- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

UMM-AL-FAHM, Israel — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has won no friends in this sprawling Arab city with a proposal that the community and others like it might be ceded by Israel to a future Palestinian state.

Although Israeli Arabs of Umm-al-Fahm share much with their fellow Arabs in the neighboring West Bank, the former say they are more concerned about preserving the rights they enjoy as Israelis — including access to jobs, free speech, a democratic vote and a measure of political freedom.

“We have a saying here,” said Shoaa Saad, 22, “that the ‘evil’ of Israel is better than the ‘heaven’ of the West Bank.

“Here you can say whatever you like and do whatever you want — so long as you don’t touch the security of Israel. Over there, if you talk about [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat, they can arrest you and beat you up.”

Mr. Saad spoke while serving sweet tea and cakes in father Nabil’s family-run restaurant that, until the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, catered equally to Arabs and Jews who wandered in from a nearby Israeli highway.

That business was jeopardized this month when a Sharon spokesman said the government — which has proposed unilaterally to draw a new border with the West Bank if there is no progress toward a negotiated peace — may cede some Israeli-Arab areas to Palestinian rule in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

As many as 20 percent of Israeli citizens are ethnic Arabs, many of them concentrated in a so-called Arab Triangle of cities, towns and villages close to the West Bank.

The idea of ceding some of these population centers appeals to many Jewish Israelis, who fear that the Arabs, with their higher birthrate, eventually will outnumber the Jews in Israel. In 50 years, the Israeli-Arab population has increased from 160,000 to 1.2 million; there are 5 million Jews in Israel.

Palestinian political leaders were as quick to denounce the idea of a swap as were their Israeli-Arab counterparts. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said the scheme was “undebatable and unacceptable,” and senior Israeli-Arab legislator Ahmed Tibi called it a “racist project” aimed at protecting Israel’s Jewish majority.

In Umm-al-Fahm, many Arab Israelis see the proposal as part of a broader dilemma they face.

“The problem is we’re treated here as B-class citizens, but we’re seen [by West Bank Palestinians] as ‘almost Jews,’” said Issam Abu Allo, 29, one of three young Israeli-trained lawyers who discussed their situation over a late-night dinner at a pizza parlor.

“Mr. Sharon seems to want us to join an unknown state that doesn’t have a parliament, or a democracy, or even decent universities,” said Mr. Allo, who studied law and social anthropology at predominantly Jewish colleges in Haifa and Netanya.

“We have close family ties in the West Bank, but we prefer to demand our full rights inside Israel. International law says neither Sharon or Arafat is allowed to make exchanges against the population’s will.”

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