day struggles while remaining outside any government. No Arab party has ever sat in an Israeli government and none of Israel's main parties have invited them to do so.
The issues Arab leaders face and the limited means available to address them, were on display Wednesday in the northern town of Shefa Amr, known in Hebrew as Shfaram, where Israeli forces demolished two homes that had been built without permits. That ignited clashes between local youth and Israeli police, who detained around a dozen people.
"They consider us second-class citizens," said Sabri Hamdi, one of several angry residents who gathered outside the police station. "They want us to despair and leave the country, but we will not."
Aida Touma-Sliman, an Arab lawmaker from Odeh's party, arrived shortly after the clashes ended. The crowd outside the police station parted to let her through and she met with Israeli officers inside to press for the release of the detainees. After about 15 minutes, she emerged with what she said was a commitment from the police to process the cases quickly.
"Change is not going to happen in a few days. It's a long battle," she told journalists. "We gained three seats but the political situation in Israel hasn't changed. The racism is still there."
Rights groups say systematic discrimination in planning and approvals has restricted the growth of Arab communities for decades, forcing those with growing families to build without permits and leaving them vulnerable to home demolitions.
Odeh listed housing equity among the Joint List's top demands in a New York Times op-ed in which he endorsed Gantz while refusing to join his government.
He called for more resources for law enforcement, better access to hospitals, a rise in pensions for all Israelis and programmes to combat domestic violence. He also called on the next government to revive the peace process with the Palestinians and to repeal a controversial law passed last year declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people.
"Arab Palestinian citizens can no longer be rejected or ignored," Odeh wrote. "The only future for this country is a shared future."
A poll carried out by the Israel Democracy Institute at the start of the year, before Israel's unprecedented back-to-back elections, found that 76% of Arab citizens were in favour of their parties joining an Israeli government and 65% were proud to be Israeli, the highest rate recorded since 2003. The nonpartisan think tank polled 536 Arab citizens, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
It also found that 58% of Arab citizens were dissatisfied with their leaders, something the pollsters attributed in part to their prioritising the Palestinian cause over domestic issues. But for many Arab citizens, the two are inseparable.
"Domestic concerns cannot be separated from the general political oppression exercised over the Palestinians," says Nijmeh Ali, a political analyst at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank. To do so is an attempt to undermine the political legitimacy of Arab leaders and "depoliticise" what is seen as institutionalised discrimination, she said.
The dilemma over how much to engage in politics continues to divide Arab citizens. The three lawmakers from the hard-line nationalist Balad party, which is part of the Joint List, refused to endorse Gantz.
"It's clear that Palestinians inside (Israel) want more influence," said Heba Yazbak, a newly elected Balad lawmaker who recently completed a Ph.D. in sociology at Tel Aviv University. "But if you ask any Palestinian in this country if they want us, as the Arab parties, to join a government of occupation, a government whose budget is devoted to the occupation, to besieging Gaza, the answer will be no." (AP)